One of the goals of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE), according to their mission statement, is to raise the standing and visibility of engineers in the local community. At first glance, this might seem surprising when you consider that the HKIE's current membership of around 20,000 consists of well-qualified and aspiring professionals whose skills cover the whole spectrum of the 16 generally-recognised engineering disciplines, from building services to automation, electronics to the environment. But, while the industry's public profile may not have been as high as deserved in recent times, it has remained vibrant and, like most other sectors which contribute to the health of Hong Kong's economy, shows every sign of achieving new standards in 2004.
This view is endorsed by Alexa Chow, managing director of Centaline Julie's Personnel Consultants Ltd. "The job market for engineers is quite good at the moment and should improve further," she advises. "For those qualified in electronics, telecommunications or the mechanical field there is great demand right now and, for manufacturing engineers, if they are prepared to look across the border, there are jobs available in factories in Guangdong."
In overall terms, Ms Chow estimates that openings for engineers were down about 10 percent this year compared to 2002 but predicts a jump of 15 to 20 percent for 2004. The basis for such optimism is that SARS caused many companies to freeze recruitment temporarily, not to abandon completely plans for expansion. "There was a period of stagnation because of SARS," recalls Ms Chow. "Companies had to cut travel and deal with current staff issues so recruitment was put on hold, but manufacturing and trading remained strong so demand is still there."
Alan Au-Yeung, consultant at Levin Human Resources Development Ltd, strikes a similar upbeat note observing that, "It looks as if 2004 will be more promising for engineering appointments than the last three years." He hints at double-digit growth being expected in the electrical and mechanical fields if present trends continue but introduces a word of caution by pointing out, "Most young engineers now require a full degree as a basic qualification rather than just a diploma." Mr Au-Yeung also underlines that involvement with the China market can only increase and that employers are, therefore, increasingly on the lookout for candidates with China experience and managerial skills.
In this respect, the HKIE plays an important role. They not only act as the body to assess and accredit all engineering degrees and sub-degrees offered by tertiary-level bodies in Hong Kong, but also oversee programmes for registered graduate trainees which focus on the development of young engineers' managerial skills, leadership and mind-set training. Two of these, the Graduate Scheme "A" Training and the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme are designed to foster not just technical proficiency but also an awareness of better communication skills, ethical problems and social issues so as to build a bridge between theoretical knowledge and its practical application.
The CPD course, in particular, recognises the need for constant learning and self-improvement in an ever-changing world. It covers matters of direct technical relevance plus gives an insight into financial management, marketing and occupational health and safety. Course material is presented through lectures, seminars and e-learning with industrial attachments and visits also made available.
Looking towards future engineering employment trends, Ms Chow foresees growth in anything related to manufacturing, electronics and ICT (information and communications technology), balanced by a gradual move away from the civil and construction sectors. This will be influenced, in part, by government policy. "Things have been generally slow this year on the construction side and aren't likely to pick up quickly," she explains. "If the government plans no more units under the Home Ownership Scheme and limits land supply for new buildings structural and building engineers will be less in demand." The positive news, however, is that major property companies will shift emphasis to upgrading existing structures and the efficient use of current facilities increasing the need for mechanical, lighting and electrical specialists.
Across the border
When it comes to promoting prospects for Hong Kong-trained engineers in mainland China, Ir Dr Alex Chan, president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, is a key figure. As the local economy readjusts with less and less new construction and major industries continuing to relocate across the border, Dr Chan is actively pursuing a strategy of creating alliances with professional bodies China-wide. The aim is to generate medium and long-term employment opportunities for Hong Kong's pool of engineering talent.
"At the moment we are working hard to conclude the first reciprocal recognition agreement with China's National Administration Board of Engineering (Structural) Registration," says Ir Dr Chan. "This body is under the Ministry of Construction and takes care of structural engineering disciplines. With an agreement, our members will be able to obtain registration as Class 1 registered structural engineers on the mainland and be eligible for inclusion as professionals required under classes of enterprises on the mainland."
Parallel talks are to start shortly about an enhanced role for Hong Kong enterprises in construction project management throughout China. And, with work already underway to define the minimum set-up requirements under the terms of CEPA for design consultancy companies, these initiatives should pave the way for more civil, structural and construction engineers to find remunerative work across the border.
Ir Dr Chan is also in contact with organisations such as the China Automation Society and the Chinese Hydraulic Engineering Society to help broaden their understanding of international agreements, qualifications and registration procedures. "We have the expertise in Hong Kong," he explains, "but, in terms of future employment for our professionals, prospects may ultimately be limited, even with new infrastruture projects such as the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhuhai bridge on the horizon. That's why we need to build relations in China and keep the door open."
A trend for Hong Kong-trained engineers to start hunting for new opportunities beyond Guangdong province has already been spotted by Alexa Chow of Centaline Julie's. "It's still a comparatively low percentage," she confirms, "but, particularly at management level, we're starting to see recruitment from Shanghai and North China and expect it to grow."