If the prospect of another year of reduced growth and disappearing opportunities is draining your New Year motivation, then your thoughts might be turning to relocating abroad. And if so, you’ll be in good company: the closing quarter of 2010 was marked by announcements from several major UK contractors and consultants that they would be primarily seeking growth overseas in 2011, a trend confirmed in the KPMG 2010 Global Construction Survey.
Clearly, with many economies still suffering from the slowdown, there isn’t exactly a bonanza of opportunities. Dubai’s open doors have been slammed shut, while markets tipped as possible replacements — including Libya and sub-Saharan Africa — have proved slow to deliver. At the same time, UK professionals looking at many established ex-pat destinations, such as the Far East, will face far more competition from well-qualified local candidates than was the case a decade ago.
But scour the globe, and you will find some countries that are experiencing growth and skills shortages, and others on the cusp. Australia is substantially increasing oil and gas production, and building the infrastructure and facilities needed to support it. Qatar’s World Cup 2022 success adds a new clutch of opportunities to a country already delivering an ambitious development plan. Russia, its central Asian satellites and Turkey are all tipped for growth, and Hong Kong and Singapore provide English-speaking launch pads for the expanding Asian economies.
As the four individuals we’ve profiled here confirm, openings do exist in these countries and elsewhere. Prospects are greatest for those who are prepared to cast the net as geographically far as possible, to consider roles that take them out of their comfort zone, and to update traditional ex-pat ideas — of a tax free salary, accommodation allowance and perks — to suit a globalised economy where UK qualifications and experience are still valued, but may no longer command a premium.
Because, with opportunities for career advancement in the UK reduced, the long-term payback of working overseas offers other forms of compensation. “If you think there will be mega-bucks, you’re misguided,” says Neil Coker MCIOB, a veteran of several overseas contracts, pointing out that he’s seen salaries fall 20-30% in the past two years. “But if you see it as an investment in yourself and your career, you’ll get a lot more out of it. Make a success of it, and you’ll gain enormous benefits from the experience.”
And if the financial package may not be what it once was, the lifestyle advantages are largely unchanged. Henry Sell, the Australia-based Asia Pacific regional vice-president for Hill International, is using a blog to promote Australia to UK construction professionals who might be questioning the logic of emigrating Down Under for a financial package close to UK norms. “It’s a super place to live. At the moment [pre-Christmas], its all seafood barbecues on the beaches, surfing and 85 degrees. Plus we’ve got fantastic schools, health service and housing,” writes Sell.
Individuals thinking of moving overseas fall into two broad camps: those working for firms with overseas operations that need ex-pat talent to staff them; and those for whom a move overseas means finding a new employer.
Clearly, the first group has an advantage: if you can advertise your willingness to relocate and demonstrate that you fit the skills required, then UK companies’ ongoing search for overseas growth — flagged up recently by EC Harris, Balfour Beatty, Laing O’Rourke and others — means that the chances now are possibly better than a few years ago.
Intra-company transfer is also the most likely route abroad for individuals in their 20s and early 30s, who are still gaining experience in delivering projects and handling clients. In fact, this group often finds that moving out of the competitive UK talent pool gives them an advantage over stay-at-home contemporaries. An overseas office typically brings exposure to more aspects of the business, and more opportunity to prove your worth.
Daniel Webster, a project management surveyor with Turner & Townsend, swapped London for Singapore a few months ago. “In the UK, everyone is very project-focused, but here there’s more opportunity to get involved in business development and marketing,” he says. “There are more opportunities to go for client growth here, whereas in the UK, you generally have a stable client base. Plus you learn from a different culture and develop soft skills by dealing with and adapting to different people.”
Turner & Townsend, along with Mace, (see case study), is expanding in Asia, where it has 400 staff mainly working for “foreign direct investment” clients — multinationals investing in the emerging markets of Thailand, China and others. Marketing manager Kirsty Hugo, a South African who has recently moved with T&T to Singapore from London, explains that these multinational clients often want UK ex-pats leading their teams, who can offer continuity with the working methods and standards that prevail back home.
But both firms’ experience also demonstrates the increasingly globalised market in construction skills, with increasing parity between UK trained talent and qualified personnel from so-called “developing” countries. “Some people expect it as a given that they’ll be in a managerial role [supervising local staff]. But in Hong Kong, that’s not really the way we work,” says Mace’s Penny Hubbard-Brown. “We’ve got fantastic project managers from the UK, but also the Philippines and Hong Kong, all earning the same salaries because it’s all done on merit, not where you’re from.”
