Hong Kong's Public Works Laboratories (PWL) are the unseen quality control behind every public construction project in the city. Under the guidance of 13 professional geotechnical engineers, 94 technical grade staff carry out more than half a million specialised tests each year, conducting analysis of soil, rock, concrete, bitumen and steel, as well as setting construction standards and supporting slope safety across the city.
The PWL was born as the Geotechnical Control Office, a government department set up to improve slope safety in the wake of several fatal landslides in the 1970s. Now, while it is recognised as a world leader in landslide risk assessment, its remit is much wider, offering technicians and engineers a rewarding and interesting career.
The 10 major infrastructure projects announced in 2007 are a mother lode for the geotechnical engineering community, with the department estimating that the number of tests run through the PWL will probably double to more than a million by 2016.
"With many big public works projects, the [construction] testing industry will be booming these next few years," says Tony Lau, senior geotechnical engineer with the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD). Indeed, a major recruitment drive will soon be underway to staff an entirely new laboratory in Siu Ho Wan, near Tung Chung in Lantau, dedicated to the construction of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge.
The lab will be a beehive of testing activity, with aggregates, concretes, steel and even bitumen running through the lab 24 hours a day, seven days a week for the estimated four years of construction. Managed by an external consultant, the 50-strong laboratory will employ an estimated four senior site laboratory technicians (SSLTs) and 28 site laboratory technicians (SLTs) when it opens in mid-2012.
The SLT position as offered at the central laboratory, the new facility or at one of the five existing regional testing centres, is an attractive option for fresh graduates, offering a unique stepping stone into the profession. There are only a handful of commercial laboratories in Hong Kong, and none are likely to recruit fresh graduates with no working experience, according to Lau. But entry-level SLTs at PWL require only academic and language qualifications.
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