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Building on empty

As work on Hong Kong’s major infrastructure projects shifts to a higher gear, demand for skilled engineers outstrips supply

In 2007, the then chief executive, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, set Hong Kong on a path of rapid development with the announcement in his annual policy address of 10 major infrastructure projects. With the aim to stimulate the economy and create jobs, these projects included high-profile ventures such as the Shatin-to-Central Link, the West Kowloon Cultural District, and the Express Rail Link between Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong. Since the announcement, Hong Kong’s engineering sector has struggled to keep up with the demand for qualified engineers and related workers of all stripes.

“For qualified engineers, technicians and skilled labourers, the general human resources situation within the industry is very tight,” says Raymond Chan Kin-sek, president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers. “For many sectors, demand is still going up, and we expect it to peak in around two to three years’ time.”

Chan adds that the government had announced that spending on infrastructure was expected to hit HK$70 billion in 2013 – a figure which is forecast to rise to around HK$100 billion a year over the next few years, before tapering off.

Currently, the workers that are in highest demand are those in civil, structural and geotechnical engineering. To make matters worse, Hong Kong is currently suffering from a drain in talent. For example, building services engineers – many of whom hail from mechanical, electronic or electrical engineering backgrounds – are being lured to work on the mainland and Macau. These are the people responsible for the services within modern buildings such as power, communication lines, lighting, water drainage, plumbing, air-conditioning systems, lifts and escalators.

As high-rise construction continues apace on the mainland, an increasing number of Hong Kong engineers are choosing to pursue opportunities across the border, Chan says.

On the plus side, he notes that Hong Kong’s universities are turning out high-quality engineers on a regular basis – with young people in Hong Kong eager to pursue careers as professional engineers. There is also no shortage of overseas talent.

“The only problem with that is that sometimes, overseas engineers may not be interested in moving to Hong Kong if the job tenure is very short. This is because they would have to uproot their families and deal with finding a suitable place to live in Hong Kong’s tight housing market,” he says.

Looking ahead, Chan says he expects construction-related engineering to continue to dominate the industry. And while Hong Kong has little to no heavy or light industry, corporations headquartered here typically manage factories across the border – which means that there will be a constant demand for engineers of all kinds at the managerial level.

One promising non-construction-related sector, he says, is biomedical engineering. This combines engineering with medical services and results in applications such as biocompatible prostheses, micro-implants, medical appliances and equipment, and enhanced pharmaceuticals.

In construction-related engineering, Chan adds that demand will shift among the different disciplines as infrastructure projects mature. Electrical and mechanical engineers will move into the fore as the structural elements of projects are completed. Demand may also move from public-sector infrastructure projects to the private sector – where the residential property sector has historically dominated building-related engineering in Hong Kong. Chan says that with the rising demand for housing in the city, additional housing projects will come online once appropriate public infrastructure has been put in place.

Marc Burrage, regional director of recruitment firm Hays, says that while there has been a constant demand for engineers from both the construction and industrial sectors, the scale of continuing civil infrastructure – particularly the railway developments in Hong Kong – means that civil and tunneling engineers are currently highly sought-after.

Project managers, he adds, are also in high demand, particularly within the project-planning space, where experts monitor projects to make sure things stay on track. The shortage here is especially acute because the skill set that planning engineers require is not taught academically at local universities. Practitioners have to acquire the relevant skills predominantly through on-the-job experience.

Across the industry, Burrage says that the shortage of qualified personnel means that companies are forced to offer higher pay to attract talent. In some rare cases, those who are willing to switch to a competitor can see a significant pay rise if their skills happen to be the ones in demand. For people who stay with their existing companies, they are likely to see a standard or moderate incremental pay increase on average.

In addition to shortages of technical skills, Burrage says that there has also been an increase in demand for business-development experts, such as sales engineers. There is also a continuing demand for product-design and manufacturing engineers from multinational product-development companies that are based in Hong Kong but which have manufacturing facilities on the mainland.

Meanwhile, it is business as usual in Hong Kong’s technology sector, with demand for talent expected to remain steady well into 2014.

Companies continue to view Asia as a growth market, and will need to expand their information technology (IT) services to support operational growth. “In the IT and telecommunications sectors, there’s definitely demand for network engineers, especially those with in-depth knowledge of security or voice,” says Mark Enticott, Hong Kong managing director for recruitment firm Ambition.

He adds that the continuing rise in the popularity of cloud computing has led to an increase in demand from IT companies for technical consultants and solution architects with strong client-facing experience.

There will also be continued demand for junior to mid-level programmers, business analysts and project managers. Retail businesses, meanwhile, are performing well and continue to expand, which has boosted budgets for system enhancements, upgrades and migration. Publishing and airline companies are updating their web applications, which is also driving this demand.

In banking, including the IT sections, Enticott notes some hiring activity taking place, but it has been focused on replacement hires. Banks are also focusing on cost and, as a result, are shifting hiring towards contract roles – a situation which is expected to continue next year.

In terms of pay, he says that across the banking sector, salary increments are expected to be in line with the rest of the market, at between 3 to 7 per cent. Those moving jobs may expect a pay jump from anywhere between 10 and 20 per cent, depending on the role and the skill set. “We expect the market in 2014 would be similar to this year,” he says. “There would probably be a slight uplift in terms of growth, assuming nothing drastic changes in the world economy.”