Career Advice Expert Advice

Blasting ahead

The June 1972 Kotewall Road landslide delivered a wake-up call to Hong Kong’s engineering sector. The disaster, originating from a Mid-levels redevelopment site on Conduit Road 270 metres above, killed 67 people, injured 20 and completely destroyed two buildings.

It also prompted the development of world-class geotechnical engineering and slope management in the city, which has since garnered much international recognition.

Landslides still occur, however, and engineers have to advise on whether people in the area affected have to evacuate or not. Those who respond to emergencies might have to climb the landslide scar in bad weather or in the middle of the night.

About eight graduates from disciplines such as civil engineering, geology, earth science and applied earth science get the chance every year to be trained by the Geotechnical Engineering Office (GEO) of the Civil Engineering and Development Department. Over three years they become responsible for slopes, tunnels, foundations, excavations, landfills, geohazards and, ultimately, human life.

“The job can be tough and is both physically and intellectually demanding,” says Ken Ho, GEO deputy head of planning and standards. “We are looking for people who are robust and resilient, with high EQ and a strong sense of responsibility. They should be good at on-the-spot decision-making and have good judgment, the guts to take calculated risks and good communication skills. We get more than 150 applications a year and only choose the very best.”

Applicants should be passionate, proactive and have a desire for life-long learning. They should also strive for excellence and be focused on serving the public.

After a screening process based on academic results, there is a written exam and an interview that tests language skills (English and Chinese) and technical knowledge.

“We try to stretch applicants to test their technical ability, insight, common sense, presentation, manners, passion and motivation,” Ho says.

Carrie Cheung, assistant geotechnical engineer for the GEO’s Island Division, has just finished her three-year structured training with the GEO. She advises applicants not to look at the interview as an oral exam of theories. “Think logically and with an engineering mindset. Show enthusiasm and maturity and be confident, but at the same time humble,” she says.

The three-year training programme starts with foundation training followed by one year of design-office training, one year of construction-site training and six months’ exposure to greater technical responsibility.

“We second them to other government departments and private companies to work on major infrastructure projects,” Ho says. “We give them choices. Our scheme gives all-round and multi-dimensional training. It is pretty unique – we can offer them things that others cannot.”

Cheung says her training saw her work with the MTR Corporation, where she got experience in areas such as foundations, shafts, drilling and blast tunnelling. Training at a private consultancy firm also gave her an insight into the geotechnically challenging Mid-levels area, where development space is relatively small and gets heavily congested with workers and equipment.

She was thrilled by every new experience. “There were so many ‘first times’ – to climb up a landslide scar, to stand in front of a tunnel-boring machine cutter-head, to go 100 metres underground for blasting operations. But the greatest job satisfaction comes from seeing a completed project,” she says.

Trainees are given a workbook to take daily notes, which are then read by their coach, who conducts their day-to-day training. They also submit monthly reports that are overseen and evaluated by their training tutor, who is a senior engineer. Finally, formal quarterly interviews and midterm interviews are conducted by their engineering supervisor, who is a chief engineer or deputy department head.

“In addition to regular interviews, supervisors visit us onsite and we present what we have done and learned,” Cheung says.

The first thing trainees need to learn is time management. Beyond the gruelling training schedule, they are also encouraged to do additional private studies and to get involved in institutional activities, community service and social functions.

There is no guarantee that they can take up full-time employment after completing training. Job positions are filled via open-recruitment exercises and trainees have to compete with other applicants who may have more experience. Most, however, are successful in staying on.

“For risk management and disaster mitigation, even the best trainees may not be good enough,” Ho says. “We need to bear in mind the uncertainties we face. We need people with sound judgment, solid experience and who strive for technical excellence and continuous improvement.”