In the prevailing economic climate of the last few years, the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) realised the importance of developing a second major objective. As the ten airport core projects, which brought an unprecedented boom in engineering jobs, began to wind down, it became clear that no local infrastructure or construction projects on a similar scale could be expected in the foreseeable future.
Therefore, to complement its primary role as the body responsible for qualifying all engineers in Hong Kong and overseeing their continuing professional development, the HKIE has taken steps to create new opportunities by promoting closer ties with the mainland. Negotiations have taken place with the National Administration Board of Engineers Registration, under China's Ministry of Construction, for the first of several planned mutual recognition agreements which will make it easier for Hong Kong-qualified engineers to take up equivalent positions across the border.
The first such draft agreement, applicable for the structural engineering discipline, was concluded in February 2004 and, according to Ir Dr Alex Chan, president of the HKIE, talks are progressing for additional, but separate, agreements which will recognise the needs of the other major disciplines within the profession.
"There is a growing trend for local engineers to work on the mainland," confirms Dr Chan. "So far, it is mostly with Hong Kong companies which may require employees to be based here and travel regularly. We do not yet see a large demand from Chinese enterprises per se but they do seek expert advice in certain areas and this will develop."
With projections showing China's rate of urbanisation may increase from 35 to 65 percent within the next two decades, rough estimates would mean an extra 400 million people could, by then, be living in urban environments. The implications of this in terms of construction projects, investment and jobs are hard to imagine. Nevertheless, as Dr Chan observes, "In the last 15 years, the Chinese have demonstrated to the world that they mean business and have the determination to get these things done!"
At present, engineers with project management and international experience are most in demand. They generally have the ability to conduct negotiations successfully with architects, contractors and suppliers and, if from Hong Kong, will have the requisite skills to protect the interests and concerns of diverse parties. "Our members understand how to resolve problems and usually have better exposure in knowing how to make things happen when dealing with international partners," notes Dr Chan.
With a total membership of around 20,000, of which half are fully qualified engineers, the HKIE does not specifically claim its members have an edge over their mainland counterparts. However, cooperating with local universities and employers, it does provide accredited courses and a process of training and assessment that undoubtedly match the highest international standards. As Dr Chan explains, "We provide an engineering 'product', make it available in the market and let the employers choose."
Engineers contemplating a move to China need more than their basic professional knowledge: acceptance and understanding of a different culture, work practices and living standards will make for a smoother transition. Regarding salaries, Dr Chan mentions that, "There are differences depending on the locality but, with the same rank, engineers on the mainland can have the same standard of living as in Hong Kong."
While Hong Kong may be less in the spotlight than before, there is still a great deal of local engineering activity. Future large scale project and construction work is dependent on government approval of renewed spending on infrastructure, but demand is steady in the energy and manufacturing sectors and for information and communications technology (ICT) engineers.
Property developers may be concentrating more on upgrading facilities than on new construction but this, in turn, creates a need for mechanical and building engineers, expert in support systems such as air-conditioning and lighting.
Dr Chan sees these changes as a consequence of an evolving economy and emphasises that most engineers view their profession as a life-long career. They learn to anticipate some ups and downs in their chosen discipline and comparatively few switch to alternative fields. As a minimum, four years are required from the start of an engineering degree to completion of the professional qualification. Therefore, possible changes in the future job market must be factored into any career decision. The HKIE does, however, allow for assessment and qualification in additional disciplines to enable professionals to broaden their scope.
Consulting, either freelance or as part of a small team, provides an option for those with the relevant experience. However, as Dr Chan notes, branching out in this direction requires expertise and an excellent network of contacts to maintain a steady flow of remunerative work.
With changes inevitable, the HKIE will continue its efforts to conclude further agreements which enable locally qualified engineers to build a career on the mainland and internationally. "Hong Kong is an advanced city and still offers a good career path for many engineers, but we must also be aware of these new directions," Dr Chan concludes.