As Asia's tiger economies roar back to life at a rate that is surprising even economists (NCE 18 November 1999) it is becoming clear that the region's burgeoning construction market is a very different one to that which existed before the economic downturn of the mid-1990s.
The globalisation of consulting and contracting means that nationally owned subsidiaries and joint venture companies are springing up throughout South East Asia and organisations are relying increasingly on home grown engineers. In the impending boom, many are predicting work levels to match the 'glory days' of the early 1990s. But opportunities for expatriate engineers are likely to remain limited, especially at a junior level.
British civil engineers can no longer expect to secure a lucrative 'tour of duty' in Hong Kong within a year or two of graduating. Stringent regulations apply to the employment of what are now expatriate engineers.
'In Hong Kong the local graduate population is very highly skilled,' says Chris Thomas, business development manager of secant piling and diaphragm wall contractor Bachy Soletanche's UK arm. The company's Hong Kong subsidiary, which has recently secured work on the West Rail project, tends to use local labour and junior staff, says Thomas, 'the only expatriates we'll employ will be at a senior management level, and they will need a degree of appropriate experience.'
Like many larger contractors, Costain has reduced its expatriate staff in the region in recent years, and although it is poised to take on 'some significant contracts' in Hong Kong, it is likely that any expatriate vacancies will be for senior staff only, says a spokesman.
Julian Armitage, international personnel manager at Kier, which has operated in the Far East for some 40 years, says an unchartered engineer is difficult to place. 'This is a great pity,' he adds, 'as the experience is good for young engineers wanting to cut their teeth.'
Specialist piling contractor Keller Group, which also boasts a long established presence in the region, admits to employing nationals rather than expatriate engineers where possible. 'We have Brits working in the Far East, but nationals are cheaper,' says sales director Martyn Singleton. 'The days of carpet bagging engineers are more or less over,' he adds, 'and even consultants are employing locally.'
And for those lucky enough to secure work in South East Asia or the Far East, the financial packages on offer are nowhere near the 'big bucks' of 10 years ago, says Edward Twait of BBT Overseas, the international arm of recruitment consultant Beresford Blake Thomas. 'If you add in the whole package - the benefits and, in some cases, the tax-free status - then it's generally better than what's on offer in the UK,' he says, 'but these days people are swayed by the experience and challenge of working in the region rather than the money.'
Twait also recognises that the best placed engineers for securing work in Asia are those who are chartered and/or have relevant experience. 'China's a huge market for potential growth over the next couple of years,' he predicts, 'and engineers with local knowledge and maybe language skills will have an edge over other applicants.'