Overseas jobs for the boys?

For many people, working abroad is a pipe dream – a great idea in principle but one that is seldom seriously considered.

Every year hundreds of engineers opt for an overseas posting with the company they work for. For some, the reason is career development, either recommended for them by their employers, or as part of a personal plan. For others it can be as much about the opportunity to work somewhere new and exciting. But what can you expect when working overseas? What are the benefits? Is it a good career move?

‘We have a policy of trying to offer overseas postings if skills are required or if it can help an employee’s personal development,’ says Anne Minto, human resources director at Smiths Group. ‘But we’re not a major exporter,’ she continues, ‘it’s an expensive exercise that has to be done in a sensible way. Local governments will also want to limit numbers to protect employment in their own countries. However, if we are aiming to bring someone on to a board position for example, we would want to give an international flavour to their experience.’

Are there any downsides? We asked five engineers from different companies about their experiences, why they decided to go and what life was like.

It seems that overall, companies handle relocation of their employees very well. Visas and medical checks if necessary will be arranged for you, and accommodation is either provided, or assistance is given in locating it. You and your family are often able to visit to acclimatise yourselves before moving, and travel back to the UK once or twice a year is covered for all of you as well as schooling for children.

In general, those we spoke to saw their pay increase, though this may reflect the fact that a posting abroad is also a step up the career ladder.

In fact, we only encountered one jarring note. One engineer we interviewed felt that his company had made a great effort to relocate him overseas, but on returning the opposite was the case. He felt there was no particular job for him to go back to and that, in the short term at least, his role was ill defined.

But we can’t say whether this is a general problem. The only other engineer to have returned so far did not encounter this, as he did have a specific job to return to. And overall, the general feeling was that the experience was overwhelmingly positive – as our five stories show.

Singapore

Adam McDonaldAge: 27, single

Job: Field service representative

Company: Rolls-Royce

Time spent abroad: 14 months (June 2000 to present)

Work: In reality, I didn’t get much choice of where I went, but Singapore Airlines are one of our most important customers. It’s definitely a high profile position, but working life is actually not too dissimilar to the UK. In general it’s very technologically advanced and innovative.

We work longer hours which seems to be more accepted here. It’s in the culture to work very hard. The people are very committed, they work for each other. They like to eat here as well though – they enjoy meal times.

Language: The people pretty much all speak English although the official language is Malay. Sometimes you have to use plainer English to explain things but I didn’t have to learn a new language.

Living: It’s not difficult to live here – it’s comfortable. Singapore is very modern, clean and efficient. It’s more expensive, but there’s lots available. The people are very friendly and it’s easy to socialise. In my spare time I go mountain biking and I went on a sailing course. A lot of people go diving. I go on weekend trips into Malaysia with friends which is very inexpensive.

The worst thing is I find it quite claustrophobic. It’s a small island, the traffic is very heavy and it gets very busy. I relieve that feeling by going on weekend trips. They’re terrible drivers here. When I first arrived I said I’d never complain about UK drivers again. The things I miss about the UK are my friends and the weather variation.

Verdict: I plan to go back to the UK – but not because of the job here. I want to take back the experience I’ve accumulated out back. I think more people should go and work internationally, not just for technical reasons, but for the social experience as well. You learn to be more flexible and you’re exposed to people from different cultures which is very beneficial.

Saudi Arabia

Stephen MonneryAge: 36, married, two children

Job: Senior engineer for the In-Kingdom Aircraft Programme, transferring engineering technology to Saudi Arabia.

Company: BAE Systems, Al Eilad, Riyadh

Time spent abroad: July 1997 to present

Work: I was in the RAF for 15 years and I’d had enough. It involved quite a lot of discussion with my wife, Fran. It wasn’t a problem where we went, I just wanted to develop and improve what I was doing with my work. The package was quite lucrative, my wages went up a lot. People are very friendly and co-operative. We had a warm up course when we arrived to get used to the cultural differences.

Language: Nearly everyone speaks excellent English. In fact, the Saudisprefer to conduct business in English so there’s no problem.

Living: We live on a compound for expats. It’s very good – there’s a swimming pool, squash courts, a gym – and the people on it are very friendly. The villa is huge: the lounge is bigger than our house back in Wales. Alcohol and pork are banned, but apart from that there’s nothing you can’t buy. It is quite restrictive – there are no pubs, cinemas or concerts. One thing I like is that the crime rate is extremely low.It’s a big culture shock for women – if you go out in public you have to cover up completely. My wife and daughter didn’t like it much at first but they got used to it.Children go to an international school called the ‘British School’. It pushes them very hard: it would be difficult to get an education like that in a UK school. We’ve all learned to dive and it’s a short flight to the Red Sea so we go several times a year. We also go on regular camping trips to the desert.

