THE LONG-HELD belief that Hong Kong is one gigantic construction site that will never be finished has worn a little thin over the past few years, although the echo of the mighty pile-driver never seems far away. Since the heyday of the 1990s, when 10.2 per cent of Hong Kong's workforce was employed directly or indirectly in the construction industry, the figure has dropped to 8.6 per cent, meaning about 40,000 fewer jobs. However, the news is not all gloomy. An upswing in the economy plus a building boom and massive infrastructure projects on the mainland are creating opportunities for people with the necessary skills and right mindsets. 'There is always room for good people in the construction industry,' said Laurie Smith, managing director of consultant engineering company Meinhardt (Hong Kong). Mr Smith said Meinhardt's recent takeover, without any job losses, of civil engineering company Mouchel Parkman Asia would create new job opportunities. Mouchel was established in Hong Kong 31 years ago. Under the new company structure, Meinhardt's Hong Kong office will be responsible for co-ordinating the China activities of 20 offices worldwide, including the company's head office in Australia. Previously, each office tendered bids and organised projects in China independently. 'I expect to see our Hong Kong staff level rise to 1,000 from around 600 over the next few years,' said Mr Smith, adding that this estimate might be too conservative. Under the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (Cepa), the company is applying for design licences and certification to operate with or without being part of a joint venture in China. 'Completion of these arrangements will open up a range of new planning, design and consultancy possibilities and, with them, new employment opportunities,' Mr Smith said. The acquisition of Mouchel would expand the company's scope of services by providing expertise in multidisciplinary consulting engineering, planning, management and technology services, he said. 'Every development project involves a team - architects, financiers, engineers and technical specialists. It is essential that we have consultant engineers who are excellent team players.' Consulting engineers play a crucial role at the start of projects, identifying potential problems before construction begins. They also help clients determine what work needs to be done and which contractors will do it. They monitor the progress of projects and oversee best practices to protect the clients' interests. Mr Smith said the profession's greatest satisfaction lay in conceiving large engineering projects that could last for generations. Requirements for the job, apart from skills, include inventiveness and an ability to make decisions and take the initiative. To encourage people to join the profession, Meinhardt provides scholarships and runs a graduate trainee programme. 'There is a role for people with the most diverse skills and experience in the design office, supervising in the field, or working in marketing or management roles,' Mr Smith said. In addition to people with qualifications and experience in construction, mechanical engineering, design and architecture, the company looks for engineering consultants with degrees in mathematics, computer science, physics and chemistry. Engineering consultancy has undergone a period of dramatic change in recent years. More competition and increased emphasis on best practice has prompted firms such as Meinhardt to rise to the challenge. 'Our view is that we need people to join our company for the long haul,' Mr Smith said. 'We look for people with passion and dedication.' Rather than bids focusing merely on costs, support is growing, including among government departments, for a system that gives more weight to quality factors. 'We need people who are prepared to learn and improve themselves to complement our existing workforce, who are of the highest calibre,' Mr Smith said. Senior Meinhardt managers employ a variety of strategies to ensure they have the star leaders and understudies they need. 'Managers keep a sharp eye out for talent at all levels ... identifying leadership styles that can be nurtured for the future,' Mr Smith said. 'The company is taking a far-sighted view of its employees' career development by rotating them through assignments in different parts of the business. And finally, it is employing programmes that ensure managers can identify people who are a good match for leadership positions.' Staffing matters Meinhardt expects to increase its workforce from 600 to 1,000 over the next few years. The company offers an environment where employees can develop their careers. It employs a variety of strategies to ensure they have star leaders - and the understudies they need. It needs people willing to learn and improve themselves.