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Overseas postings are no longer a routine part of a young geotechnical engineer's career, but opportunities still exist for the incurably itchy-footed.

Working in far-off lands was once an essential feature of a career in geotechnics and the opportunity to do so attracted many to the profession.

Most of its leading figures have considerable international experience, usually in Hong Kong or Singapore and to a lesser extent the Middle East.

A well as the challenges of the job and the excitement of travel, the enhanced rates of pay and subsistence allowances of an expat postings made them an attractive alternative to working in the UK.

But times change and opportunities for working overseas are dwindling. Some senior engineers believe the days of the long-term expatriate posting are gone.

'There are now fewer opportunities for young engineers to work abroad, ' says Geoff French, group chairman of consultant Scott Wilson.

'Many young people join us with the hope and expectation of working overseas.Where we can, we still like to send people abroad because it helps in their development.

'But it has always been difficult to get abroad for the first time when you have no overseas experience. And with less scope now for working overseas, there are fewer chances to get that first essential posting.'

This is ironic at a time when the construction industry is becoming increasingly global, and a number of UK players, particularly consultants, have considerable international activity.

It's not uncommon for international consultants working on large projects to email working drawings to another office in a different time zone at the end of their day, so that the project is in effect being worked on round the clock.

Equally important is the increasingly 'local global' approach adopted by international companies.

Jim Beveridge, geotechnical director with Mott MacDonald, explains: 'In many of the countries we work in, we associate with local companies who have their own graduates, generally at a much cheaper cost base. This means opportunities are more limited for UK graduates.'

Tim Chapman, associate director with Arup Geotechnics, says: 'Previously a greater proportion of our work from the UK was to support our offices in South East Asia, so most of our longer serving staff have done a number of tours in Hong Kong, Bangkok, Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to work on specific Arup projects.

'But with time, our local staff in those offices have developed their own experience, so have less frequent need for support from the UK.'

Patrick Morgan, senior consultant with recruitment agency Sentinel UK, believes the best way for junior engineers to gain overseas experience is to work for one of the big UK employers and 'pester their bosses for international postings' This seems to be good advice.Although Mott and Arup have fewer overseas opportunities for graduates, there is still work for those with appropriate experience.

Chapman says: 'As an international firm doing geotechnical work all over the globe, we need to have credible staff with suitable experience to offer our clients.

'We have a constant stream of opportunities for our staff to travel and short tours to anywhere in the world are normal. For longer tours beyond Europe, we currently have UK staff in New York, Singapore and various parts of Africa and Central Asia.'

At Mott, Beveridge says: 'Our established offices in the Far East, in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore particularly, provide regular opportunities for our geotechnical engineers for longterm postings. Opportunities also occur on specific projects and in the last year we have had graduates gaining experience in India, Singapore, Malaysia, UAE and Eire.'

Chapman and Beveridge agree that engineering geologists can go overseas at a younger age than geotechnical engineers. Beveridge believes this is because specialisation in engineering geology is still not common internationally.

Arup won't usually send geotechnical engineers overseas until they have at least five years' experience and are able to handle complex problems and difficult analyses without support.

As well as its role in motivating staff, large employers still seem to value overseas experience as an important aspect of career development.

Beveridge says: 'Levels of responsibility are generally greater when working overseas and engineers are exposed to different ground conditions as well as different cultures and methods of working.

'This experience provides a more holistic outlook and broader perspective for those involved, making them more attractive for employers, as well as clients.'

Chapman echoes these sentiments.

'Working overseas provides more varied and sometimes more challenging experience than they would face in the UK.

'It also teaches cultural understanding and persuasion skills, and promotes quick thinking.

In that sense it gives a more concentrated burst of experience than would typically be encountered in the same time in the UK.'

Plan B

Working for relief agencies has often provided another route abroad for engineers. But the difficulty in obtaining overseas experience has led to a Catch 22 situation, according to charity RedR (Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief).

'There is a logjam, ' says RedR operations manager Neil Casey.

'Agencies want people with overseas experience. We have plenty of engineers who want to go but do not have experience of working abroad.

We are trying to convince the agencies that many of these engineers don't lack knowledge and expertise.'

Recruitment consultants can offer short-term postings. Pete Marston, international manager at Hill McGlynn International Appointments, says that if an engineer has good experience with a recognised company, they are pretty sure to get a post.

Emma Jenkins of recruitment consultant AndersElite says opportunities do exist for postings overseas but tend to be geared towards the large contingent of geotechnical engineers 'who have spent much of their career overseas and who remain in high demand'.

'Typically contract engineers will need at least five years' experience before being considered for overseas work, and unless they have previous experience with the company or come on recommendation, often longer, ' she says.

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