In December 1986, I graduated from the University Of Nebraska-Lincoln with a degree in Construction Management. Along with many of my classmates, I was concerned primarily with finding a job...any job...that I could obtain with my newly obtained degree. After six months of searching, I found a job in the Washington, DC area. We concentrated on the larger government construction jobs in the 15-200 million-dollar range. I switched off and on from estimating to on-site project management. In my four year career with the first employer, I was assigned engineering jobs on a hospital and a prison in rural Virginia and Pennsylvania and returned to the home office in suburban Virginia between field assignments.
In 1991, I landed a job with a KC engineering company on a 1.2 billion-dollar power plant again in rural Virginia. It was my task to approve the contractor's monthly pay request...six-hundred computer generated pages in and out the door with the Contractor, Engineer, and Owner approval signatures in less than ten days. On this project, I honed my computer skills gaining the infamous geek status. Unlike the previous job, I only had to work a four day, forty-hour work week. This left plenty of time to travel up and down the east coast...and travel I did. Here, I also gained a wanderlust for travel and an inkling for international travel.
Due to cutbacks, I was laid off after three and a half years. It didn't take long for me to find a job with my current employer who placed an ad in a Virginia Beach newspaper. I faxed them a copy of my resume and a letter of interest along with a dozen other ads that I responded to. The following Monday, my answering was flooded with messages...for me...four messages is a flood. Two of those messages were from the recruiting manager of my former company... "Would I be interested in going to Turkey?" Frankly, turkey was meat generally consumed on Thanksgiving. I didn't care. I was drooling over the phone. Three weeks later, I was on a plane from Atlanta to Frankfurt, Germany thinking that this was the dumbest thing I'd ever done. In every foreign job, the employer guarantees you a return trip home. I had an open end ticket and was really tempted to use that other ticket to head back home. Seven months later, I thought that it was the most wonderful experience I'd ever had.
My first assignment was in Ankara Turkey in 1994. We had a satellite office there servicing four job sites in Almaty Kazakstan, Baku Azerbaijan, Tblisi Georgia, and Yerevan Armenia. Each project was a fast track design-build renovation of an existing building in four of the former Soviet states. We were breaking new ground as the US had never built an Embassy in any of these countries.
Embassy renovations generally entail security, mechanical, and electrical upgrades. This project also had seismic renovations as well. At the time, I had one semester of education in electrical and mechanical engineering with experience in none of three. Not long after the ink was dry on my security clearance, I was assigned to lead a team of US expatriates and Turkish engineers in determining if all of the projects had enough materials to complete the project. I related my lack of experience to my supervisor. His reply 'what a great time to learn'. My crash course in mechanical and electrical studies began. My first project had three different types of cooling and three different types of heat. I spent five months in Turkey and a month in Georgia and a month in Armenia.
We ran out of funding in December 1994 so the project hit a screeching halt but by that time, the bug that bites those addicts of international construction, had a firm bite on me. I was hooked. There's just an undescribable addiction to international work that I couldn't shake. Unfortunately, the company didn't have any work after this project for me. As coincidence would have it, I had another offer from an Omaha design firm to be a project manager in Kodiak Alaska. I don't do much hunting or fishing and Alaska didn't really inspire me all that much but I'd been in contact with this company for six years and found I really wanted to work for the boss. Besides, Alaska sounded just weird enough after Turkey and the former Soviet Union.
The reality of Alaska set in during my flight to Anchorage from Seattle. Prior to departure, the pilot announced that it was seven degrees in Anchorage...a vast change from two days before when I had been walking the beaches of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina...in eighty degree ambient temperatures. We landed and the pilot said it was now three degrees. What happened to those four important degrees? Was this going to be another one of those dumb things I do? Thankfully, Kodiak weather doesn't get much below freezing in the winter or above 80 in the summer. It was 40 in Kodiak. I guess Kodiak grew on me. I'd like to have a summer home there...some day.
