As Japan seeks to rebuild disaster-hit regions and gears up to build new facilities for the 2020 Summer Olympics, its construction industry finds itself short of new workers mainly as a result of shrinking construction investment since 2000.
Young people’s reluctance to accept physically tough labor for low wages is another factor holding back the emergence of a new generation of site workers.
“Many of the young people who joined (construction companies) in the spring will quit in their first year after not being able to withstand the summer heat or the winter cold,” an industry official said.
The number of people employed in the construction industry declined by about 20 percent in the decade to 2012, falling to 5.03 million from 6.18 million in 2002, according to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry.
About a third of the workforce is aged 55 or older and many of them are expected to retire within the next 10 years. Only 1 in 10 workers is aged 29 or younger.
Low wages are a major factor fueling the high turnover. Builders are faced with increasingly tough competition to secure orders with construction investment plunging 46 percent from the peak of ¥84 trillion in fiscal 1992 to ¥45 trillion in fiscal 2012.
One way for them to stay competitive is to trim personnel costs. Male construction site workers currently earn less than ¥4 million per year on average, around 70 percent of the average for all industries in Japan.
“We are hoping to ensure at least ¥6 million” in annual income for construction workers, said Yuichi Fukuda, an executive officer at the Japan Federation of Construction Contractors.
There are serious shortages particularly in areas such as carpentry, plastering and steel work. “It takes 10 years to train a full-fledged worker,” a construction company president said. Unless a new generation is trained now, craftsmanship skills may be lost.
The labor problem is also affecting the reconstruction of areas affected by the 2011 disaster. In these areas, job offers far outnumber seekers.
In August in Miyagi Prefecture, for instance, job offers in construction and civil engineering stood at 1,841 against 426 seekers.
“Due to the shortage of personnel needed for housing construction, schedules have been pushed back and building costs have gone up,” a local construction industry official said.
Overshadowing the situation is the 2020 Olympics. In the run-up to the games, construction demand is expected to rise in Tokyo.
“Unless we produce the next generation of skilled workers, those in disaster-affected areas will be drawn to Tokyo, where they will have better wages,” said Ryoko Otsuki, managing director of an association of construction businesses in the northeast.
Given the situation, the government has started taking steps to fight the worker shortage. In April, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry raised the national average wage paid to workers engaged in public works to ¥15,175 per day, up 15.1 percent.
For workers in the three disaster-hit prefectures of Iwate, Miyagi and Fukushima, the government decided to raise the wages by 21 percent.
In June, the land ministry joined hands with the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry to lay out policies including expanding grants for youth employment and strengthening public relations campaigns to sell people on the benefits of working in the construction industry.
Meanwhile, the 2011 disaster has apparently motivated some young people in the affected region to pursue a career in construction so they can contribute to the rebuilding.
Among them is Kazuki Kosaka, 22, who majored in civil engineering at university. He joined the Sendai-based construction firm Atami Kensetsu this spring.
At first, Kosaka was assigned rudimentary work such as surveying and taking photographs. Recently he has started to take charge of organizing work sites, such as running morning meetings.
In early September, a breakwater at Sendai airport — the first project Kosaka has taken part in — was completed. “I hope I was of help to senior members of the company,” Kosaka said. “I want to do a major job that will remain on the map in the future.”
Yoshiharu Chiba, president of the company, plays up the service nature of the industry.
“Construction serves people and there is a big sense of accomplishment whenever a project is completed,” he said. “Young people will come if you secure wages that meet living needs.”