The 'Great Recession' is a tough time to be looking for a job - this year will be no cakewalk, particularly for recent graduates. Still, the situation is improving. The unemployment rate, most recently 4.9 per cent, is dropping and recruitment specialists say job prospects have turned around.
'For most new graduates, it is still a bit of a tough year,' says Callan Anderson, general manager for Asia at recruitment firm Gemini Personnel. 'But as long as they do see their job hunt as a full-time job, they can find a job.'
Finance jobs lead the way, Anderson says, followed by logistics and shipping. As of November, Anderson has also seen a pickup in industrial jobs, in manufacturing and engineering. Hiring in middle-management and senior management has been increasing.
The central government and Hong Kong have stressed the importance of infrastructure projects in an effort to stimulate their respective economies, and create jobs that require engineers. Demand for engineers may also rise as the tax year ticks over at the start of April, meaning engineering and construction companies have new budgets.
'I think this year you will see a lot more people moving around, and a lot more new jobs once the financial year goes ahead,' Anderson says. 'Not everyone is going to get a job on the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge or the Guangzhou rail link, but they do create jobs.'
Engineering is also luring people back to school. Professor Ho Siu-lau, chairman of the postgraduate scheme in engineering at Polytechnic University (PolyU), says the number of students entering the scheme has doubled in the past two to three years. 'My guess is that may be they find it is becoming more important to improve their qualifications,' Ho says. 'They may be having problems with their jobs. Or some may have second thoughts and think, 'may be engineering could offer a better chance for me'. It may be popular for people in heavily scientific professions, such as engineering, to look at going back to school.'
Stephen Law, managing partner of the search firm Vision Partners, notes that qualifications are necessary to move up the corporate ladder in engineering, whereas in finance, client connections and hands-on experience are more important.
PolyU has about 80 postgraduate candidates in each of its four engineering programmes - electrical, electronic, mechanical and knowledge-management - up from 30 to 40 before the financial crisis.
City University says the number of applicants to its College of Science and Engineering is up 9 per cent from last year. 'Nowadays, more students believe that studying science and engineering is useful and beneficial for their career development,' says Robert Li Kwok-yiu, associate dean of the college.
The number of mainland students is also increasing, averaging 10 to 15 students in each programme. The mainland's 4 trillion yuan (HK$ 4.55 trillion) economic stimulus has focused on infrastructure projects, creating huge demand for engineers. Mainland students are generally strong academically, but are looking to expand their skills set with a broader field of study than they get at home. 'China is very good at training specialist engineers,' Ho says. 'But they lack all-round engineers who can deal with multiple aspects of a job. That's why some mainland students like to come to Hong Kong.'
Another reason PolyU's engineering postgraduate studies are proving popular is that they combine hard-core engineering courses with softer skills - students can take up to four classes outside their main concentration, out of 10 classes in all. Those classes often help hone their people skills - working in groups, presenting ideas to a team - that are not stressed in engineering classes.
'We try to encourage that - in the traditional sense - engineers deal with computers, numbers and so on, but they do not have great presentation skills. They may have great ideas but not be able to communicate them to their colleagues,' Ho says.
It is popular for students to combine business classes with engineering studies, preparing them for promotion. Hands-on engineers often find a business background useful as they progress into management roles.
'Later on in their career, they need to look at numbers,' Ho says. 'If you want to do an engineering project, you can't ignore the finance.'
There has been a subtle shift in the field of engineering which students are studying. Ho, a professor in electrical engineering, typically prepared people for jobs with power companies such as CLP Power and Hongkong Electric. But thanks to the development of the high-speed rail network on the mainland, and the extension of the MTR in Hong Kong, electrical engineers are often interested in training to enter the railway industry. PolyU offers a new programme in transportation-systems engineering as a result.
In mechanical engineering, students seem attracted to aeronautical engineering and working on aircraft construction, maintenance and repair. A newer innovation which is attracting a lot of interest from engineering students, in electrical and mechanical fields, is the advent of electric vehicles - studying how they are powered, how they perform in automotive tests and how they rate in collision simulations is proving very popular with students.
Academics and headhunters alike agree that the best and brightest in Hong Kong are likely to be attracted to the high salaries of finance. 'If I were a graduate, I would definitely put all my bets on the financial services industry,' Law says. 'The industry has picked up in the past few months, and there was a lot of hiring towards the end of last year.'
Does that really make sense, since the finance industry was largely responsible for the credit crisis? 'People have very short memories,' Law says.