If you have ever owned or managed any kind of manufacturing facility, then you will understand how important is the role of a mechanical engineer. Whether as inventor, supervisor or trainer, he can turn his hand to almost any task. In most cases the mechanical engineer is also equipped with a broad range of management and business skills that are expected of a top-level executive.
As a major employer of mechanical engineers in both Hong Kong and the mainland, SAE Magnetics (HK) Ltd knows this only too well. The company, with plant facilities in Dongguan employing about 20,000 workers, is one of the world's largest manufacturers of magnetic heads, a key component in the production of computer hard disk drives for the global market. It provides extensive opportunities to work in manufacturing operations and maintenance as well research and development, quality control and general management. Naturally, the company is constantly on the lookout for fresh talent.
"As a supplier of the building blocks of the digital universe, we constantly tap into the pool of engineering talent in Hong Kong, particularly for mechanical engineers," says KF Ng, senior manager, group human resources for SAE Magnetics. "Although our products are small, we need to think big to keep up with developments in computer peripherals manufacturing. We employ leading-edge technology from many areas including aerodynamics, ultra-precision machining, and so on," he adds.
Given the pace of change in digital technology, academic qualifications are increasingly important for new recruits. In the past, many companies considered mechanical engineers with just diplomas as strong candidates. Nowadays, a Master's and even doctoral degrees are expected, particularly for research and development functions.
The number of mechanical engineers currently trained in Hong Kong is insufficient to meet overall demand. "This factor, together with the competition for candidates from other companies in China, means we also need to recruit from overseas," Mr Ng explains.
Whether working in a factory or research laboratory, engineers need to communicate well to get things done. If dealing with international clients, they also need a high standard of English and good presentation skills. With much of the business depending on precision, the qualities of accuracy, commitment and being well organised are equally important.
"When selecting engineers, we use group interviews so that we may closely observe the interaction and identify good team players," says Mr Ng. "Since we are at the forefront of a fast-growing industry, we also need people who are creative and can think out of the box," he adds, emphasising that, unlike 20 or 30 years ago, engineering is no longer a male-dominated profession.
With the opening up of China and the whole-scale relocation of Hong Kong's factory production lines to Guangdong and beyond, there has been a parallel movement of mechanical engineers moving north seeking greener pastures.
"Initially, Hong Kong graduates were reluctant to work in China," recalls Mr Ng. "To change this, we launched a summer internship programme several years ago giving engineering students the opportunity to work in our Pearl River Delta plant. We now take up to 30 interns each year and many have chosen to work with us after graduation," he notes.
All SAE employees will enjoy higher starting salaries across the border. As a general practice in the industry, engineers usually have a slightly higher salary in the mainland than in HK, though this differential is likely to be reduced in the coming years. The reason for this is the perception that after-work activities in China are limited and living standards not as high as in Hong Kong. "Accommodation is usually in apartments provided by the company," explains Mr Ng. "In the evening, many engineers prefer to go back to work as their life circles are not as big as in Hong Kong." Fewer distractions, however, mean that young engineers can apply themselves to studying for higher degrees or additional qualifications.
In the past, engineering courses in China tended to be more specialised, making it possible, for example, to take a degree focusing on car maintenance. The trend now is for programmes to cover a broader curriculum. Mainland graduates, in general, are regarded as just as competent as those from Hong Kong. "Young engineers from the mainland are serious about their studies and mature in their attitude and appearance," says Mr Ng. "Moreover, they are ambitious and many aim to rise to managerial positions within five to seven years of graduation and are capable of doing so."
The view that Hong Kong engineers have a competitive edge simply by virtue of their international exposure and understanding of two different cultures is starting to fade. Now, with the spread and use of the Internet, their counterparts on the mainland are fast catching up.
"Nevertheless, Hong Kong engineers should seriously consider opportunities in the mainland, where development prospects are enormous," says Mr Ng. "China is indeed the engine of growth in the region."