My first ever assignment as project manager was for the Borough of Kodiak, Alaska. I represented the owner on a small school project. I had a contractor who had just got of a project with the same architect (not my employer) who designed my school. Neither liked each other and the owner was concerned but not enough to become involved. They hired me because they didn't want to deal with the hassle. Fine, as long as I know the ground rules, I can play the game. After completing the school, I moved on to another project in Kodiak, a fast-track design build hospital. Like the school, the owner didn't like devoting his time to the daily activities needed for a successful project.
After two years 'on the rock' (a local expression for living on Kodiak Island) and not having shed the bug for international construction, I accepted another offer from the company I worked for in Turkey to work on another fast track design-build project. This time, we built an airplane cargo terminal in Yerevan Armenia. I wasn't too wild about returning to Yerevan but it was an opportunity to return to foreign soil. Here, I was the project engineer doing the engineering, scheduling, and AutoCAD drafting.
In March 1998, I returned from sixteen months in Armenia for a month of vacation at home followed by five months in our home office in Birmingham Alabama. After eight and a half years of field assignments out of a ten year career, two in Alaska and two on foreign soil, this was the strangest experience I'd had.
My next assignment began in October 1998 and ended in March 1999. We were joint venture partners in another fast track design-build renovation of an eight-villa compound into a temporary office for the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam Tanzania. To refresh your memory, the US Embassy in Tanzania was bombed by terrorists. Plans are in the works for a new site but the Embassy needs a temporary location to work out of until the new facility is built.
I've had one assignment was one most folks would die for...a temporary assignment in...Jamaica. Well, how did I rate an assignment in Jamaica? I'm just lucky. The boss didn't want me to get comfortable here but it was a lost cause...I loved it down there. I estimated the vast amount of changes on another fast-track, design-build Ritz Carlton Hotel. Estimating isn't truly my first love of construction. I guess killing time in the West Indies wasn't all that bad. I spent my weekends (read Sunday) scuba diving and at the beach.
Both China and Tanzania projects were in the media light for different reasons. China, because I was there during the P3 'spy plane' incident. No, other the camera crews being camped out on the street across from the Embassy, you wouldn't have known anything was going on. Tanzania because it was an international terrorism incident.
After that...Tunis, Tunisia...working on lots of legal and financial stuff on a new Embassy we built there.
To the opposite end of paradise, I moved to Freetown, Sierra Leone after a year...can't take paradise too long. You truly have to love the work to come to Sierra Leone. Fortunately, my employer offered me plenty of money to enhance the relationship. They call me project engineer/quality control.
I reluctantly call myself an "engineer". I picture an engineer as someone who designs something. I don't design anything. I resolve problems...make things work. Most folks can only relate to a title of engineer so I get the title by default...I like the problem solving side. That's engineering. I often call myself a glorified librarian. I let others do the work after I give them the information.
The biggest difference in domestic versus international construction is the importance of transportation. Upon mobilization, we scour the local markets to determine what materials can be procured locally and which materials need to be imported. As a rule, materials from the US are cheaper but by the time transportation costs are figured in, locally procured materials are cheaper. If you add up to eight weeks of time for shipping onto the time it takes to design a project, you can quickly consume the contract duration. Amazingly enough, the same rules apply to construction in Alaska as well.
In high school, I took a year of French. In the many international projects I've been involved with, I haven't been able to apply a single word. Tunisia has a strong French influence and I could tell the taxi drivers where to go but couldn't use it professionally. I never learned Turkish, Armenian, Russian, Chinese, or Swahili nor have I really needed it. Most international college students are required to learn, and are sometimes taught, in English.
Basic, simple communication is absolutely maddening. Trying to communicate complex construction terms in simple English is by far the biggest challenge of my job. It's one thing to be able to speak in English and another to be able to translate into another language in terms that a tradesman can understand. Generally, each project has one to three people in every fifty that can do the toughest of the translations...the technical ones. Even after explaining something three or four different ways, I go back and inspect the results to check on the comprehension. A great deal of patience and a good sense of humor are two of the best tools you can have on an international project.