For construction professionals working for UK-centric companies, as well as those who unfortunately find themselves unemployed, finding work abroad will inevitably be tougher. For a start, many employers are reluctant to hire people who don’t have previous overseas experience, or proven ability to deal with homesickness, a different culture and sometimes even a six-day week contract. This is particularly the case for the Middle East, given the large pool who previously worked in Dubai.
“Companies don’t want to take the risk with people who have only worked in the UK, 80% want people with previous overseas experience, they’re a safer bet,” says Paul Quinn, managing director of recruitment consultant Quinn & McGrath, a specialist in the region. So if you are looking for your first overseas post, it makes sense to demonstrate resilience and adaptability in other ways — studying abroad, turning projects around or a proven ability to switch specialisms in the UK — to give employers more comfort that you won’t be leaving before the costs of hiring you have been recouped.
On the other hand, as clients become more discriminating, Quinn says that professional qualifications and chartered status are becoming more sought after. Neil Coker’s experience of securing work overseas, including two approaches that began on LinkedIn, also demonstrates that CIOB membership is an asset. “To compete on a level playing field with the people who’ve done it all before, I decided it was worth being very proactive with professional accreditation and CPD. I see a lot of value in involvement with professional organisations,” says Coker.
And working overseas is one area of your career where age confers advantage. “As an expat, you have to sell knowledge, and clients want to buy experience. 35-60-year-olds are most popular, although that’s the age when children and schools tend to be an issue,” says Kevin Flynn, of recruitment consultant Hays International.
If employers aren’t snapping up your CV, an alternative strategy is to arrive in your chosen country on spec, aiming to network and arrange interviews on location. It’s not for the faint-hearted, nor for anyone who doesn’t speak the local business language. But if you can afford for it not to work, in other words, have the funds for a stay of several months and a return ticket, it does demonstrate commitment. Quinn advises researching visa and work permit rules, and speaking to UK recruitment agents while in the UK, as they can secure local interviews.
Another suggestion, albeit one that requires a longer-term approach, is to learn or brush up on a European language, making yourself a better prospect to the European contractors currently picking up infrastructure contracts in developing countries, such as Bilfinger + Berger, Hochtief, Bouygues and Vinci. “If you’re a QS who can speak French, Bouygues will have you. Or add value by learning German or Spanish,” says Flynn.
Amy Gough, CIOB acting head of international, adds that committee members in overseas branches and the network of 30 overseas “ambassadors” are good sources of advice and information for would-be expats. “It’s a resource members can call on. If you’re a CIOB member, you’ve got a networking system in place already. And you can use the CIOB network on LinkedIn, as the overseas branches are setting up LinkedIn groups.” In Qatar, Jackie Portman says that the local CIOB network has been useful, and she’s also been asked for advice.
But both intra-company transfers and new hires will face visa and work permit restrictions. Some countries, such as the US, mirror current UK policy by limiting skilled migrant labour, boosting job prospects for their own nationals. So although the US is still the world’s largest construction market and its population is projected to grow substantially, its “green card” system for employers bringing in new hires has recently become more onerous, says Chris Soffe, president of Gleeds in the US and a CIOB Ambassador.
Contrast that with Russia, which has a declining, ageing population, and a recognised need for skilled professionals. “The Russian government is welcoming ex-pats. Foreign companies used to be allocated a quota, but now, because of demographics, they want to bring foreigners with high-level knowledge in,” says David Whitehouse, managing director of Aecom for the Commonwealth of Independent States, explaining that any employee on a salary of US$68,000 or above is virtually guaranteed a visa. However, he also notes that it’s considerably harder for ex-pats to get a visa in quota-driven Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
Australia’s needs are even more pressing. “There is a skills shortage, not just in construction and engineering, but in IT and the medical field,” says Hill International’s Henry Sell. “As a firm, we’ve got fairly big growth plans, including recruiting ex-pats. As well as the energy projects around Perth and Brisbane, PPP and PFI are taking off quite dramatically. And it’s very easy to transfer skills, the Australians recognise the professional and technical education the British get.”
As overseas markets gradually feel their way out of recession, there is a sense that opportunities for UK and Irish construction professionals are slowly opening up again. Of course, the world moves on, and individuals’ expectations of ex-pat lifestyles and salary packages have to move on too. But if you’re prepared to put in the research and preparation, and consider countries that might previously have seemed too far, too foreign or too uncertain, you might find that 2011 presents a brighter horizon than you think.