Verdict: It’s definitely helped my career. I can’t fault it. In general you have to be open-minded and tolerant. It’s just a different culture and if you accept it how it is you’ll be fine. If you try and fight it you’ll hate it.

US

Keith PerrinAge: 30, single

Job: Product manager Company: EDS PLM Solutions (formerly UGS), Cypress, California

Time spent abroad: February 1997 to present

Work: I got disillusioned with engineering in the UK. It’s badly paid in my opinion and you don’t get much feedback. I wanted a challenge so I decided to work for a CAD company. Here I feel like I’m at the cutting edge. It’s dynamic, things can change overnight and it’s paid well. The culture is quite different. For example, the English are seen as having a reputation for blunt speaking. My boss would say that a particular document needed to be ‘more descriptive’, whereas I would say ‘there’s no information at all!’People like their privacy more here – we’re all in ‘cubes’ in the office and it’s very quiet.

Language: If I mumble, people get upset, they can’t understand me. I have to speak slowly and enunciate more. The first day after I returned from a holiday in the UK, no-one could work out what I was saying.

Living: LA is very multicultural environment – they’re all foreigners anyway so you don’t feel like an outsider. Almost as soon as I was off the plane I was getting invites to Sunday brunch. People are very friendly. In my spare time I go hiking and mountain biking in the mountains. In the winter you can go skiing and snowboarding and the beaches are cool. I also took flying lessons, which would be too expensive back home.

There is a lot less of a drinking culture here – all my good drinking buddies are European. The thing I miss the most about the UK is going to the pub with my mates. The best thing about being here is the variety of things to do. Life is simpler, less crowded and the people are more relaxed.

Verdict: I’m not going to leave here until I get really bored or I get fired. I enjoy the work and it’s helped my career without a doubt. In fact it would be difficult to get a job if I went back, it’s less technologically advanced and I’d have to take a pay cut.

Spain

Richard Heath

Age: 33, married, no children

Job: Sales Manager

Company: GKN, Zamaya

Time spent abroad:

August 1998 – May 2000

Work: Despite the mañana image of the Spanish they are tremendously hard-working people – forward-thinking and aggressive in ambition. They have different styles of business, though: meetings are much more vociferous. The style is confrontational but people don’t take it as personal. In the UK it’s more gentlemanly.

Language: I had basic lessons before I went out, then a tutor for one and a half hours every day for three months. After that time everything was conducted in Spanish. It was frustrating and tiring to start with but it’s a steep learning curve and it’s rewarding as you improve. I was fluent within nine to 12 months.

Living: The work was intensive but the Spanish also take the social life, eating and drinking, fairly seriously. Our apartment backed onto the beach and there were lots of restaurants and tapas bars nearby. GKN even fixed me up at the local golf club. My wife used to go to the gym and have lunch with her friends. We had plenty of friends from work, the golf club and out visiting from the UK so we were never lonely.

The best thing about it was that there was much more of an outdoor lifestyle. The worst thing of all was that it rained in the winter. It wasn’t like the Costa del Sol.

Verdict: I was definitely sorry to leave, it was difficult going back. I miss the lifestyle, and the time in Spain gave me very good experience. I got an awareness of the international market rather than just the UK market. And it was good for promotion prospects, without doubt. A huge help.

China

David Walch

Age: 32, single

Job: Manufacturing improvements engineer, then production manager

Company: John Crane, Tianjin

Time spent abroad: November 1996 – February 1998

Work: China is less advanced, so I had to learn practices that were common in the west 30 years ago. So sometimes at work it was quite challenging trying to explain that western methods are now the way forward – quality systems and ISO for example.

I was given more responsibility than in the UK. I only managed a few people back home, but here I had 60 people and a lot of decision-making.

And the people are wonderful, very interesting. If you ask a question, you often get an answer that is something that you would never have considered. They are also very honest and say what they think rather than what they think you want to hear.

Language: Before I left I had a week’s intensive course in Mandarin. When I arrived I had a tutor several times a week. Out of a plant of 700 people, only seven spoke English. But I quite like those sort of things – using hand sketches to explain. I enjoy the challenge. The language is actually quite simple. It took me three months to be confident and I was working fully in Mandarin after a year.

Living: My spare time mostly revolved around the ‘expat scene’. It’s difficult to localise in China although I used to play badminton and basketball with the locals. I used to join other westerners on day-trips on our bikes exploring the countryside and I went on a lot of trips away to Tibet, the Himalayas, the Great Wall and so on.

There weren’t any downsides. Some of my friends were struggling, but travelling is one of my hobbies. sometimes they were just there for the money because you get a bit extra. They found adjusting very difficult.

Verdict: It was wonderful. Everything was exciting and challenging. I found it fascinating. The opportunities I had there definitely helped my career prospects. I was restructuring and building teams. In the west you are one little piece of the jigsaw; in China they say ‘here’s the jigsaw, change it’. I would definitely go back if I had the chance.