MACAU, May 7: Hong Kong interior designer Kevin Chan, sensing opportunity in Macau's property boom, headed to the former Portugese colony a year ago and, as expected, hasn't had trouble getting projects.
But Chan encountered something he never expected: not enough workers to do the jobs.
''There are no young people joining the industry as apprentices,'' Chan complained. ''It could only happen in Macau because most of them go to work in the casinos.'' Chan is not alone in bemoaning a worsening labour crunch in this enclave on the southern coast of China, where just 10,000 workers out of a 220,000-strong labour force lack jobs.
On the surface, it sounds like a good problem to have.
Macau's booming casino industry is mopping up workers with higher pay and better benefits than most others can offer, pushing down unemployment and triggering a property renaissance of sorts.
But it's also creating a labour shortage that could hamper economic development and exacerbate a rising school drop-out rate.
The situation could only worsen with several Vegas-style casinos opening in the coming years, including the Venetian.
Business leaders lament that the gaming industry that has made the city famous is ''too aggressive'' in its recruiting practices, making it hard for others to retain staff.
Among the hooks are better pay and benefits: subsidised gym memberships, dental care and night-shift allowances. Sociedade de Jogos de Macau, the territory's erstwhile casino monopoly, recently announced a pay rise, new paid holidays and bonuses in a bid to keep its employees from being poached.
Junior croupiers earn about 14,000 patacas per month twice the median salary in Macau of 5,900 patacas.
Macau's unemployment rate dropped to a record low of 3.9 percent in February this year and the battle for workers intensified even within the gaming industry.
Since the Sands Macau, the city's first foreign-operated casino, opened in May 2004, the number of casino jobs has jumped 32 per cent -- to 26,118 in the fourth quarter of 2005, of which about 15,000 are dealers.
Dealers now represent nearly 7 percent of the entire local workforce.
While most might not object to record low unemployment and improved compensation packages, there is growing concern that the economy is becoming overly reliant on the gaming industry. Many blame the casino boom for a rising high-school dropout rate, which jumped from 4.6 percent in the 2002-03 academic year to 7.6 percent in 2003-04 when the industry started taking off.
The number of students quitting school for full-time work was at its highest in the past seven years, and nearly a third of them went to work in casinos, which was ''unprecedented'', a survey by the Education and Youth Affairs Bureau showed.
Part of the problem is policy, some say.
To drive down unemployment, the government has barred gaming operators from importing workers to fill croupier jobs. And this, some say, has generated a sense among locals that well-paid casino jobs are a right and a kind of social safety net.
Penny Chan, a Macau-based expert in youth studies, warns that such complacency is permeating schools.
''Many students feel that they could still work in casinos if they fail academically. Their enthusiasm for academic work has dwindled in recent years,'' she said.
''The values of society will be distorted by the gaming culture if nothing is done to prevent it.'' A brain drain is also happening at collegiate level.
Undergraduates or graduates accounted for 29 percent of the intake of croupier trainees in the Macao Tourism and Casino Career Center a government-run training center, so far this year.
However, the ban on foreign croupiers will likely be impossible to maintain in the coming years as the number of gaming tables in Macau explodes, especially when casinos in the Cotai Strip development Macau's answer to the Las Vegas Strip start coming on line next year.
Angela Leong, the fourth wife of Macau casino tycoon Stanley Ho and now a Macau legislator, warned that the gaming industry's labour shortage will worsen with the number of tables expected to jump from about 1,650 now to 4,500 by 2008.
It is unrealistic to count on a mere 220,000 local workers to meet the needs of the rapidly expanding casino sector, argues Chan Chi Hung, a gaming instructor at the Macau Tourism and Casino Career Center.
''Right now the demand is just matched. It is still okay not to import any croupiers,'' he said.
''But in 2007 when the Cotai Strip opens, there will be a serious labour shortage. That is when the government has to allow foreign workers to fill our croupier jobs.''