Operation civilisation

by Martin Williams

H C Man, associate dean, Faculty of Engineering
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Photo: Edde Ngan

Opportunities abound for modern engineering graduates

Today across southern China the demand for engineers is rapidly increasing.

"Science is the foundation for engineering," says H C Man, associate dean, Faculty of Engineering, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). "We use theory to fabricate end products and apply the laws of physics to different materials to create new entities."

Resource limitation is the main challenge for engineers. Indeed, every bridge, machine and product is usually constructed with certain limitations ranging from space, time, capital, human resources or specific material properties.

The PolyU engineering faculty — in common with engineering faculties worldwide — faces another challenge: attracting suitable students. "A major obstacle is that many people still think of engineering as a dirty physical job," notes Professor Man. "This is definitely the wrong impression, especially in Hong Kong."

Even school teachers and career advisers remain generally unfamiliar with the extensiveness of modern engineering. Sadly their myopia helps maintain societal notions that engineering purely involves manoeuvring large machinery. However, today's engineers also work on intricate projects which can range from tiny headphones to stents that save lives by expanding arteries.

Persistence is key when problems arise, alongside the flexibility to overcome problems from various angles. Good communication skills are also important for engineers nowadays as they must liaise with both clients and peers coherently and effectively.

Environmentally sound

Feedback from industrialists reinforces the importance of communication skills, especially when dealing with international customers. Engineers must adhere to budget restrictions and corporate responsibility initiatives. "The environment must be respected nowadays," says Professor Man.

The programmes on offer at PolyU include mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, electronic and information engineering, industrial and systems engineering and computing. A separate faculty is entirely dedicated to civil engineering. All programmes comply with the guidelines from The Hong Kong Institution of Engineers. Currently, students choose which programme to study and faculty staff offer advice on the differences between electives.

During their study period with the faculty, students gain extensive international exposure through exchange programmes and visits to engineering departments and factories overseas and in China. Professor Man is aware that this type of global peer sharing is invaluable for modern engineers looking to establish or fortify regional networks.

Personal focus

According to Professor Man, the faculty's alumni enter highly varied professions. A percentage work in computing, building systems, logistics engineering and programming. Mechanical engineers tend to focus on equipment maintenance and operation, as well as designing products such as electrical appliances. Additionally, certain graduates become involved in transport or public utilities supplying gas, water and electricity.

Management training is also popular for engineering graduates alongside establishing private manufacturing companies. Banks in the UK and France often recruit engineers. "They are adept at analysing data and data modelling," says Professor Man. "From a huge amount of data, they can spot trends and make predictions."

Although the Hong Kong government underplays the current significance of the local manufacturing industry, Professor Man explains that in the 1970s and 1980s, Hong Kong employed around 900,000 people in manufacturing.

In contrast, nine million people work in manufacturing industries within the Pearl River Delta today. "They build to orders from engineers who design the products, make the moulds and ensure timely shipment," he reveals. "Engineers are responsible for quality control and quality assurance." Both areas are becoming increasingly important as companies incorporate worldwide safety standards into their overall manufacturing processes.

Engineers are also facing challenges resulting from sharply rising customer expectations. Professor Man gives the MTR as an example: "They must report a malfunction within eight minutes. It's demanding and complex work."

Several engineering opportunities have arisen from China's manufacturing boom and Hong Kong trained engineers, whose strengths include English language proficiency, are now in soaring demand regionally.

People become engineers for certain reasons. "Creative passion is essential. The satisfaction comes from fabricating something that contributes to civilisation," Professor Man concludes.

Revving up

  • Several options for elective diversification
  • Comprehensive international exchange programme
  • Global peer sharing invaluable

Taken from Career Times 28 March 2008
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