Growing up in hardship and adversity helps develop willpower as strong as steel. Even if the road ahead is rugged and challenging, one can still step forward bravely and survive the journey unscathed. This is a portrait of the struggles that VTC alumnus Barry Lee Chi-hong went through. From an apprentice in a local power plant to a Registered Professional Engineer, Barry climbed the hierarchical ladder by pursuing education tirelessly and furthering his studies abroad. He then went on to acquire a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in business administration. Looking back on his experience of juggling with work and study at the same time, Barry showed no misery on his face, only gratitude and contentment. Nowadays, he is the CEO of Associated Engineers Ltd. (or AEL in short), a well-established local engineering company with 60 years of history, while being the vice president of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers (HKIE). Facing the shortage of young talent in the industry, he hopes to attract young people by sharing his first-hand experience, for a better future of the engineering field.
Throughout his prolific career, Barry was involved in many challenging engineering projects, such as Pillar Point Sewage Treatment Plant serving 700,000 Tuen Mun residents, and the Siu A Chau project, Hong Kong’s only low-level radioactive waste storage facility made to last for 100 years. Similarly, his career path as an engineer has also been full of challenges. Curious about machines and their moving parts since little, Barry enrolled in Aberdeen Technical School for secondary education. Upon graduation, he was hired by Hong Kong Electric as an apprentice at Lamma Power Station. Despite the remote location, the job was an eye-opener for Barry. “I had never seen machines that huge as a student. The power plant was 10-plus storeys tall, turning fuel into electricity for people to use. At that moment, I understood the important roles that engineers played in the society.” That was also the moment when he made up his mind to be an engineer in future, taking mechanical engineering as his career for life.
At that time, Barry was only a Form 7 graduate and still had a long way to go before he could become an engineer. So he enrolled in the part-time certificate programme in Mechanical Engineering at Haking Wong Technical Institute (the predecessor of IVE Haking Wong) under VTC. In addition to a full day of class each week, he had evening classes twice a week. On those nights, he would take a ferry from Lamma Island to Tsim Sha Tsui after work and then a bus to the Cheung Sha Wan campus. When he finally got back to his home on Hong Kong Island after class, it was already 11 pm and he would get up at 7 am the next morning for another day of work on Lamma Island. Looking back on those two years of hectic life, he found his own willpower most unforgettable. “Our classes ended at 9:30 pm, but the whole bunch of young people never found it a pain to have a class that late. On the contrary, we were happy to be with like-minded people and work towards a common goal together.” Most of his classmates had to work during the day while taking classes at night.
For Barry, the VTC course was an important stepping stone to becoming an engineer. He longed to be an engineer, but he was not accepted by a university. It’s exactly the VTC course that qualified him for the higher certificate programme at Hong Kong Polytechnic (the predecessor of Hong Kong Polytechnic University), where Barry applied for a top-up degree programme in the UK. That was how he earned his admission ticket to the HKIE membership qualification exam. “Some students may not perform well during their secondary years and they may not be accepted by universities right away. I think VTC programmes provide them with an alternative pathway. As long as they study hard and work their way up gradually, they’d still achieve success one day.”
During the four years he worked at the power plant, Barry saved HK$30,000 to pay for his university education in the UK, but that was barely enough to cover the tuition for half a year; he had to borrow a student loan for overseas study to pay for the tuition in the remaining year and a half. On weekends, he also worked part-time to meet his living expenses. Others may find his life in the UK bitter and miserable, but Barry never thought of himself as the sad broke student who couldn’t make ends meet. Instead, he considered those the happiest days in his life. Apart from broadening his horizon, more importantly, he got the “key”. “Education in the UK was very different from Hong Kong. Teachers were not there to teach you the knowledge, but to teach you how to learn. In the coursework and projects, you’d practise self-learning. In other words, the teachers don’t hand you the treasure, but give you a key that can open any treasure trove of knowledge in the world.” He found himself fitting right in the UK education style and he graduated being the first in class.
