APulitzer Prize-winning novel and a major box-office hit: there is a great deal more to shipping than Ms E Annie Proulx let us on in The Shipping News.
In a world where everything is about a fast buck, it takes years of study and dedication to get ahead in marine safety, but WK Lee, general manager, Ship Safety Branch, principal surveyor of ships of the Marine Department says it provides a lucrative and rewarding career.
Much like today, when Mr Lee left college in 1973 the economy was not strong and good job opportunities were few and far between. "Back then Hong Kong was a major shipping centre and engineers were in demand. Sponsors were always looking for college graduates to go to sea so I decided to do that. It had the added bonus of meaning I didn't have to find a job just yet either."
His next four years were spent studying a marine engineering course, which is a sandwich course comprising of two years full-time study at the Hong Kong Polytechnic, a year and a half as a sea-going cadet and a year's shipyard training with evening lectures at the Polytechnic. "Back then I earned between $800-$1,200 a month," Mr Lee laughs. "And that was good."
Clutching a diploma in his hand, it was back to sea for Mr Lee, this time as junior marine engineer. Over the next four years he progressed up through the ranks until he finally achieved his chief engineer certificate. At this point he decided he was through with life at sea and took a job at Fairmont Shipping Ltd as engineer superintendent before returning to school to complete his degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Newcastle in the UK.
"Nowadays graduates want to see financial reward as quickly as possible so we don't see too many newcomers, which is a shame because there are many job opportunities available."
Mr Lee returned to Hong Kong in 1985 and took up the position of mechanical project engineer manager with Hopewell Costain (Project Management) Ltd supervising the construction of a 2 X 300MW coal fired power station in Shajiao. With this project completed he needed to find a new job. "I was offered the position of surveyor of ships with the Marine Department and started three days after I left Hopewell," he explains. "That was in 1987."
On a day-to-day basis Mr Lee's job is to ensure the safety of ships and ensure the harbours are free from oil pollution. "Our motto is safer ships and cleaner oceans. We make sure vessels comply with local and international requirements. Local vessels we actually inspect ourselves but we have to delegate ocean-going vessels to third-party engineering companies and we just monitor their performance. In addition to this we have to make sure we look after the interests of our clients: the ship owners."
Mr Lee says that while the economic downturn hasn't had too great an effect on shipping safety, it is affecting ship owners. "Ships used to transport goods have obviously seen a profit loss as owners are vying for a smaller number of contracts, but we haven't seen too much change here."
But is it difficult to get a job in shipping safety? "It's not an easy road but eventually it is a lucrative and rewarding one," confirms Mr Lee. "If you look at the list of requirements that you need [to fulfill] before you can even enter the profession, you will see that most people don't even get a job until their early 30's. In order to be a surveyor of ships you need a first degree in mechanical or marine engineering, or naval architecture. Once you have this you need to achieve chartered engineer status and obtain either the chief engineer's certificate of competence or a mariner's certificate as a captain. Alternatively shipyard experience at a responsible position will also be accepted. Nowadays graduates want to see financial reward as quickly as possible so we don't see too many newcomers, which is a shame because there are many job opportunities available."
He continues, "Some people might be worried that they are limiting their options by signing up for such a dedicated route but the marine department isn't the only place you can work with these qualifications. I have many colleagues who work in hotel management, in large engineering companies such as power stations or for insurance companies. The scope of opportunities is very wide."
Mr Lee's advice to those who wish to pursue a career in this industry is very simple, "Study hard and take the opportunity to equip yourself whenever the opportunity arises. If you follow these rules, you'll find it isn't difficult to get ahead in this industry."