Among the various disciplines within the surveying profession, general practice covers the widest array of responsibilities. A typical job might include work on planning, the management and valuation of lands and buildings, and project development. According to Cherrie Lai, senior manager of Hongkong Land Limited, who started her career as a general practice surveyor, there could just as easily be involvement in sales, letting, property management and the development of residential sites.
Ms Lai's first job as a property agent enabled her to gain practical experience in handling clients and dealing with marketing consultants. For the first four years she focused on appraising developments, retail leasing and the sale of residential projects. She acted on behalf of clients, who were buying or letting, and of landlords, who were negotiating terms and trying to find the right tenant mix. This provided an invaluable opportunity to learn quickly and gain exposure to real-life situations.
It also taught Ms Lai to regard career development as similar to running a marathon. Instead of focusing on short-term or monetary rewards, she has therefore concentrated on finding job satisfaction and looking for new challenges and the chance to keep testing herself. She joined Hongkong Land in 1997 and has since taken part in several major commercial projects, including the podium refurbishment of Exchange Square, Chater House and Landmark East in Central. She says that working for a property developer is demanding and draws on every aspect of her surveying knowledge.
Surveyors, as trained professionals, must deal with higher expectations
As a senior manager with the company's residential department, which was established in 2000, Ms Lai's current aim is to build a successful team. "I started to understand the importance of management only after joining Hongkong Land," she says, "At first, I didn't like the hierarchy, but I gradually realised the value of a system, which keeps an organisation running, does not depend on individuals, and provides checks and balances."
A relevant degree is necessary to become a surveyor. Ms Lai studied land management at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) and knew quite early what she wanted to do. "My friends and relatives got me interested in property and commerce," she recalls. Engineering was ruled out as being too technical and, at that time, architecture seemed to offer limited openings for women.
The specialised PolyU course requires students to choose their preferred discipline early on – general practice, or building, land or quantity surveying. This concentration on one area means that graduates are sought after by employers and can start full-time employment with minimal extra coaching. In order to get ahead, Ms Lai even started doing part-time surveying jobs to accumulate useful experience while she was studying.
For graduates who plan to go in general practice, she advises to the importance of knowing one's own personality. "A careful approach and attention to detail are needed for valuation, while for property management, you need to be good at multi-tasking and handling complaints," she says. In general, language abilities and interpersonal skills are essential.
To become a chartered surveyor, it is necessary to be assessed by an authorised body such as the UK's Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Normally two years of structured on-the-job training and experience are needed before someone can apply for chartered status. Ms Lai sees this formal qualification as an entry ticket to the profession. "It means you are free to pursue your career," she explains.
Continuous professional training is now essential for anyone who wants to progress over the long term, since the profession is getting more competitive. "Even property agents can offer useful insights to clients, so surveyors, as trained professionals, must deal with higher expectations," she says. In addition to improving their professional expertise, surveyors also need to think about acquiring more cross-disciplinary knowledge. For this reason, Ms Lai completed a master's degree in finance. She found that studying a subject not directly related to her daily work helped to enhance her understanding of the global economy and is sure it will be of use in future.
Because the supply of locally trained junior surveyors in mainland China is increasing, there are fewer opportunities for Hong Kong graduates, says Ms Lai. Nevertheless, she expects to see continuing demand in the next three years and suggests that young Hong Kong surveyors should take the chance to gain experience in China while they can.
There may still be opportunities for those in senior and strategic decision-making positions. However, Ms Lai points out that anyone considering a move to the mainland should carefully assess the prospects for career development and realise the importance of having a good network of professional contacts. She also indicates that the way the system is currently structured in China limits the chances for surveyors from Hong Kong at middle management level.