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The American dream

NEWS ANALYSIS: USA - Skills shortages and the promise of work on seriously large projects are attracting British engineers to the US. But what is it really like to work there?

British engineers in the US are a mix of senior specialists and managers, plus a few younger graduates sent on secondment for experience and to help plug skills gaps.

Expat graduates in Arup's New York and San Francisco offices enthuse about their US work experience. Pressure of work can be intense and Americans are known for their unwillingness to beat about the bush if problems need solving.

But despite the pressures, they find the change of culture stimulating if demanding and genuinely seem to enjoy living there.

New York-based Arup engineer Liam Delaney says working in America gives more opportunity to work on major projects.

During his three and a half year stint in the US his work has included the new terminal four building at John F Kennedy Airport - 'a huge project', he says.

Engineers in the US find they are expected to sell their ideas much more than they are in the UK, with a much bigger emphasis on presentational skills, says Delaney. 'With most of the jobs I have been on over here you are expected to make presentations at any stage, ' he says.

Delaney also finds the 'say what you think', up-front approach to tackling problems refreshing and has adopted it himself. 'I will go back to the UK with a lot of confidence, ' he says.

Senior engineers agree that developing communication skills is vital in the US. Bid teams for major projects are expected to make presentations as part of the tender process.

When there is little to choose between high powered teams, the presentation part of the tender can often have a major influence on who wins the contract.

Videos are frowned on as a substitute for personal presentations and bidders get together weeks in advance of meetings with clients to rehearse, often with a coach.

Catherine Leggett, a British civil and structural engineer in Arup's San Francisco office says she found herself juggling more projects at once. She also spends less time on site than in the UK where she attended site meetings regularly.

'Distances mean you can't always get on site, ' says Leggett's American colleague Corrine Tan, who has also worked in the UK. From San Francisco, Tan has been working on a project in San Diego, over 750km away.

Leggett has had to get used to working for project architects rather than directly for clients. In America the architect employs the consultant, so engineers defer to them rather than putting their views direct to the client.

'It can be difficult to please the end user but also satisfy the architect, ' she says.

Working in earthquake sensitive California has its effect on design work. Leggett says that engineers are expected to spend a lot more time detailing connections in steel structures, rather than allowing fabricators to do this as they would in the UK.

And pretty much everything that goes into a Californian building has to be installed with earthquakes in mind, so engineers often find themselves designing restraints to stop service ducts and cables falling out of false ceilings during tremors.

British engineers say they are better off working the in US.

Earnings tend to be higher - it is not unusual for graduates to earn around $50,000 (£36,200) a year - although time to spend it is limited as most employees only get 15 days annual leave.

But more importantly, they say the quality of life is better in the US. Leggett especially enjoys living in San Francisco which is on the coast but within striking distance of mountain skiing resorts and the deserts.

Edging into sustainable construction

New markets are opening up for British consultants in the design of sustainable, environmentally friendly buildings - an area long ignored by the US.

But rising fuel prices and shortfalls in electricity generation capacity have forced the Americans to start thinking about energy conservation for the first time, despite President Bush's antiKyoto pronouncements on emissions reductions.

Already some public authorities in California are adopting sustainable building policies, as are clients like retailer Gap, which are keen to show their 'green credentials'. Arup hopes to exploit this, using its experience in the design of sustainable buildings in Europe.

'There is no skill base whatsoever for environmental engineering in the US, ' says Arup US boss Tony Fitzpatrick.

WS Atkins has also started to capitalise here. It recently won a contract to design energy efficiency measures for one of Ford's factories. It will be paid out of the projected energy savings.

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