With prospects for the mainland's economy continuing to look strong, engineering professionals in Hong Kong are ideally placed to take advantage of a wealth of new opportunities. However, those with the ambition and talent to plan a move to "the world's factory" should also be aware that a number of challenges await them.
As Ir Kenneth Leung, chairman of the manufacturing and industrial division of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) stresses, young engineers aiming to develop careers in China should be prepared to adjust to the lifestyle there and must maintain a consistent level of professionalism in order to succeed.
Demand for manufacturing and industrial engineers has expanded rapidly in the last two decades and shows no signs of slowing down. With annual growth of seven per cent in the manufacturing industry, China is still attracting significant foreign investment, which bodes well for the future. In addition, the CEPA initiative has led to renewed investment from Hong Kong businesses, particularly in the Pearl River Delta area.
According to Ir Leung, most professionals in the sector who moved to China in the past were more senior managers and engineers and made up only a small percentage of the mainland's total engineering workforce. More recently, as the market has opened up, it has also become possible for younger professionals from Hong Kong to find a variety of positions and to gain invaluable experience across the border. A manufacturing engineer might, for example, have the chance to oversee a factory's entire production process and decide on the purchase of equipment, while an industrial engineer could handle anything from factory design and improving efficiency to quality control and assurance.
Progress towards mutual recognition of professional qualifications by the respective authorities in Hong Kong and the mainland has been helped by the implementation of CEPA. As Ir Leung explains, Hong Kong engineers in specific disciplines such as structural or civil engineering must still obtain China-approved qualifications before they can work there. Manufacturing and industrial engineers, though, do not face the same restrictions.
Broadly speaking, engineering students and trainees in Hong Kong will study essentially the same subjects as their mainland counterparts. However, Ir Leung remarks that a greater proficiency in languages, particularly in English, gives Hong Kong engineers a competitive edge, especially when it comes to working for foreign-backed enterprises.
The generally bright prospects do, inevitably, entail some aspects which require careful consideration. Hong Kong professionals are, for instance, now required to pay tax in China if they are on longer-term contracts. This can have quite an impact on compensation packages, especially if people are used to the higher salaries and lower tax regime in Hong Kong. Young engineers looking to make a career on the mainland are therefore advised to have a realistic view of the rewards and lifestyle to expect and to evaluate whether it can meet their professional, financial and personal needs.
Ir Leung believes that fluency in Mandarin is now a prerequisite and that, regardless of the cultural differences that exist, young engineers should always maintain the highest standards and the same sense of responsibility at work. He says that if there is any secret to career success across the border, it involves having the interpersonal skills to adapt to the cultural environment and being dedicated to learning and not afraid of hard work.
Engineers need business skills
Since the principles of scientific management have gained greater prominence in the engineering sector, the Master of Science in Engineering Enterprise Management (EEM) offered by Hong Kong University of Science and Technology is one academic qualification sure to help those in the field get ahead in their careers.
Open to professionals with a first degree and knowledge of the logistics and mathematics of production, the programme aims to broaden the technical skills of students. As Professor Neville Lee, director of the MSc in EEM explains, it covers essential topics in scientific management, such as supply chain operations and product development, which will help students keep pace with the latest changes in the industry.
For engineers today, business skills are something that cannot be ignored. The programme therefore covers people management and career development skills, giving students the ability to handle themselves and others more effectively at different stages of their career. "Our programme is a result of the joint efforts of the school of business and the school of engineering at HKUST," Professor Lee explains. "Both are internationally renowned, so we trust that we are offering the most comprehensive training for technical professionals in the industry."
He also mentions that there is great demand for people who are well versed in the concepts of scientific management to join engineering businesses. "Most companies are looking to restructure their knowledge base," he says. "As technology advances, everyone is trying to cut costs and improve quality in various ways."
The opening of the China market will further increase the need for competent managers. "Many enterprises in China are in the process of restructuring their management," Professor Lee notes. "As the Hong Kong and China markets have integrated to a certain extent, managers with the right experience and industrial knowledge will be highly sought after by mainland companies."