Graduates must broaden horizons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 January, 2008, 12:00am

PolyU professor says students must change their negative views of the mainland if they want Hong Kong to remain competitive

Hong Kong's graduates must broaden their horizons and seize the opportunities that the mainland has to offer if they want to maintain the city's competitive edge.

Charles Surya, who heads the Polytechnic University's Master of Engineering Scheme, said too many graduates were reluctant to cross the border to work, and engineering courses had suffered a temporary dip in popularity as a result.

'Hong Kong is a unique place,' he said. 'People who live here want to stay within Hong Kong. But if you look at the world in general it isn't like that - and I think in the long run, things have to change in Hong Kong.

'It is important for people in Hong Kong to broaden their horizons. The success of Hong Kong is built upon internationalisation - the ability to interact with the world - and Hong Kong has to keep this edge in order to remain successful.'

Professor Surya said Hong Kong graduates were lagging behind international competitors in one crucial respect - mobility.

'People in the US may be born in the mid-west but they go to Massachusetts or California for their college education - then when they work, they work in Texas,' he said.

'Before coming back to Hong Kong in the 1990s, I spent a number of years in Boston. Many of my friends from there are now working in Beijing. They were born in the US but now they work in Beijing. People in Hong Kong have to look at the world - and the world is much bigger than just Hong Kong.'

Even in the mainland people were becoming increasingly mobile, he said.

'We collaborate with universities on the mainland and the professors are from all over China and they are extremely mobile,' the professor explained.

As Hong Kong's economy has boomed in recent years, careers in engineering (which usually involve some time working in the mainland) have become less popular because of the view that lifestyle and salaries are inferior north of the border.

However, many international companies were relocating manufacturing and development work to the mainland and the breadth of opportunity for talented graduates was expanding rapidly, he said.

'In the short run, the popularity of engineering is going down but if you look at the big picture, it has to go back up,' he said.

'If you look at Taiwan, engineering has always been extremely popular because a lot of [engineers] have made names for themselves not only as engineers but eventually as entrepreneurs.

'Another aspect is that a lot of overseas companies have moved their manufacturing operations to China and it will be critical that they have development activity in China as well. Because of this, salaries will continue to go up and working on the mainland will become more and more attractive to people.'

There are already signs that graduates are becoming gradually more comfortable with the idea of working on the mainland.

Professor Surya recalled a programme devised several years ago which gave students work experience with a company in Dongguan.

'Initially, when I talked to students about this possibility they were all very reluctant. They asked: 'What is Dongguan like?' 'Is it very backwards?' 'What is the hygiene like there?'' he said. 'They had never been there before. Dongguan was like another planet to them and they were not comfortable about going.

'When we showed them pictures and took them on a visit to see the living quarters they were quite receptive. I supervised a couple of students and after they finished their final year project and graduated they applied for positions with the company.

'I think the resistance has lowered over the years. In the 1990s, students definitely didn't want to go to China but now they are more open to the idea. Resistance will continue to lower as the difference in salaries and living conditions diminishes.'

Graduates of the Master of Engineering Scheme were given training that put them ahead of their mainland contemporaries by giving them a skill set that extended beyond the technical, Professor Surya said.

'The question asked by the supervisor at the Dongguan company when our graduates applied was: 'Why should I pay you 10 times the amount I would pay to a local graduate?'' he said.

'The answer is that they can be leaders. You can get a lot of technically strong engineers in China but it is very difficult for you to get a leader.

In addition to technical knowledge, graduates of the Polytechnic University programme were given management ability and business sense to enable them to offer more than just technical solutions, Professor Surya said.

'We don't just emphasise technical strength but, rather, we provide initial training for someone to become a leader in the industry,' he said.

'Once they have that initial training, if they need to be further equipped for management, they can pick up a book later, read it and understand it because they already have the background.

'Or if they want to be an entrepreneur they will already have a basic understanding of accounting and management. It makes it easier for them to overcome that initial barrier.'