Our Armenian project had a specification for translating the construction drawings from English to Armenian. With only 18 million people on this earth that speak Armenian, trying to find a company that makes Armenian AutoCAD fonts was a big enough challenge. At the time, I didn't know a thing about AutoCAD. I took four years of drafting in high school and a year in college but had no experience in computer drafting. My first draftsman had exceptional abilities in translation from English to Armenian. He usurped by Ford to work in their plant in Ypsilanti Michigan so I had to find a new draftsman...or rather...draftsperson. My new hire was the wife of one of my engineers. Like her husband, her English wasn't too polished but simple communication was possible. At her first point of misunderstanding, she'd dash down the hall to find someone to translate for her. I could make her understand if and only if she gave me 100 percent of her attention. We went round and round on this but out of this frustration, I forced myself to learn AutoCAD.
Most of the projects we do are for the US government while a few are for local governments. There is a hierarchy of nations in the eyes of the foreigner and the US is at the top as far as quality is concerned. There is a certain prestige in having US materials and labor. Generally, quality and cost competitiveness are the two factors that favor the US over other modern countries. Local contractors are more cost competitive but can't come close in quality. According to estimates, the Armenians could have done their airplane cargo facility for a fourth of our proposed cost. Their normal contractor was so upset at not being allowed to even bid the job that he blockaded the project one day and on another, he held military drills on our job site...complete with machine guns containing live rounds.
Local labor is quite cheap by American standards. The highest wage we pay to local labor ranges from fifty cents to a dollar an hour. While the work output of an American compared to a local laborer favor the American by about 5:1, the low cost of local labor provides a lower unit cost leaving the American to supervise the work, not to do the work.
Foreign machine rental costs are the same, if not higher, than those of the US. It costs three to four times as much for a gallon of gas at a foreign gas pump than in the US. The emphasis is less machine hours and more work done by hand. We batch the concrete on site, loading the gasoline-powered mixers by hand. It's far cheaper than redi-mix. Digging holes and trenches are also by hand.
The foreign worker resists any concept of safety. On my first construction job working for my father's company as a laborer, the superintendent constantly reminded us that if we wore tennis shoes to work, we could go home for the day...unpaid. Here, you hope they have tennis shoes. I've seen patent leather, flops, and even...bare feet. You can't convince these people that they will be the ones that will pay if they have an accident. Hard hats, eye protection, dust masks...same story. They resist them.
The ingenuity of the local worker fascinates me. In some ways, we Americans have a lot to learn and in others...well, let's just say that we have nothing to worry about. Their ability to work as a team really impresses me. Generally poor, these folks would give you the shirt off their back. It's a great honor for an Armenian to take the boss into the home and dine with him...and a great way for Americans to get cirrhosis of the liver.
The Tanzanian laborer refuses to use factory-made hammers. Instead, they use a hammer made from rebar. They use a metal dish, similar to a hubcap, as a concrete scoop. We give them modular scaffolding. They use a single plank without cross bracing, toe boards, or hand rails. In Armenia, we needed nails for form work. One of our local laborers spent all day in his back yard cutting nails out of wire and honing the tips. We had one person whose job it was to straighten out the used nails for reuse.
The one given in international construction is that the designer is always American and has no clue as to local material availability. Most of the materials have to be brought in from other countries…generally the US. Since you can't get the materials here, generally, you have to train the workers in how to install them correctly. Common materials used in the US but not overseas: plywood, concrete blocks with hollow cells (they use solid blocks), insulation, and gypsum board (drywall). Even if you're lucky to get these materials (generally a friend of a friend type arrangement), they can't meet up to US standards (or prove they do) or don't have sufficient quantities on hand.
For those who never knew it, a 2x4 stud is not sold as 2x4 inches. It starts out that way but is surfaced to about 1.5x3.5 inches. Here, what you ask for is what you get. It's rough sawn and sold as is...in the exact dimensions you asked for but beware of the splinters. The big difference between US and third world construction is that most of the US materials are prefabricated and much more precise than third world construction items which are loosely fabricated in the field. In third world construction, utilities are commonly built after the shell goes up and remain exposed. It's a constant battle to get the local worker to adhere to the precision involved in US construction.