After returning to Hong Kong, Barry worked in a large engineering firm for two years. He then returned to his alma mater VTC to teach full-time. At the age of 27, he was the youngest lecturer in the engineering department of Hong Kong Technical College (Tsing Yi), the predecessor of IVE Tsing Yi. When asked why he chose to teach, he replied, “One reason was my hope to inspire students with my own experience. All roads lead to Rome. Don’t get frustrated. Don’t get stuck on the same spot without moving ahead.” His classes were hugely popular. He recalled that the classroom was always full to the brim with 160 attentive students. After class, he was surrounded by students who had all sorts of questions. Some students were inspired by him and studied hard. That moved him a lot.
Barry’s teaching career at VTC lasted for two years before he returned to the previous engineering company again to accumulate practical experience. By 1998, Barry was qualified as a Registered Professional Engineer (or R.P.E. in short) to make his wish come true.
But becoming a registered engineer did not stop him from pursuing further education. He went on to study and earned master’s degrees in environmental management and business administration. Later on, he spent five years on a Doctor of Business Administration degree with the thesis topic of internationalization of engineering companies, which was conferred to him by the City University of Hong Kong in 2016. Barry said, “Technology advances at lightning speed. If you can’t catch up, or for example, if you don’t know what IoT (Internet of Things) or MIC (Modular Integrated Construction) is, you’re totally out of touch with the world. My pursuit of further education is to keep myself abreast of the times and my company can benefit as well.” In 2019, Barry was appointed the CEO of Associated Engineers Ltd., which specializes in mechanical, electrical, environmental, logistic and infrastructure engineering. As always, he didn’t stop moving forward in his new capacity.
He said jokingly that he promised his wife not to pursue education any further after the conferment of his doctorate degree. Though he no longer buried himself in books and papers, he ran for the vice president position of HKIE. “In the past two or three years, young people in Hong Kong felt disoriented. They worried about Hong Kong’s future, career prospect and overseas opportunities among other issues. I hope to get in touch with them, share my experience with them and send them a positive message. That’s the reason why I ran for the vice president position of HKIE in 2019.” Barry said HKIE was the largest professional body representing engineers in Hong Kong, with around 34,000 members. Among them, half of them are Fellow and Corporate members, while the other half are student members and engineering graduates, making it a great platform to communicate with younger people.
Being the vice president of HKIE, Barry hopes to attract new blood to the industry. According to his experience, it is not easy to hire young engineers these days – there is a manpower gap. One key reason was the declining number of students enrolling in engineering programmes. Students with good academic standing have many choices nowadays, and sadly engineering is not always their first choice. Barry lamented how time had changed. In the old days, engineering was among the most popular programmes in universities, but nowadays, students tend to take it as a back-up option, just in case they are not accepted by their first choices. Even engineering graduates are reluctant to join the industry because of the hardship associated with the job or an aversion to working in construction sites. Some parents discourage their children from being engineers as they mistake the profession as being stationed in construction sites always. “HKIE hosts activities in schools regularly to build a positive, professional image for the industry, including STEM workshop and Engineer Cadet Club Programme. Hopefully, that would help change the opinions among parents and teachers.” Meanwhile, he believes traditional engineering programmes should keep abreast of the times and include knowledge on new technologies such as drones and big data. That would enrich the learning content and make the programmes more attractive.
Regarding any advice for young people interested in joining the industry, Barry opined that engineers need to master digital and automation technologies, so as to deal with the risks and opportunities in the face of climate change and the needs for sustainable development. The “Northern Metropolitan Development Strategy” and developing Hong Kong into an international I&T hub as promulgated in the 2021 Policy Address has created strong growth momentum into engineering industry and provided young engineers with excellent development opportunities. He Said, “This is undoubtedly the opportunity of the times, and there will be bright career prospects for engineers.”