Shed light on 300 careers

by Alex Chan

Mark Ashton, general manager; David Cheng, senior engineer, Leighton Contractors (Asia) Limited
Photo: Johnson Poon

Civil engineers can take heart from the number of infrastructure projects and major developments planned in Hong Kong and Macau

Civil engineers working on infrastructure projects in Hong Kong have seen some dramatic highs and lows in the past decade. They completed the construction of the spectacular airport at Chek Lap Kok and have had a hand in building the new town of Tseung Kwan O, as well as the KCRC's West Rail line. However, since 2004, things have slowed considerably.

"We have seen a lot of projects moved back or put on hold in the past few years, which has put the industry under pressure," says Mark Ashton, the general manager of Leighton Contractors (Asia) Limited. He is encouraged, though, by the fact that a number of these may get the green light to start in 2007.

For example, there are the Drainage Services Department's storm water tunnel improvements, the Harbour Area Treatment sewage tunnel system, Ocean Park's "funicular" tunnel linking lowlands to the summit, Hong Kong University's Cavern and the MTRC West Island Line. "Tunnelling projects are definitely driving growth in Hong Kong," Mr Ashton says.

Besides such large-scale projects in Hong Kong, Leighton also sees further potential in Macau's entertainment sector. Most of the top casino groups are planning major new investments, creating extra demand for specialist design and construction skills. "They want to build ever better and ever more exciting places to gamble and holiday, so the Macau market will continue to boom and is expected to become the Las Vegas of Asia," says Mr Ashton.

Tunnelling projects are definitely driving growth in Hong Kong

Complex projects

Having already worked on three significant contracts for Hong Kong Disneyland, the company has shown its ability to complete high-quality but unusual structures. Also, in joint venture with China State, Leighton has built the Wynn Casino in Macau, which opened in early September, and will serve to demonstrate the company's credentials in handling complex projects and delivering them on time. To achieve this, it is vital to communicate closely with the client in order to understand their objectives and make sure everything is well aligned.

"We have been helped by the company's experience in Australia where alliance contracting has become the trend," says Mr Ashton. "It means we take a financial stake in the work and frequently operate open-book contracts with our major clients." These projects often require management of changing design elements and of adjacent works. "We are not just a builder, but create complex systems that are very well integrated," he adds.

If various contracts are confirmed, Mr Ashton expects Leighton's financial turnover to increase by 20 per cent next year. He is therefore planning to take on an additional 300 staff, including engineers with expertise in planning, quality assurance and cost planning, and quantity surveyors. Around two-thirds of the new staff are likely to work in Macau.

"We are usually prepared to give young engineers a lot of responsibility and the chance to move up quickly," Mr Ashton says.

Fast pace

David Cheng, who is now a senior engineer, has benefited from this policy. When still in the final year of his civil engineering degree in England, he applied to Leighton. Within a few days, he was flying to Hong Kong for an interview and, shortly after completing his final exams in May 1999, he was already settling into a full-time job.

He began as a graduate engineer on a three-year training programme, jointly organised by the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE). His first promotion saw him appointed as a site engineer in charge of monitoring progress and dealing with subcontractors and architects. Then, after completing all the necessary HKIE examinations in 2004, he was made a senior engineer and is currently working on the plans for the Kowloon Southern Link.

"Because the career is so fast-paced, you need self-motivation and the passion to learn," Mr Cheng says. "You also have to be outgoing and ready to ask questions because that is the best way to pick up the practical and professional skills you need to operate in the industry," he adds.

"The complexity of the work provides an intellectual challenge, which is just one of the rewards of this type of career," Mr Ashton concludes.

Strong prospects

  • Several major infrastructure projects are expected to go ahead in Hong Kong in 2007, including large-scale tunnelling work
  • The opportunities in Macau should continue as developers appear keen to invest
  • Experience on unique high-quality projects is an advantage when tendering for casinos and resorts
  • Leighton is planning to take on around 300 staff in 2007
  • Engineers get early responsibility and must be self-motivated to keep pace with the business


Taken from Career Times 22 September 2006
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