With the construction booming in Macau and neighbouring areas in mainland China, it appears at first glance that the construction industry in Hong Kong is making a strong recovery after a decade in the doldrums. The reality is slightly, but interestingly, different.
Unlike the situation in the 80s and 90s when large-scale projects and property development created tremendous job opportunities in the territory, construction professionals must now be prepared to move out of Hong Kong to get the better jobs.
The industry is facing a gradual transformation. "10 years ago, the construction business mainly came from huge projects such as the Hong Kong International Airport at Chap Lap Kok, and the associated infrastructural works. Now we have reached a relatively stable stage from the decline after 1997, but major projects make up less than half of the work the industry is now doing," says Otto Poon, managing director, Analogue Holdings Ltd.
The outlook for Hong Kong's construction business is not as good as it is within other parts of the region, he believes. "Some big projects such as the West Kowloon reconstruction are still on hold. Other long-expected developments such as works connected with the merger of the MTR and KCRC are not yet scheduled. Compared with our neighbours, Hong Kong's construction industry is rather stagnant," Mr Poon says. "Many members of our construction workforce have relocated to Macau and neighbouring areas of the mainland as the demand for such skills in those places is much greater, and Hong Kong's expertise and experience is in heavy demand across the region."
Mr Poon has witnessed many highs and lows in the sector since he founded Analogue Holding Ltd in 1977. The company focuses on electrical and mechanical aspects of the building and construction industry, providing building services installations, automation systems, environmental protection systems and so on to governments, institutional bodies, property developers and other customers.
"As a private company, we are not in a advantageous position when recruiting," he stresses. In particular, qualified jobseekers usually try first to get jobs with government departments. It is understandable that higher salaries and more stable working conditions are always sought after. However, the situation has become less competitive in the recent years as the government has adjusted its pay scales to levels more comparable with what the private sector is offering.
As Analogue provides numerous services from manufacturing of precision air-conditioning equipment to water and wastewater treatments, Mr Poon believes that the variety of exposure for the employees is a bonus. As a result, every year the company is able to attract a number of high calibre graduates who are enlisted in its career development programmes.
Analogue's engineering trainee programme aims to develop graduates who possess a degree in building services or one of the disciplines in electrical, mechanical and environmental engineering and help them become professional engineers. It is a scheme A programme registered with the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers. Graduate trainees undergo two years' training under the guidance of engineering supervisors designated to provide workplace coaching and guidance.
During the first 18 months, the trainees must have spells of duty in different engineering sections. Such rotation offers all-round job exposure and a full understanding of the career ahead of them. Afterwards, they will choose a particular area in which they hope to specialise. Concentrated training in this particular area is then provided in the six months before the programme concludes.
As one of the mentors of the company's career development programmes, Mr Poon advises that the job of an engineer in building and construction is not easy. "You must be prepared to work hard. For most of the time there are tight deadlines to meet. That means you have to work long hours and be dedicated in performing your duties. Also, the working environment at sites can be tough sometimes," he notes.
Some graduates changed their minds after completing their training and tapped into other professions. Those who chose to stay, however, went on to develop very worthwhile careers, and some have even been elevated to the Analogue Group's board of directors.
Analogue is constantly supplying every opportunity to advance its own employees. If necessary, the company even seeks the co-operation of outside specialists to help nurture promising graduates.
"For example, the e-channels we set up for the government prove the success of the collaboration among our engineers and the outsourced technologies. We are proud of our contribution to the project," Mr Poon says. Other opportunties included the installation of the advanced water treatment plant at Ngau Tam Mei; combined building services at a number of office blocks at Taikoo Place; the automation systems at IFC2, and the lifts and esculators at the Science Park. "We are gratified to have accomplished such missions," he says. "It gives us great satisfaction in our careers when something we build efficiently serves the community."