Training tomorrow's engineers

by Mary Luk

Professor WB Lee, chair professor and head, Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

In order to build a career, modern engineers need a diverse range of skills which go beyond the limits of a single specialist discipline and embrace the latest in IT, management and product technology. Industrial and systems engineers are leading the way

Industrial and systems engineering is a dynamic new discipline for the information age that can help in understanding and solving complex problems which have technical, economic and social implications. Its key operational principles are increasingly used in designing systems and new products, for improving information and logistics flows, planning better deployment of human resources and evaluating business applications and project costs.

The role of an engineer in this discipline is potentially much broader than that of a specialist in traditional engineering fields. That is because, in practice, the "systems" to be designed and implemented can belong to almost any type of organisation from banks and insurance companies to hospitals, government departments or factories.

The working brief is to focus on the "big picture" of what makes organisations perform at their best and find methods of upgrading and enhancing productivity in both the industrial and service sectors.

Professor WB Lee, chair professor and head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), says engineers nowadays need many skills. "They cannot focus on the narrow area of a single discipline, but must act like entrepreneurs and acquire a good foundation of analytical ability, business skills and IT tools," he explains.

In this respect, industrial and systems engineering provides a good platform for students to learn how to design and manage both physical and information systems. The knowledge they acquire can be applied to the production of goods and the management of services over a wide spectrum of industries encompassing manufacturing, logistics, transport, and public utilities. Graduates can go on to develop careers in computer aid design, industrial projects or even as engineers specialising in marketing systems.

Potential demand

In 2002, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries report on "The Changing Face of Hong Kong Manufacturers" estimated about 63,000 companies, comprising 52 percent of all Hong Kong based manufacturers and exporters, were engaged in manufacturing activities in mainland China.

Professor Lee says that, if each of these companies had two vacancies to fill at their Hong Kong headquarters, it could create at least 120,000 jobs, many of which could be for engineers. He notes that there is already a strong demand for such professionals in Hong Kong with many of the jobs based here but requiring regular travel to the mainland.

With the positive step of signing of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), China has effectively reinforced Hong Kong's role as the manufacturing, design and service hub of the region. Therefore, more opportunities than ever are set to open up for industrial and systems engineers who are competent in IT and have management experience.

"I have never come across graduates who have had trouble finding a job," Professor Lee says. "On the contrary, we have difficulties recommending enough graduates to corporations seeking suitable candidates from us." Local tertiary institutions only produce about 200 industrial engineering graduates in total each year, around 40 of which are from PolyU. As a result, Professor Lee stresses, "Unemployment does not exist in this profession."

The average monthly salary for newly recruited engineering graduates is around HK$10,000. About 70 percent of those leaving PolyU prefer to work in Hong Kong for family reasons but an increasing number choose to investigate options on the mainland. Professor Lee points out those who work in China often stand a better chance of promotion because of their broader exposure.

Building bridges

While most mainland engineers are skilled in production techniques, those from Hong Kong can act as a bridge between China and the rest of the world providing services in information technology, design and project management. They must, though, be fully up-to-date in the latest technology trends in order to remain competitive. Fluency in Putonghua is, not surprisingly, now seen as a prerequisite.

A successful engineer must also possess excellent interpersonal skills and leadership ability. "They have to work with systems but dealing with people is just as important. Therefore, our programme helps students to develop their personality, cooperation and communication skills," Professor Lee explains.

PolyU boasts world-class facilities with its digital factory, products mechatronics laboratory, advanced technology research centre and enterprise system centre where undergraduates receive practical training. Final year students are given the opportunity to collaborate with a leading company to work on a specific project which affords them an early insight into the world of business. Graduates are qualified to apply for membership of recognised engineering institutions in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

In addition to the general minimum entrance requirements, school leavers wishing to enter PolyU's three-year Bachelor's degree course in industrial and systems engineering must obtain at least grade E or above in two A-Level science subjects.

Taken from Career Times 23 April 2004
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