For Jackie Portman MCIOB, relocating to Qatar was more by accident than design. While two previous overseas postings had seen her career as a building services project manager lead and her husband follow, this time it was his career in IT that took the family of 4 to Qatar.
She now works for the project management division of Qatar’s nationalised oil and gas company, in the midst of burgeoning opportunties. “Qatar is growing hugely, but the money’s being spent in the right places — infrastructure, public transport and education, culture and science,” she says.
Projects include Education City, a 14km2 campus Portman herself is working on; the Heart of Doha project to revitalise the capital; and Aerospace City, based on a new airport.
“After Qatar won the World Cup 2022, I saw it called a ‘mediaeval kingdom’ and a ‘desert backwater’, but it has its own aspirations, mission and vision,” she says. “There are huge projects in progress, or coming on stream in the next five years, and I just couldn’t see that in the UK.”
In contrast to perceptions about relocating to the Middle East, Portman found it relatively easy to find work in Qatar. “When I knew I was coming here, I wrote to several companies, and they all offered interviews.” However, she points out that employers in Qatar have little scope to fire staff, so are often wary of making the wrong decision.
She’s found that her qualifications carry more weight in Qatar than at home. “Engineers and doctors are in the top visa category, teachers and nurses are next, and accountants and lawyers are on the third level!” she says.
UK consultants are much in evidence in Qatar. But Portman believes there is also room for UK contractors, alongside the Korean, Chinese, and Turkish/Lebanese competiton.
“Carillion and Balfour Beatty are actively bidding, and I’m talking to some contacts at [previous employer] Laing O’Rourke, who are interested in getting on tender lists. There is room for UK expertise. Hopefully some will succeed, because we need them.”
In many ways, the family is living the archetypal ex-pat dream, moving from a Bristol semi to a “five bed villa with a pool”. The downsides are mostly measured on the centigrade scale: when they arrived in August 2010, the thermometer was hitting 50oC.
Penny Hubbard-Brown’s experience working for Mace in demonstrates how the opportunities found in overseas offices can fast-track individuals to levels of responsibility that might take longer to arrive in UK. Having arrived in Hong Kong in September 2008 to work in-house “pushing the project forward” for a theme park client, she won promotion to country manager for Hong Kong within a year.
However, as is also typical of overseas offices, Hubbard-Brown certainly invested the hours and commitment to get there. “It’s probably the hardest, toughest work I’ve ever done, often six days a week, and under quite a lot of pressure,” she says.
Mace has had a presence in Asia since 2004, with the Hong Kong office acting as the regional hub. But now the company sees Shanghai as its regional base, leaving Hubbard-Brown’s 25-strong team to source new clients there, in neighbouring Macau and southern China. “At the risk of being flooded with CVs, we are expanding, but we would always recruit from Mace first,” she says.
Her journey to Hong Kong began a year before she touched down at Chep Lap Kok. Working for Mace as a project manager advising Haringey council in north London on its BSF schools, she let her interest in overseas posts be known.
“In a large, project-related company, that needs to know it can cover itself, it’s important to give them enough warning.”
After she was offered the post, Hubbard-Brown’s husband was also able to find a job in property consultancy, and the couple are now convinced they made the right move. “It gives you the self-sufficiency to say ‘I can do that’, and makes you so much more useful to companies. We both feel we’ve got much more out of it than we expected, and we love Hong Kong much more than we thought we would.”
Travel in the wider region, including working visits to Singapore and Bangkok, has also been part of the package. “In the UK, you’re either in London, Manchester or Leeds, and very rarely travel. Once you start seeing these places, it’s difficult to give up.”
But the working culture typical of the region also needed some adjustment.
“You don’t get half-day Fridays or working from home, which in the UK does help. But I only have a 15-minute journey [from her flat to the office], so even if you’re working 8-7, you can be home by 7.30 and still go out and do an activity.”
As for the financial advantages, Hubbard-Brown says salaries and accommodation allowances are lower than was the case a decade ago. “But you don’t move abroad solely for the salary, it’s all the other opportunities that go with it.”
Declan White MCIOB followed a well-worn path to a new life in Australia, but then took the road less travelled. Like thousands of young graduates before him — and hundreds in the current exodus from Ireland’s troubled economy — White arrived on a six-month working holiday visa in 2008.
