South Korea seeks overseas workers to churn out giant orderbook

Like Japan before it, South Korea’s shipbuilding sector is having to get Seoul to ease immigration rules to fill in holes in its local workforce.

South Korean yards are seeing an uptick in business, but the rush of orders comes after a decade-long restructuring of the sector, with thousands of Koreans laid off, and not keen to return to a notoriously cyclical business.

A total of 4,428 skilled foreign shipyard workers have been allowed to work in the country in new visa waiver rules announced by Seoul this week to help fill the gap.

Data from the Korea Offshore & Shipbuilding Association (KOSHIPA) shows that the number of workers in the shipbuilding industry more than halved over the past eight years to 92,000 last year, down from 203,000 in 2014.

Korea’s big yards have invested more than most in trying to automate much of the shipbuilding process with robots performing ever more advanced tasks.

South Korean shipbuilders have taken on huge volumes of LNG and container carrier orders over the past 18 months, filling out their available berths through to 2025. South Korean yards were also behind 49% of the world’s new ship orders in the first quarter this year in terms of value, beating out China in a first quarter for the first time in seven years.

Japan’s shipbuilding sector, in decline for many years, had to do a similar foreign recruitment drive, waiving visas in the process, a few years ago as young Japanese increasingly shunned a career in shipbuilding.

Sam Chambers

Starting out with the Informa Group in 2000 in Hong Kong, Sam Chambers became editor of Maritime Asia magazine as well as East Asia Editor for the world’s oldest newspaper, Lloyd’s List. In 2005 he pursued a freelance career and wrote for a variety of titles including taking on the role of Asia Editor at Seatrade magazine and China correspondent for Supply Chain Asia. His work has also appeared in The Economist, The New York Times, The Sunday Times and The International Herald Tribune.
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