The US government requires plans to be in metric. US vendors have a ‘soft metric’ system. Metric components are to the nearest ten millimeters, liters, kilograms, etc. US components are generally to the nearest eighth inch, gallon, pound, etc. Chances are high that the US furnished components do not go to the metric standards…US vendors use components that are approximately the same size but nowhere near exact. I realize that the US considers it to be world leader but if products are developed that can only be used in the US, what good is it to the rest of the world? In sympathy, to retool every manufacturing component across the US would be a fortune but to send US tools overseas to work on a US car overseas can reach an extreme level.
One of the biggest tasks in any type of construction is getting materials to site. If a superintendent asks for a load of drywall, you call your supplier and you'll have it within a week. In international construction, as an engineer, your next question is: "How much drywall mud, screws, tape, sandpaper, drill tips, etc., do you want? OK, you'll get that order in 2-3 months.
The general consensus among supervisors is that women are by far, the best laborers. Both male and female require some training with the women needing more. Trouble is, the men are too stubborn to ask for help when problems arise. They just keep doing what they were doing...even if it's wrong. The women, stop and ask questions. Unfortunately, in many countries, men do not respect that status of women and often, refuse to work with them. Social norms, in foreign countries, are not up to par with those in the US.
OK, many of you are begging the question...how's the money? Well, it's not too bad. If you think about it in hourly terms, foreign work will not compare to domestic work. Generally, I work anywhere from 60-80 hours a week. Holidays? On one job, in 97, we took off New Years day and the fourth of July and the following New Years day and no Sundays from Easter to the end of the project in the spring of 98. Many of my predecessors invested their money well and were financially able to retire at a very early age.
Realistically, you can't be in it just for the money. The long hours are a grind and you miss out on a lot of things like family events, traditions... If you're in it for the money, stay home. You can earn more, work less, and have a family. It's a long lonely existence with the hours spent either at work or alone reading or watching TV at home. The distance has been a folly in many marriages where one person is working in a foreign country and the other is stateside. Stress is a big part of international work. On one job, just about every expatriate on the job complained that they couldn't stay awake past 9:00 pm but couldn't sleep past 3:00 am.
I'm single by choice but don't intend to stay that way forever. I can't envision being in some far away country while my family is at home. Many expatriates do it that way but it won't work for me. Still, I wouldn't trade this experience for anything else. The cultural and professional experiences are unique and varied...something I can share with my children and grandchildren...memories of a lifetime. My first international vacation...Paris and London. I've been to thirteen different countries in four years...many have been all expenses paid. How many people can say they've been paid to do that?
My company, on the employment section for international recruitment, notes that a commitment of two to three years per project is required. It's complete dedication to the project...it's your life! As a child, I lived in a construction family with my father living the life. Family life often came second. It took a long time to understand the situation but now I have the same mentality. Do you work to live or live to work? I'd like to say that I follow the former but my little voice inside of me says it's the latter.
Married status and family status jobs are the hardest to come by, especially in construction. You could work many years before you get married/family status. Bear in mind that we're in a global economy and the competition for a postion may not be in your company but someone who's in another country who speaks English as a second language.
Years ago, a friend asked why I subjected myself to the rigors of working overseas...why didn't I just take the easy path working in the US? If I walk into McDonald's anywhere in the US and ask for a Big Mac without the pickles, as soon as the kid figures out how to punch it in the register, eventually, I'll get a Big Mac without the pickles. Try that in Beijing, China and you don't know what you'll get. I live for that mystery.
Look at the flags at the top of the web page. I've either worked or visited those countries. Look at my resume. I try to go where I haven't been before.
If you want to get into foreign work, I'd suggest you check out the Engineering News Record for companies that do international work and then send them your resume. Be versatile in construction...estimating, engineering, accounting, management ...especially with computers...often your only link to home. Unfortunately, the need for international help is sporadic. If the need arises, you need to be available in short notice...generally two weeks or less. Search the web for international jobs. Linked-In is a good place to start. For the recent graduates, get some experience. There is no time for training in the field while working internationally. My company keeps the recent grads in the office for seasoning...at really depressing wages. Lastly, get a passport.
If you get an offer to go work overeas, I would suggest you this out before you decide to accept your offer.