Less than a year later, he had set up a contracting company providing construction services to the country’s fast-growing oil and gas industry.
Monford Group now has an 80-strong workforce and ambitions to turn over A$8m in 2010/2011. “It’s hard for some people to take a 26-year-old seriously, so to get the first contracts was very competitive,” says White, now 28. “Making the right contacts was a big obstacle. But as soon as we got on the jobs, people began taking us seriously.”
Working life for White — and his workforce — is now split between six-week stints on site in remote areas of the north Western Australia, alternating with fortnights off in Perth. Workers do 12-hour days in temperatures up to 40oC or more, but there are compensations.
“All the facilities are good, you’ll be well looked after. People do adapt quickly, but it’s perhaps not for everyone,” he acknowledges.
White graduated in construction management from Limerick Institute of Technology in 2007. A year later, with experience of working
for a contractor and running his own small labour hire business in Dublin under his belt, he saw that the Irish downturn was closing down his opportunities and headed Down Under.
It was after securing a job as project manager for the concrete contractor on an oil project in Karratha, in the north west that he saw an opportunity to provide labour for construction works in the oil and gas industry.
White now employs many young UK and Irish graduates in exile from the depressed economy that he left behind, and his firm has made the most of Australian visa rules. “A lot of companies won’t take on guys on working holiday visas, as they’re only able to work for six months. But a lot of our contracts run for 5-6 months, so it works for me.” However, with the long-term stability of the company in mind, he now prefers to employ UK and Irish nationals with Australian residency, a status that can be secured fairly readily by individuals with professional or trade qualifications.
White was a student CIOB member at university, and recently passed his professional competency review in Perth. “Being a member has been helpful, the magazine and emails keep me up to date and I’m now on the new committee for Western Australia. We’re trying to form links with the local university and build the CIOB’s profile.”
Culturally, he says that Australia doesn’t present too wide a gap compared to Ireland, and the lifestyle suits him. “Australians generally are Irish and British, if you go back a few generations! And they’ve got the work-life balance down to a T — in Perth, they start work at 6 so they can finish by 3 and get down to the beach.”
David Whitehouse, Aecom’s regional managing director for Russia and the Commonwealth of Independent States, is based in Moscow, but also oversees the consultant’s projects in seven other countries: Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Turkey. Projects include project and cost management on The Crescent in Azerbaijan, and project management and design input on airports and sports stadia in regional Russian cities.
In other words, Aecom is well positioned to exploit opportunities brought by Russia’s World Cup 2018 success, which will involve building 13 new stadia and remodelling three, plus delivering all the associated transport and hotel projects. But even beyond the 2018 bonanza, Whitehouse feels that Russia and its neighbours are storing up momentum for a construction surge.
“Of the BRIC countries, Russia feels like its behind on construction output, so it’s playing catch-up. In 2011, we’ll see it moving forward, and 2012 will be when the good signs emerge,” says Whitehouse. He adds that skills shortages include engineering design and project management expertise.
Meanwhile Turkey, often overlooked, could be on the cusp. “It’s got an 80 million population, and it’s very forward-looking compared to 20 years ago. It doesn’t have a massive resource base, but it could become a logistical hub between Europe and Asia, and manufacturing is growing.”
For would-be ex-pats, the region offers a wide range of options: from metropolitan buzz to semi-hardship postings. “Some people just want to replicate London life in a foreign country, so they’d only be happy in Moscow or St Petersburg. But some people don’t like the big metropolises, and prefer the nether regions of Kazakhstan. In Baku, Tashkent or Almaty, you can’t go out and do what you do in London.”
But Central Asia probably isn’t right for anyone uncomfortable without a safety net. “The people we tend to take on are not afraid to be parachuted into places and use their initiative and creativity a bit. You might not have the luxury of having someone else sort out the problem with your landlady!”
Russia has a reputation for a high cost of living, but Whitehouse says that renting a two-bed flat in Moscow is similar to London, at £1,300-£1,400 a month, while a similar flat in Kazakhstan could be had for £900. Gross salaries would be similar to the UK, but ex-pats in Russia benefit from income tax of just 13% (although rates are higher in some Central Asian states).
Whitehouse himself has been in the region for many years, and says that most of all he loves its “unpredictability”. “If you go to work in London, you know pretty much what’s going to happen. Whereas in these markets, things are always changing, and you can actually see progress.”