In a knowledge-based economy such as Hong Kong's, academic qualifications and professional acumen can only get you so far. Increasingly, people look for ways to break away from the daily grind in the industries they trained for to look for opportunities and more meaningful careers elsewhere. Vincent Tong has taken the plunge and has no regrets.
After five years working in the civil engineering profession, Mr Tong was eager for a change of pace and decided to apply his skills in a different field. "I learnt that the Correctional Services Department (CSD) was looking for industrial officers and thought it would be a challenging job," Mr Tong recalls. "Back then I was looking for a new challenge and an opportunity to develop a long-term career."
After an exhaustive interview process and 26 weeks of training, Mr Tong, now a CSD industrial officer, runs the Tuen Mun Hospital laundry, which provides laundry services to four major public hospitals and clinics within the New Territories West cluster of the Hospital Authority. "My main role is to run and ensure the smooth operation of the laundry plant, making sure there's an adequate workforce for efficient service delivery and a safe and healthy work environment for the inmates. I also liaise with the public hospitals and clinics we serve to make sure we meet their daily operational needs for supplies of clean linen," he explains.
The laundry's labour force comes from the CSD's Tai Lam Correctional Institution, which is a minimum security prison where inmates serving comparatively short sentences for petty crime or minor transgressions are detained. Inmates are constantly coming and going, which can potentially affect plant operations as well as productivity, posing a challenge to Mr Tong and his team of instructing staff. "We have to find effective ways to cope with this, while also keeping up with the production targets and standards of quality that our laundry service has agreed on with the Hospital Authority," he says.
Mr Tong is responsible for the daily operation and management of the laundry plant, including production planning and monitoring, material and quality management, prison labour administration, logistics, customer liaison and work supervision of staff and inmates. "Any irregularities have to be dealt with immediately to ensure a smooth and efficient production operation," he says. "We constantly strive for ongoing improvement and to find ways to enforce the optimal use of our production resources."
Occasional conflict between inmates is inevitable, so industrial officers work closely with custodial officers in maintaining good order and discipline in the workplace. "Part of our job is to ensure inmates are engaged with the assigned jobs with consistent performance," Mr Tong explains. "We always keep an eye on their activities in order to prevent disruptions. This helps to improve the operational efficiency of the institution."
Since the establishment of the Correctional Services Industries (CSI), its portfolio of products and services has increased due to growing demand in the public sector. In one instance, a production line was set up at Chi Ma Wan Correctional Institution in 2003 to cope with the local demand for facemasks during the SARS crisis. In 2006, CSI offered products and services worth HK$444.3 million in commercial value. "Our headquarters continuously identifies new markets and potential for new products," Mr Tong says.
At the moment, there are 13 trades managed by three business units within CSI. Industrial officers are assigned to manage specific trades or businesses, but there are opportunities to transfer from one post to another. But whatever the post or trade, the most important qualities for industrial officers are leadership and management skills, Mr Tong emphasises. "For example, if a fight breaks out in a workshop, the inmates involved are taken off for disciplinary action and we must be quick to reorganise the labour team to maintain stable productivity in the affected production line."
Continuous learning is encouraged and the department regularly arranges for its officers to participate in occupational health and safety, and quality management training. Officers also attend seminars, go on site visits and have the opportunity to take part in overseas exchange programmes.
"A relevant background or experience in production will help with the job," Mr Tong says, noting that there's also ample opportunity for officers to learn specific skills and gain knowledge on the job.
He advises that candidates considering a future with the CSI pay attention to the department's vision and values; and points out that it is not all about making money. "Our objective is to offer inmates gainful experience by engaging them in regular and purposeful work; and to help them develop good work habits, understand responsibility and acquire basic technical skills in various trades," Mr Tong stresses.