It is often said that the general health of the property and construction industry provides one of the most reliable measures of the overall strength of the Hong Kong economy. If that is the case then, while there should be encouraging signs of improvement in 2004, it is probably premature to start thinking about any kind of return to the heady days of the mid-1990s.
Few people are better placed to have a comprehensive overview of the sector than Lui Lup-moon, deputy chairman of Ove Arup and Partners Hong Kong Ltd. The prestigious international engineering group employs around 6,000 people worldwide with the Hong Kong office accounting for about 1,600 of those and also overseeing the activities of six other offices in Asia.
Mr Lui, whose 20 plus years in the industry have included spells working for a contractor and as a consultant before joining Arup, maintains a note of caution when assessing the prospects for the coming year. "People believe there is a recovery but when exactly construction will bounce back is difficult to see," he explains. "There are now some ripples indicating a pick-up but we are still waiting for signs of a real turnaround."
No single project such as the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge can re-invigorate the construction sector on its own and, in deciding whether to plan a company strategy for short-term growth or for the current status quo to remain a while longer, Mr Lui looks for certain signs. The number of new enquiries from developers, government tenders for upcoming public works being announced, fee scales going up for engineers and contractors and how easy it is to recruit well-qualified staff - all indicate the underlying health of the sector. But, as Mr Lui admits, "At the end of the day judgement about an upturn is a gut feeling. What you hear from investors and developers will always guide you as the process cannot be completely analytical."
Nowadays, engineers must be prepared to travel. There will be a lot of interesting projects to work on around the region
Nevertheless, Arup themselves have been busy. They had a major involvement in the recently-completed IFC Two skyscraper in Central, now the tallest building in Hong Kong, and have just finished the Yuen Long section of the KCRC's West Rail, which opened last December. A quick look at the order book shows continuing work on the Stonecutters Bridge, the Deep Bay road link to western Shenzhen and public highway and tunnel projects associated with upgrading of infrastructure in the New Territories.
In the private sector, Arup is contracted for a number of residential projects in the West Kowloon reclamation including most of the buildings around the Union Square development. "For the efficient process of design and construction we promote the total engineering approach," says Mr Lui. "We believe the client will benefit from a team that can handle everything - geotechnics, structures, civil aspects, traffic, facade and building services (electrical and mechanical). It helps in giving ideas and relieving conflicts between different disciplines engaged on one project."
New specialist disciplines have been introduced to meet changing demands. Fire engineering tackles fire prevention, escape routes and risk and has to recognise that building code regulations are for 'typical' structures while engineering requirements in a modern, large-space building may require more innovative solutions. Implementing more energy-saving and environmentally friendly designs also provides new challenges.
Arup's consistent recruitment need is for young engineers. The firm's philosophy is to grow organically and an annual process, starting each February, sees them organising roadshows to attract university graduates, 35 of whom were hired last year. After joining, a short orientation period is followed by a three to four-year training programme, guided by the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers. This leads to chartered engineer status. On-the-job experience is supplemented by in-house lectures, site visits and online learning. A mentor is assigned to assist every trainee and check their progress. Subsequent promotions can lead towards either a technical or a more managerial career.
"For applicants, good academic results are always preferable, especially when there are more graduates than vacancies," advises Mr Lui. "Proficiency in English is important plus presentation and technical skills." As opportunities may arise for secondment overseas, Arup also looks for well-rounded individuals with a broader view of the world.
For non-engineers, positions are available on an ad hoc basis for accountants, HR professionals and IT experts and in graphic design. Openings for construction site supervisors and in middle management are filled as and when required.
When speaking of future trends, Mr Lui believes it is essential to look beyond Hong Kong. "A lot of expertise has been developed here in the last 20 years and it can be used in China and other Asian countries," he says. In line with this, Arup is already undertaking several high-profile projects in Beijing including the new CCTV headquarters and the national stadium and aquatic centre for the 2008 Olympics.
"Nowadays, engineers must be prepared to travel," reminds Mr Lui. "There will be a lot of interesting projects to work on around the region."
Landmark for surveyors
In 2004, the Hong Kong Institute of Surveyors (HKIS) will mark 20 years as the organisation setting the standards for ethics, service and performance levels for the local surveying profession. With over 3,500 qualified corporate members as well as a similar total of probationers, junior (aged under 33) and student members, the HKIS also plays a major role in assisting the government on policy matters and advising universities on relevant course content.
Tony Tse, president of the HKIS, explains that the surveying profession is traditionally divided into five main disciplines: building, general practice, land, quantity and planning and development. "In Hong Kong, because of the importance of the real estate and construction industry, quantity surveying has become the discipline with the highest number of practitioners, followed by general practice," he notes. "Therefore, the overall demand for surveyors is closely linked to the strength of the property market."
A quantity surveyor must be an expert in calculating and assessing building and construction costs and in managing contracts. Anything from preliminary cost advice to procurement methods, tendering, valuation and dispute resolution may fall within his responsibilities during a construction project.
Three local universities offer a total of eight courses accredited by the HKIS and leading to a BSc or MSc honours degree in subjects such as surveying, real estate for general practice and construction economy and management. After graduation, there is a choice of joining either a surveying firm, a developer or a consultancy firm. In each case, two to three years on-the-job work experience are required before the HKIS can grant a diploma recognising their Assessment of Professional Competence (APC). For this, reports describing work done must be submitted, written exams passed and an interview attended to answer questions put by a panel of senior surveyors.