A successful career in most professions requires formal qualifications, practical training, and years of on-the-job experience. However, even with all that, other factors may intervene and cause people to contemplate a change of direction. It could be a downturn in the economy or a shift in personal priorities but, whatever the reason, the practice of having a second career is now firmly established.
Stephen Yu decided to take this route. By training he is a chartered engineer, but after working for about twelve years in challenging roles with Towngas and the Hong Kong Airport Authority, he has transformed himself into an expert in quality management.
As a mechanical engineer with his previous employers, Mr Yu was responsible for gas pipeline projects and the construction of parts of the airport runway and passenger terminal extension. Now, though, he is Hong Kong operation manager for BSI Management Systems, one of the world's largest providers of certification and specialised training.
Mr Yu recalls that his previous involvement with aspects of quality assurance for engineering projects made the transition easier. "When I completed my contract with the Airport Authority, I wanted a full-time position where I could use some of my professional knowledge, but also learn new skills," he says. "BSI seemed to be offering just what I was looking for."
He explains that the field of management system certification actually depends on professionals with relevant expertise from different industries. When visiting other companies to perform an audit, assessors must obviously have in-depth understanding of specific industry practices in order to spot problems and comment on deficiencies.
You must be ready to use all your senses when conducting an audit
The construction and property management sectors were among the first to adopt international standards, and Mr Yu focuses on these areas. This involves overseeing the correct implementation of such standards as ISO 9001 for quality management, ISO 14001 for environmental aspects, and OHSAS 18001 for occupational health and safety.
On joining BSI as a client management trainee in 2000, his priority during the first six months was to complete the courses necessary for the formal IRCA (International Register of Certified Auditors) qualification. Each trainee auditor is assigned a mentor and must attend lectures and workshops on quality standards, as well as getting day-to-day instruction in auditing and administrative practices.
As operation manager, Mr Yu regularly conducts management system audits and also reviews reports compiled by other assessors. Besides that, he is involved in training, planning, and managing HR for the company's certification team. This requires close coordination with sales and marketing, customer service and the in-house quality control department. Since the nature of the job means auditors must work independently and are frequently out of the office, Mr Yu makes special efforts to improve general communication and enhance the flow of information. For example, a task programme has been set up to encourage auditors to pass on ideas and recognise the value of teamwork.
Anyone hoping to become an auditor of quality or management systems requires at least four years' prior experience in a specific profession. Typically, this might be in engineering, accountancy, IT, consulting or information security.
"You must be ready to use all your senses when conducting an audit. We must also conform to the standards of our accreditation bodies and follow a strict assessment process," Mr Yu explains. With the trend towards integrated quality management, in which a single system covers the various aspects of quality control, auditors are gearing up to face additional challenges.
"Auditors and clients will not necessarily agree about conformance issues," Mr Yu says. "Therefore, we need to manage the relationship skillfully to find common ground and ensure the quality system is implemented, so that the client's operations will improve."
The quality management profession is already well established in China with a ready supply of talent. Therefore, Mr Yu thinks there are unlikely to be many full-time employment opportunities for Hong Kong-trained auditors. However, since most local clients have operations or significant transactions in the mainland, frequent travel may be required and, in fact, some auditors spend over 60 per cent of their working time outside Hong Kong.