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Friday, February 28, 2014, 08:47
Engineering cultural change
By Andrea Deng

Engineering cultural change

Engineering cultural change

Yung Kai-leung, a noted industrial engineering academic, says engineering as a whole is not very attractive to young people in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong is determined to carve its niche in the high technology field — though many experts hold that given an existing culture tailored to finance and property development, it will require a change in the culture to create the right environment. Andrea Deng reports.

Hong Kong presses doggedly forward in its dream of hitting the road to high technology and vital new industries and diversifying an economy too long under the control of wealthy property developers’ conglomerates and financiers. Still, there was widespread skepticism among the high-tech community as Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying declared in his January policy address that he was dusting off the old mothballed plan to create an Innovation and Technology Bureau.

The CE’s remarks painted a pastel-colored vision of a bureau that would “upgrade our quality of life and enhance the efficiency of our community”. Equally as important, it would provide wider employment opportunities for our young people.

The perception among the high-technology/IT community is that Hong Kong is not the place to be if high-tech is your game. The grand vision of a high-technology future would demand a change in the cultural ethos of a city where even graduating high school students are mesmerized by the notion that the only future in Hong Kong lies in finance and business management.

Observers told China Daily that the city’s brightest young talents don’t take up engineering as a field of study. Even those who study engineering don’t stay in the field or they go somewhere else to establish their careers.  

“The general perception is that there is not much career development in this field in Hong Kong,” said Horris Tse Wai-kit, an industrial engineer major who graduated from the Chinese University of Hong Kong about eight years ago.

Charlie Zhu Shucheng, a 27-year-old from Guangdong province, earned the chance to study computer engineering at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He graduated in 2009 as an elite student but left Hong Kong to pursue a PhD in electrical engineering at Princeton University.

Zhu told China Daily that most of his classmates — some of the top students from mainland China who worked equally hard to be able to study in Hong Kong — all went to the US for their further education because that’s where the jobs are.

He reckoned that Hong Kong is not the place for technology companies, except those designing software specifically for the financial or banking industry.

“We have a feeling that the technology industry here is serving the financial industry. High tech is just an appendage here,” said Zhu.

“Most importantly, there is just a huge gap in income between working in high-tech industry and in the finance industry. In the US, working in Silicon Valley brings you almost the same income as working in the finance industry in New York. I don’t think that’s possible in Hong Kong,” Zhu added.

Lost opportunities

Yat Siu, founder and CEO of Outblaze, a local digital media products and services company, agreed that Hong Kong has not been the destination for technology graduates.

Siu said that the young people who join his company are those who have made a career choice — putting their drive to develop innovative products ahead of high salaries.

“If it’s about income, or it’s about career advancement, they (young people) don’t come to us. In terms of those looking for a so-called good career with advancement, they go to finance,” said Siu.

Tse recalls, back in the dot com boom around the turn of the millennium, everyone wanted to study information technology. Only the best students got into the university programs, the ones able to score at least two As in their five courses.

He recalls how his peers in his high school years held earnest discussions about advancing technology. Today, most have long since abandoned their high-technology dreams and have taken up careers in, for example, accounting or customer services.

“The economy changed, younger students found that people who were graduating as engineers couldn’t find good jobs. Now, the best students don’t study engineering,” said Tse.

Tse goes on to relate how one of his friends, who earned a Master’s Degree in engineering in Hong Kong, won an award for a research paper on artificial intelligence, then received sponsorship from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. His friend is in the US now.

Wong Ching-ping, dean of the Faculty of Engineering of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that the problem is not that the city does not produce engineers. Five universities in Hong Kong graduate 2,000 to 3,000 engineering students every year.

“But to be frank, I don’t think our students are very well trained, partly because the best students do not choose engineering as their major. I don’t think our engineering students have good motivation, especially compared with those in the US,” Wong told China Daily. Wong migrated from Hong Kong to the US in his teenage years. Today, he is a renowned scholar in electronics engineering, a member of the US National Academy of Engineering and he has recently become an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Diminishing returns

Tse himself worked as a specialist in financial business after graduation, and now runs his own digital marketing business. He recruits programmers to work for him. As an experienced programmer himself, he said today’s young programmers are not as good as those ten years ago and it is very difficult to find a good programmer today.

“I have a friend who is a vice president of an iBank company — in charge of a bunch of programmers. They have trouble finding good programmers. One of the programmers they hired couldn’t solve a bug in two weeks. My friend took three days to solve it,” said Tse.

“I think people in our society tend to be fickle and flock to what’s hot and popular at the time. Very often the industry gets popular again and it becomes too late for the industry to find fresh talents,” Tse commented.

Academics and industry experts who talked to China Daily believe that whether or not Hong Kong is able to produce locally educated talents has no bearing on the city’s ability to attract overseas professionals. Hong Kong, they point out, is still a very international city.

Nonetheless, attracting overseas talents to Hong Kong can be tricky. Some academics — lured by high salaries to work at Hong Kong’s universities — didn’t actually want to come back, because of the city’s worsening pollution problem.

Ibrahim El-Mouelhy, a founding member of Outblaze, said although the technology scene has changed dramatically since 15 years ago when the company was set up, some of the obstacles remain the same.

“It is difficult to operate, it is an incredibly expensive city — cost of rents, living costs. There is a huge amount of obstacles that I feel are not being properly tackled in order to build a technology hub in Hong Kong,” said El-Mouelhy.

“Companies today are in a much more crowded space and facing global competition. It’s tough. So you need solid ideas and solid people, and then you need the money for those people to exist in a city like Hong Kong,” El-Mouelhy added.

Experts in the field say setting up an Innovation and Technology Bureau in the hope of developing new industries is not enough. There is also a need to shift the city’s trance-like fixation away from finance and property development. That requires a change in our “education” and a change in the city’s culture.

Yung Kai-leung, professor and associate head of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said the phenomenon — with young people flocking to the world of finance — is almost universal, with Germany the only exception.

“(Germany) has a very different education system and a very good atmosphere for high-tech development. That’s why it is the most well-off country in the European Union now,” said Yung.

Contact the writer at andrea@chinadailyhk.com

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