Proximity to the mainland's manufacturing sector boosts Hong Kong's quality-assurance operators
When the story broke about dairy products being contaminated with melamine, it raised a global red alert on food products exported from the mainland.
Excessive amounts of melamine in the body can lead to kidney stones, bladder cancer or damage the reproductive system.
The melamine scandal led to strong demand for the services of testing laboratories which are dedicated to ensuring food and consumer products safety.
Testing services have been highly developed in Hong Kong for about three decades, with most industry players experiencing double-digit growth in the past 10 years.
This was partly thanks to Hong Kong's key location, cheek by jowl with the huge manufacturing sector in southern China, said Yonnie Yiu, general manager of SGS Hong Kong, a third-party testing, inspection, verification and certification company.
The industry handles burgeoning import requirements from the European Union and the United States. 'Manufacturing, trading, sourcing and export sectors are counting on those world-recognised, third-party quality-assurance companies to provide holistic and professional solutions for the maximum protection of their brand reputation and product quality,' Ms Yiu said.
Opportunities are found in export industries and in local industries such as food manufacturing and the hospitality sector.
'For example, melamine testing was most inquired about for the past two months,' she said.
Hong Kong practitioners face challenges in the shape of mainland competition.
As companies over the border are fast learners, Hong Kong-based businesses have to keep up to date on a daily basis in order to develop faster and more efficiently than their competitors.
'The management skill of the laboratories' leaders and professionals in Hong Kong is another merit,' said Frederick Pang, manager of the project division at CMA Industrial Development Foundation, a leading independent quality-assurance organisation.
'With proper management, Hong Kong laboratories adapt to changes more easily and are more active in developing new services to suit the market.'
The industry is also being affected by consumers' increasing awareness of safety issues, particularly relating to toys and food.
Customers are willing to pay more for an assurance of quality so that the products they purchase will not harm their family members.
Testing standards are therefore constantly being developed and improved.
'Operators need high-level sensitivity, vigilance and open-mindedness to keep abreast of the changing business environment, let alone rapidly changing regulations and standard practices,' Ms Yiu said.
However, as quality was a significant staple in human lives, the industry was by nature comparatively stable and growing steadily year on year, she said.
'We will only see the governments, public and business put more focus on this issue. This presents an unrivalled momentum for our expansion.'
Hong Kong has some 150 accredited testing specialists, which means it can readily accommodate client needs.
While some laboratories are specialised - in construction, for example - most have a broader remit and focus on import or export products.
Although the financial crisis had slowed down consumer spending and had an indirect impact on the industry, the outlook remained positive, Mr Pang said.
'Testing demands are dependent on products and buyer needs, rather than total volume or revenue, so we are only affected indirectly by crises,' he said. The industry is also likely to experience tightened statutory regulations and heightened concerns about product safety and quality, increasing demand for its services.
Regulatory requirements are not only tightening in Hong Kong but are expected to do so in the European Union and United States markets, largely focusing on the need for environmental protection.
This naturally favours the development of testing services in Hong Kong.
'The best way to prove product safety is testing,' Mr Pang said.
Lifestyle-minded consumers are also likely to continue to look for high-quality products.
'Even in the time of an economic slump, people still tend to be mindful of how to complement their precarious lives,' Ms Yiu said.
'Companies cannot afford to put their brand reputation at stake. Also, as part of their social responsibility initiatives, they are stepping up product safety measures in a bid to brush up their brands.'
Given this healthy prognosis, employment opportunities are strong in this field.
Much effort is being placed on attracting and retaining the right talent in order to meet many industry players' expansion needs.
Major industry players are therefore eager to recruit the creme de la creme from local universities and other sources while aiming to employ the most experienced technicians and managers they need to stay competitive.
In addition to laboratory staff and people skilled in the audit field, testing operators require specialists in business development and client services.
'Our laboratory is quite specialised in consumer products. We do not have much talent in some of these areas in Hong Kong, so we have to recruit from other countries,' Mr Pang said.
'Every player is trying to recruit the best people in the pool.'
industry focusLaboratory testing
Research and development consultant
Quality system assessor
Key account manager
Consumer testing services focus on everyday consumer products such as toys, hard goods, clothing, footwear, electrical appliances and food.
Systems and service certification focuses on third-party audits of management systems and operational procedures such as ISO 9001, QualiCert and Six Sigma standards.
Corporate social responsibility solutions focus on companies' compliance with social accountability such as code of conduct, human rights and ethical requirements.
Restricted substance testing services focus on the regulation of restricted or hazardous substances - normally banned or limited by regulatory bodies - being used for consumer products.
HOKLAS is the accreditation scheme operated by the Hong Kong Accreditation Service for any Hong Kong laboratory that performs objective testing and calibration.