The glamour of being a flight attendant or pilot is regularly showcased on television and in the movies. But few people think about the backbone of the aviation industry.
Yet this sector has recently been given fresh government support. In his budget speech in February, Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah announced a HK$100 million training fund to back initiatives to encourage young people to enter the aviation and maritime transport industry.
One giant employer, the Hong Kong International Airport, is offering more than 60,000 jobs, and is planning further expansion including the building of a third runway by 2023. Currently hiring 10,000 engineers, the Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Company snaps up about 30 local university graduates a year.
The University of Science and Technology is tapping into talent by launching a major degree programme in aerospace engineering, currently only offered as a minor degree, in about two years. "Hong Kong is the Asian aviation hub. China is investing significantly in the aeronautical and aerospace industry. Engineers are the professional backbone to support and sustain the growth of this industry," says the head of its department of mechanical engineering, Professor Matthew Yuen Ming-fai.
He says teachers and students have limited awareness of the vast presence of aircraft-related companies and the significant demand for talent in aircraft manufacturing and maintenance in burgeoning economies, such as India and China. "There is a big blind spot among teachers. They don't know the difference between various types of engineering. We are trying to provide more information about and exposure to the industry to young people through an aviation club set up by our own students. It is open to all, not just mechanical engineering majors."
To heighten students' awareness, his department plans to rename itself the mechanical and aerospace engineering department - as it is commonly called on US campuses. Recruitment will soon get under way for a chair professor in aerospace engineering, backed by a HK$10 million donation from the Swire group. Four more specialists professors in the field will also be hired.
Yuen cites a survey conducted by manufacturer Boeing, which projects a shortage of 600,000 maintenance engineers globally in the next 20 years. There is an urgent need for fresh blood, as the average age of such engineers in the US is high at 56.
"I expect our alumni to look to the whole world for employment. In Hong Kong, we have long-established companies, while China is striving to make more planes on its own under its 12th Five-Year-Plan. The job prospects for this field could be better than that in investment banking," he said.
Some local students are put off by the prospect of hard work as an aircraft engineer, while others are simply not yet familiar with the industry, says Johnny Fung Chi-wing, an HKUST engineering graduate who is now a technical services engineer.
"Some are deterred by the fact that you have to pass various examinations to get professional qualifications in order to get a career advancement."
The practical nature of the job was what drew him to the profession when he graduated in 2004. Back then, there was little information about the profession or related job opportunities. Now, based in Xiamen for cabin reconfigurations and entertainment facilities projects, Fung acts as a mentor to graduates. He and another HKUST alumnus Greg Hui Sungkwai give first-hand information and career advice to various engineering students. "I am interested in parts and components and hope to develop my career in a strong industry," said Hui, who supports the department's pending name change.
More institutions are now offering learning opportunities. Polytechnic University, the only institution running a master's programme in aviation, plans to offer a top-up degree in aviation and aeronautical engineering from next year. Last month, the University of New South Wales' School of Aviation held a workshop to alert local students to course content and job prospects.
Aviation courses may appeal more to local students than maritime studies, now offered mostly at the sub-degree level. In his budget speech, Tsang noted there are 700 shipping-related companies in Hong Kong, offering a wide range of services from shipping management, to legal services - with a large number of job opportunities.
But Victor Fong Wai, a deck cadet on a container ship, knows few would want to go down the same path as him.
He made a rare choice when he signed up for the Higher Diploma in Maritime Studies offered by the Vocational Training Council's Maritime Services Training Institute in 2008, attracted by the course prospectus. "None of my secondary schoolmates went into the same field as me. Many have asked what my job is like, and I told them the wonderful places I have been to.
"[But] young people are unlikely to want to have a life on the sea, away from family and friends most of the year," he adds. "The job suits me because I don't like staying in an office. I also like the feeling of calmness the sea gives me. I am learning a lot, such as how to do things on my own, communicating with people from different cultures and personal discipline."
His experience on the sea is indispensable for climbing up a distinct career ladder that could see him make officer after passing a marine department examination, followed by sea captain and a senior post at a shipping company or the marine department.
Job opportunities aside, ultimately, it is personal interest that matters most when it comes to choosing one's area of study, and job in the future, says Yuen.
"I tell students not to worry too much about pay. I would much prefer teaching a group of interested and motivated students than those who go for the cash."