Engineer makes flying start
If there's anything that can highlight the creativity, ingenuity and good social skills needed to be an engineer, it can be found on the lower levels of Hong Kong International Airport.
That's where Jardine Engineering Corporation management trainee Cynthia Lam was faced with a challenge: find a way to upgrade the airport's baggage claim system while keeping it in service around the clock.
"You can't stop the airport, so we needed to work with the airport authority to make sure everything worked smoothly," said Lam, who collaborated with a site team of 40 people.
"We needed to find a place inside the baggage hall for the hot works, somewhere that was flat and large. Then we had to revamp the structural building that holds the baggage conveyor. You really have to consider the site area and make an effort to co-operate with others."
It has been a little more than a year and a half since Lam joined JEC's training programme for young engineering graduates. The fact that she is already working on such ambitious projects is a sign that it's a good time to be an engineer in Hong Kong. After jittery investors put development projects on hold in the financial crisis, the construction industry has bounced back like no other.
The number of unemployed workers in the industry has dropped from 12 per cent last year to 6 per cent, according to Dr Chan Fuk-cheung, vice-president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers.
"Over the next year, Hong Kong's economy will be driven by 10 major infrastructure projects," he said. "By the end of next year, there will be a shortage of engineers and some companies are already planning to recruit more engineers to fill in the jobs that will be created. I believe there will be more than 250,000 additional jobs required for these 10 mega-projects."
JEC wants to fill 15 positions and is also always looking for good engineers, according to director of human resources Alice Wong. "There's lots of investment now, so demand for engineers is growing," she said. "We're not just looking for technical ability, but also good attitude, curiosity and the ability to adapt."
The company has run a graduate training programme for more than 20 years, but the most recent version began in 2005 when JEC underwent internal reforms to improve communication between divisions and offices.
Trainees are rotated between projects, giving them a taste of the many different projects that JEC works on.
This multidisciplinary approach also applies to more experienced engineers. Each of JEC's seven offices has its own particular strengths, from wastewater treatment in Hong Kong to electrical engineering in Bangkok, so engineers are sometimes exchanged between offices to work on projects where their skills are needed.
A recent example occurred when JEC was in discussions with Sands about work the casino operator needed doing for a new casino it was building in Singapore.
"They were building an operable wall that can be easily moved or reconfigured, but they were having a problem getting it done," said Wong. "So we worked between our Singapore and Hong Kong offices to find people with various areas of expertise. We ended up building the world's largest operable partition wall for Sands. That's how engineers think - they see a problem and they try to find a solution."
Creative problem-solving is part of everyday life for Dixon Lee, a lift engineer with Otis Hong Kong for 16 years. Starting as an assistant installation manager, he rose to the position of senior field installation manager, where he has overseen the design and installation of lift systems in some of Hong Kong's largest buildings.
Lee credited some of his success to Otis University, a programme that sends Otis employees to Paris, Shanghai and the company's world headquarters in Farmington, Connecticut, for a chance to learn best practices and share ideas.
"Before, I thought it was only my way of thinking that was right," said Lee. "But now I can see the value in other approaches. I was also able to build a very strong network."
Otis University is just one of the advancement opportunities that the company provides for its employees. Otis will sponsor employees who enrol in local associate degree programmes. It also offers in-house training on negotiating skills and short engineering courses and workshops.
This makes it easier for Lee to tackle complicated projects. "We face big challenges every day," he said. "The most important thing as an engineer is to review those challenges and think of how to deal with them."
Lam credited JEC with giving her the chance to work hands-on with projects, such as the airport baggage system, that have a tangibly positive impact.
"When we're finished, people in the airport might not realise just how much we've done," she said. "But if it makes life easier for them, that's enough to make me happy. I chose engineering because I want to create and improve - to make things better."