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Career Path

Paving the way towards progress

by Wendy Shair

Steven Lai
divisional director, transport, China region
Parsons Brinckerhoff (Asia) Ltd
Photo: Lewis Wong
The prosperity of metropolitan Hong Kong depends greatly on its sophisticated, expanding transport network, which supports the bulk of the city's economic activities.

Steven Lai understands this. In fact, his long career as a mechanical engineer has taken him around the world to contribute to an impressive portfolio of projects, allowing him to gain valuable experience in the process. Now divisional director, transport, China region, Parsons Brinckerhoff (Asia) Ltd, he is plowing back his know-how to the benefit of Hong Kong society.

Having joined the consultancy straight after graduating from the University of Hong Kong in 1990, Ir Lai has many achievements to call his own, and this includes executing the tunnel ventilation system for the MTR West Rail project. "I was involved with the entire process, including planning, design, construction, testing and commissioning," he recalls, adding that Parsons Brinckerhoff provides him and his peers with plenty of freedom to work on a variety of assignments and that its management is always open to new ideas.

Steady progress

Ir Lai started out as an assistant engineer and like many of his fellow graduates, he enrolled in the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers' Scheme "A" graduate training programme, which enables newcomers to the field to translate their theoretical knowledge into on-the-job practice.

Young engineers should be prepared to take up overseas assignments and get exposure abroad, stresses Ir Lai. Personally, he had an opportunity to work on a subway project in New York early on in his career. "After completing the two years' Scheme A graduate training programme, I was promoted to the position of engineer and, to senior engineer in 1994."

He continued to move up the ranks, eventually finding himself in the role of project engineer. "I also had a chance to work on different tunnel projects in Singapore and Australia, which gave me invaluable international exposure," he notes.

Effective delegation is an important part of Ir Lai's job. "I have a very good team and the fact that I can pass tasks on to them allows me to get on with other important duties. Around the globe, our profession depends greatly on teamwork. Engineers that boasts excellent interpersonal communication skills therefore stand out among the rest."

His role also involves recruitment and he has noticed in recent years that more candidates strive to be all-round professionals, expanding their skills repertoires. "They want to get insight into different facets of the industry. While maintaining a healthy work-life balance is becoming more of a priority, many continue to study part-time. Good time management is therefore crucial," he says.

Dedication and commitment are also key to success. Ir Lai advises new graduates not to be afraid of hard work. "Young engineers should be keen to learn and be passionate about the industry. Continuous professional development should be a priority," he points out.

Crossing boundaries

Successful engineers are typically characterised by stringent industry standards. In particularly, a completed project must be of high quality, ensures work efficiency and generates the desired returns.

Ir Lai emphasises that it is important for companies to make the best use of their existing manpower to get the work done efficiently.

Parsons Brinckerhoff has a mentoring scheme aimed at encouraging ideas exchange. "Young engineers at Parsons Brinckerhoff, who join the scheme, are assigned a peer mentor. When I first joined the company, I had a very good advisor and I learnt a lot about engineering, and life in general, thanks to his coaching and encouragement," he concedes. "Not only did we talk about work, but also about other issues, including careers and family. I found the personal sharing very helpful."

Chairman of the Mechanical, Marine, Naval Architecture and Chemical Division of the Hong Kong Institute of Engineers, Ir Lai spares no efforts in fostering the future development of the engineering profession. Part of his public role entails support for the institute's events like the currently running Engineering Week "Bringing engineering to life". "The event should help to increase public awareness of the profession," says Ir Lai. "People often think of engineers as people who work on projects on site, but the sector spans a wide variety of functions. Hopefully the Engineering Week will give the general public more insight into our industry."

China opportunities

Ir Lai started to focus his sights on mainland China back in 1999. "I worked on several tunnel projects, including metro projects construction in Shanghai. At the time, there weren't too many people from Hong Kong working across the border, but the number of mainland projects has since grown significantly. I was stationed in Chongqing for two years and moved back to Hong Kong in 2008." He emphasises that Hong Kong practitioners should be prepared to work in mainland China, since the country is developing rapidly and there is a lot of potential for them to excel in the industry.

Taken from Career Times 11 March 2011, B12

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