Thailand is investing in its national transportation network, including Bangkok's MRT and Mass Transit System. [Credit Corbis]

Country focus: Thailand

We take a look at the opportunities for young engineers in Thailand: what skills employers are after and what kind of engineering projects are planned and already underway.

Country snapshot

Thailand has a population of almost 69 million people and is South East Asia’s second-largest economy after Indonesia. It has a GDP per capita of US$5,449 and is heavily reliant on exports (these account for around two-thirds of GDP).

Despite reports of a cautious recovery after the disruption of last year’s military coup, Thailand’s political uncertainty continues to cast a shadow. GDP grew three per cent in the first quarter of 2015 compared to the same period the previous year, but the Thailand Economic Outlook by Focus Economics, which provides economic forecasts from the world’s leading economists, says contracting manufacturing output and a drop in consumer confidence point to “a deceleration” in economic activity in Q2.

That said, it is hoped that the government’s proposed major infrastructure projects over the next eight years will significantly boost the economy, if and when they all happen.

What’s going on there?

Earlier this year, the Thai government published its investment plan for 2015-22 which features around 60 projects focusing on roads, rail, transit systems and other infrastructure development with a value of $60bn, reports Forbes. Improving the railway system is a major area of focus.

The Bangkok Post reported that the “most dramatic” change will be the switch from high-speed-rail to a double-track service and the new 1.435-metre standard gauge tracks on which 160-180km/h trains will run on three routes and link the border province of Nong Khai to an industrial coastal region in Rayong in the east. Plans and feasibility studies relating to a number of other rail routes or extensions are in progress and there are the proposed new rail links with China and Japan.

In its list of priorities, the government says it is accelerating expansion of the national transportation network to develop the business sector. It is also committed to developing special economic zones. These aim to link trade and investment and to accelerate the economic development around the borders of Thailand, as well as the infrastructure and logistics development of the country. Putting the hard and service infrastructures in place to develop a digital economy is also cited as a priority for the government, as is increased use of renewable energy, clean coal and imported electricity to reduce its reliance on natural gas.

The economic picture may still not look rosy today, but when these plans are actioned it will provide stimulus to the economy and create a large number of jobs.

Damian Lee, country manager in Thailand for the recruitment firm Fircroft, says that while there aren’t many “mega-scale projects ongoing”, there are many slated to begin, including the rail link between China and Southern Thailand. “There are also new extensions to the MRT [the Bangkok metro] and the Bangkok Mass Transit System,” he adds.

In terms of construction, Lee remarks that there are still a lot of “cranes on the skyline” and a sizeable amount of building taking place.

“Thailand has a general pattern of growth for housing in most towns and resorts,” he says, concluding, “I’d still describe Thailand as an up-and-coming economy. It still has legs, but has just stalled somewhat over the past two years.”

What skills are in demand and where?

According to Jason Simpson, managing director of Arup in Bangkok, the capital remains the key location for construction and engineering works. The global firm is currently the main designer for the D&B Blue Line Extension Underground Rail project, which comprises 3km of twin-bore tunnelling and two stacked underground stations. As well as inner city rail, airport development, condominiums, hotels and retail malls make up the mix of construction projects ongoing in the city. “Resort developments in the tourist areas and industrial development is located primarily on the eastern seaboard,” Simpson adds.

Lee highlights the Rayong Province in particular on the eastern coast as an area for considerable activity, especially in the oil and gas industry: “Projects centre around modules for oil and gas platforms and there are also organisations focusing on downstream products and storage and facilitation.”

With the government committed to developing special economic zones and serving these with improved infrastructure, there is likely to be a demand for engineering and construction skills across a number of different provinces over the coming years.

After the initial establishment of five zones, another seven will be set up in 2016 in five provinces including Kanchanaburi in the west of the country, Nong Khai in the north-east and Narathiwat in the southern part of the country.

In terms of recruitment, Lee reports that since 2013 there has been a fairly “sharp upward turn” towards the hiring of nationals to senior positions as opposed to expats.

“Naturally the benefits are centred around cost and also maintaining knowledge in country talent and that is no bad thing. The cost involved in hiring ex-patriot talent is high,” he says.

Simpson says that Arup’s philosophy is always to develop local talent and blend local knowledge with its own international expertise to introduce developing skills into the market “while understanding the local standards and conditions”.

With so many projects in the pipeline, Thailand will need to increase the number of engineers and technicians it trains if it wants to utilise local talent as much as possible, but Lee believes skills shortages are inevitable.

“The biggest skills shortage will be seen in the rail industry for designers, engineers and technicians,” he says, adding, “There is also a shortage of designers and engineers in civil construction and aviation. At the moment there is a glut of oil and gas people as many have been laid off.”

Simpson predicts a demand for highly specialised skills in areas where there is less knowledge and experience in the market: “Be this related to geology/geotechnical, new technologies related to energy, projects of scale and complexity, mega towers or high-speed rail.” 

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