The transition from full-time study to a first job is not always easy. Hopes and expectations about the world of work are quickly replaced by realities and, before too long, many people start asking themselves if they have made the right career choice after all. That is a thought process which Edmond Cheng, staff officer of the Training Development Group at the Customs and Excise Department, can remember only too well.
In 1977, after graduating from the Hong Kong Polytechnic with a diploma in accountancy, Mr Cheng was all set for a successful career in the world of auditing and finance. However, after a couple of years, he tired of the daily routine and started looking around for something more challenging. It took some time but, in 1981, he decided to leave his calculator and accountancy books behind and joined the Customs and Excise Department as an inspector.
Though the working environment was completely different, Mr Cheng did find some similarities between the two jobs. "About a quarter of the work in Customs involves tax-related knowledge," he says. "When dealing with excise duties on tobacco, alcohol and gasoline, a knowledge of accounting certainly comes in handy."
As head of the Training Development Group, he is now responsible for the design and implementation of specialised programmes relating to investigation and law enforcement techniques. With the advance of technology, the work and the methods of teaching are constantly changing. "I am currently designing materials for multimedia training and e-Learning," he explains. "Some of the standard items have already been modified and made available on the Internet under the Civil Service Training and Development Institute's website. The aim is to have a programme which combines classroom learning with an interactive approach."
Be prepared for the stress the job may entail
Mr Cheng also makes use of the comprehensive programmes offered by the World Customs Organisation and the UN Office of Drugs and Crime. Where necessary, their guidelines and recommendations are "customised" to meet the specific training needs of the officers in Hong Kong.
Knowledge is tested in promotion qualifying exams and performance assessments, which are prerequisites for promotion within the service. "Our duties also include everything from sourcing and setting questions to arranging venues and supervising the exams," Mr Cheng adds.
After more than 20 years with the department, he still gets great satisfaction from the work and can keep learning thanks to the job rotation system. "Usually we rotate every three to four years," he explains. "Senior officers will nominate you for certain positions, depending on your experience, past performance and potential."
To maximise his own chances, Mr Cheng has been continuously improving himself. He completed a postgraduate certificate in business management in 2000 and is now studying for a Master's degree in HR management (HRM). "Further study is a bit difficult when you have to work long and unstable hours," he says, "but when I was first promoted to assistant superintendent, I realised that I had to learn more about administration and HRM and immediately did something about it."
As society has changed, so has the department, in order to meet public expectations. "The standard of service is higher," says Mr Cheng. "Trade facilitation, risk management and customer service are now the focus."
To maintain these standards, there is a consistent demand for quality recruits. Though academic qualifications are not the only measure, university graduates do usually have a higher chance of joining the profession. "We have a lot of degree holders applying for jobs, even though the official entry requirements have not changed drastically," notes Mr Cheng. Since the work is so specialised, he stresses, only the professional training offered by the department can prepare people for their day-to-day responsibilities.
Prospective candidates must be physically fit, proficient in Chinese and English, and have problem-solving and decision-making ability. Knowledge of current affairs plus excellent communication, leadership and motivational skills are also expected. "Before applying, you should have some basic knowledge of the department and be prepared for the stress the job may entail," recommends Mr Cheng.
He believes that anyone who passes the various recruitment tests will find the job interesting and challenging. "You will meet people from all walks of life and have exposure to many new things which have an international dimension," he says. "The best thing, though, is having the chance to exercise your powers of observation and analysis."
Even though the chances of working full-time in China are rare, there are opportunities for short-term assignments on the mainland. With the links between the Customs departments on the two sides of the boundary getting ever closer, Hong Kong and the mainland are now regularly exchanging officers for professional training and benchmarking purposes.
"Each year Hong Kong Customs organises four training programmes, as well as ad hoc courses for mainland officers," Mr Cheng says. "In return, we have five groups of officers to go there to receive training and there are also occasional field trips for general familiarisation."