Engineering graduates are once again much in demand, and not just in areas directly related to their university studies.
Employers in the banking and finance sector have been expanding so fast that they have had to look beyond the usual business-related degrees in their search for suitable candidates.
"Engineering students learn to think logically, solve problems and make decisions," says S W Cheung, current chairman of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE) electronics division and vice president of business development and technology support at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation. "These are the same skills the financial sector requires when hiring analysts."
Incoming chairman Oliver Choy, who is also professor in the department of electronic engineering at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that over 80 per cent of his department's graduates now pursue a career in engineering disciplines including electronic engineering, software engineering, IT and computer engineering. "Some of the professionals are attracted to the financial sector partly because of the attractive starting salaries," he explains.
However, starting salaries for trainee engineers are also on the rise. In the R&D sector, for example, they now range from HK$10,000 to HK$12,000 for holders of first degrees up to an initial HK$20,000 for those with doctorates. If their work leads to the successful development of new technology or products, they can expect to be rewarded with shares in the company. They may also benefit from owning the IP (intellectual property), which may create an additional source of income.
"In practice, only about 30 per cent of new ideas make it into production and not all of those are commercially successful," says Ir Cheung. He adds that the best R&D engineers therefore combine patience with a willingness to take risks and an instinct for what will actually sell.
The development of the science and technology park has understandably pushed demand for R&D engineers to new heights. In its second year of operation, it already houses 55 electronics companies and employs over 3,800 people. Phase two should be completed by late 2006 and will create roughly 5,000 more jobs.
The current goal is to attract more overseas companies that are looking to establish a presence in the Chinese market. "We have companies involved in everything from the automotive industry to consumer electronics, telecommunications and medical research," says Ir Cheung. "Engineers with different backgrounds are needed, but those skilled in integrated circuit (IC) design are in most demand because this is now such an important part of so many products."
Meanwhile, many companies have sought to recruit mainland-trained engineers for areas such as systems design. They have lower starting salaries and, through cooperation with the Shenzhen government, may be required to live in Shenzhen.
"We are also forming a network to reach talent in the western cities such as Xian where they produce 200,000 engineering graduates annually, compared to 6,000 in Hong Kong," says Ir Cheung. "However, we believe Hong Kong engineers will continue to hold an edge in terms of professionalism when dealing with quality control and the protection of intellectual property."