Structural engineer Math Chan puts on an elaborate display of model cars in his office; his decision to pursue a career as a structural engineer can also be traced back to his passion for building models. “For our final year project at VTC, each group has to make a model for urban planning. I’ve always loved making models. As I witnessed the slabs of polystyrene foam turning into a city, I realised engineering is a profession of teamwork. Watching a project completed from scratch feels like a family working hand in hand to accomplish a fulfilling task,” he said. He then pointed to an organisation chart on his desk and used it as an example. “I enjoy teamwork a lot. Often times, whether a team can cooperate seamlessly can make or break a project. The same project that needs 40 people to work on in one company may just take 20 in another enterprise. It’s all about the efficiency of cooperation among players.”
Good communication generates experience
Every construction project entails collaboration. “When I’m hiring new colleagues to join my team, I look for the right personalities in them. They can’t be shy or introverted. We have to connect with people from all walks of life in a construction site – from landlords and consultants, to subcontractors and workers. Communication skills are of utmost importance to get our work done,” Math explained. He made no qualms about his lack of verbal skills at first. But as he was keen to learn about every aspect of a building project, he took initiatives to talk to different parties trying to get a grip on their jobs. “A construction project involves many disciplines and I was interested in every one of them. That’s why I actively reached out to people and learnt from their experiences. I asked, I observed and I experienced the situations myself because nothing works better than first-hand knowledge. I wanted to know all solutions to a problem, be them clever or stupid.” After graduating from VTC, Math went on to study Occupational Safety at the City University of Hong Kong, not as a shortcut to get in the construction sector, but to equip himself with an extra skill that may come handy. Most jobs are made easier as you garner more experiences with time. Not with construction works though. “Construction projects are always interesting because your experience with the last project may not translate well to the next. When the team has changed and you work with different people, the dynamics and chemistry also change. The challenge always lies in the communication with others.” This is his advice for younger VTC alumni in the industry.
Honing skills repeatedly for success
Math takes a target-oriented approach in career. He strives to discover what he needs or lacks and will find ways to reach his goals. Upon completion of a three-year higher diploma programme in civil engineering, he was hired as an engineering technician by a consultancy firm specialising in water supply and slope safety. Math learnt that the company was willing to invest more resources on colleagues with a Bachelor’s degree and he set it as his next goal. That being said, working overtime was the norm in private enterprises and he found it hard to juggle with both his study and his job. He then chose to find a job in the government because of the relatively regular office hours.
That was 2003 when the economy was yet to recover from the outbreak of SARS. The competition for a civil servant job was extremely keen, with over 400 candidates competing for one opening. But Math successfully nailed it and was employed by Civil Engineering and Development Department as a technician. What was his secret to success? Math said humbly, “I didn’t have any killer trick really. I just insisted. I kept an eye on the openings in the government daily, and I sent in an application whenever I saw one.” He lamented the younger generation of engineers who kept pushing back their chartered membership exam just to avoid failure and frustration. “Many of them say they want to take the exam, but use their lack of experience as an excuse to defer it. Most of them simply don’t want to try for fear of failure. I believe you should at least make an attempt. If you fail, you can always try again. Hone your skills, make progress and come back. That’s how you’ll succeed one day. I say it from my years of working experience and from my job-seeking experience with the government.”
Hard work that pays off handsomely
After conferment of his degree in civil engineering by the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Math gave up the generous remunerations and attractive career prospect of his civil servant job and joined the private sector once again. In fact, a fresh university graduate in the private market then made HK$7,000 or 8,000 less than his counterparts in the government. But still, Math was determined to see the world outside for himself. “I just wanted to try everything,” he said. He got a job in a medium-sized consultancy firm at last, opening up another precious opportunity in his life. “People nicknamed my company ‘the arsenal’. I had to work overtime always. Life was busy but fulfilling then. My employer let me get hands on with all sorts of jobs and attend meetings with various departments. I had no clues about what they say in some of these meetings, but I still insisted in giving my best. That’s how you make knowledge on a steep learning curve. Young people should develop a thick skin and stop being afraid of ridicule. It’s embarrassing to not know the answer to a question. But it should be the driving force that pushes you to find out more when your knowledge and experience are challenged. That would make a lasting impression in your mind and you’ll never forget it. It’s also a great way to accumulate experiences.” Learn from your mistakes, as people always say. “No one can prepare you for every scenario you’d come across before you start to work. The key is to make the first move. Go ahead and give it a try. Don’t hold back for fear of failure.”
Equip yourself to contribute to the industry
Currently an Engineering Manager and Head of the Technical Department at CR Construction Company Limited, Math has to coordinate the work of all engineers and is in charge of technical documents in all tenders, just like running a small-scale consultancy company. Besides his qualification as a registered professional engineer in Hong Kong, he is also a Registered Construction Manager and BEAM Professional, never ceasing to equip himself. Despite his busy professional life, he makes time to give back to the society as he holds numerous public offices such as a co-opted member of the Hong Kong Institute of Construction Managers (HKICM), the Chairman of HKICM Young Members Committee, and a board member of Hong Kong Construction Association Young Members Society.
Lately, Math is dedicated in promoting the HKICM Young Members to construction students, with an aim to strengthen young people's interest in this profession when they are at school, to help them develop their careers as professional Construction Managers. Math encourages students to join the HKICM Young Members and march towards this profession. He is also involved in auditing members’ qualifications, exchanging ideas with peers both local and abroad, and arousing awareness of the sector among young people in secondary schools and various VTC institutes. “Actual experience matters in this industry. You have to get hands on in every task. Just like all other sectors, the future of construction also hinges on artificial intelligence and smart technologies. Thus, young people have much room for career advancement in the sector. At the same time, feel free to join various professional bodies as their members are always kind to each other. Even business owners don’t act superior and are willing to communicate with younger members. You can build your network by attending their activities and learn from others’ experiences.”