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Working abroad

Tunnel for a metro in India, carve a road through the deserts of the Middle East, sort out water pollution in eastern Europe, build a railway in Australia or a bridge in China...

UK firms and staff have been doing all that and more in the past few years. The chance to work around the globe has always been one of the big attractions of a career in civil engineering. And the opportunities are still out there.

But the days are long gone when UK companies parachuted huge numbers of staff into foreign parts on lengthy, all-expenses-paid jollys. The way UK business works abroad now is to set up a local company and employ mainly local people who speak the language and understand the tricks of local trade. Or they go into partnership with indigenous companies, again relying mainly on local staff.

UK personnel are needed, but more for specialist expertise or as managers to organise projects and keep an eye on parent company interests. This means if you were intending to leave university and immediately head off to work overseas, you might need to rethink and gain some experience at home first. But you can make sure that you are getting that experience with a firm that does a lot of work abroad.

The UK marketplace is divided into firms that are focused solely on the UK and those with a big interest overseas. So if you know you want to work abroad at some stage, you should go to a firm with extensive overseas involvement. These mainly tend to be consultants, especially big firms like Mott MacDonald, WSP, Atkins, Scott Wilson, Halcrow and Arup. But do not ignore smaller companies like Benaim, Buro Happold and Flint & Neill – although it is worth checking what projects they are working on at the time. NCE’s annual Consultants File details the
big players overseas and you can always check out companies via their websites.

There are also a few UK contractors and project managers operating abroad – for instance Balfour Beatty, and Laing O’Rourke. NCE’s Contractor’s File will tell you who they are. Foreign contractors operating in the UK are another good bet – like Vinci and Kajima. Think also of sectors. The tunnelling community travels around the world from tunnel to tunnel, so if you like being underground that is another option.

Tell your employer that you want to work abroad and take the first overseas assignment offered to you – you cannot be picky. "The hardest thing is to get your first overseas job on your CV," says Geoff, who heads a leading consultancy firm. "Once you’ve got that, it’s easier to get on." And aim to get chartered as soon as possible. Overseas clients – including charities and major funders like the World Bank and the EU – want the engineers assigned to their projects to be properly qualified. They also want them with good overseas project experience.


Ask any civil engineer "Where is the most exciting place in the world to work at the moment?" and you get the same answer over and over again… the Middle East.

The centre of the construction boom is Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but many mega projects are also underway in nearby Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Just looking at the statistics tells you all that you need to know.

A third of the world’s cranes are in operation in the region helping to construct over $1trillion (yes $1,000,000,000,000!) of infrastructure projects such as the world’s tallest building – the impossibly slender Burj Dubai (the height is top secret but NCE can tell you it will be much taller than the 700m previously predicted) – the offshore islands of the Palm, the World and the Pearl, new railways, hundreds of bridges and roads, new airports, ports and countless shopping malls and of course the world’s largest theme park – Dubailand. "Nowhere in the world is there such a huge building boom. It is every structural engineer’s dream," says engineering associate director Bart Leclerq. "If you like the action, and don’t mind working hard, then this is the place to be," he says.

Salaries in the Middle East are tax free and the cost of living is reasonable so you can have a very comfortable standard of living, although rents in Dubai have started to soar over the past few years.

The UAE state of Dubai is by far the most relaxed of the Middle Eastern countries to live. Although regulated by Islamic law, alcohol is allowed within hotels (which are actually more like hotel complexes with pubs and bars within), western dress is accepted and women work alongside men in shops and offices.

The heat can be difficult with temperatures in the 50s in summer, which means air-conditioning is essential and outdoor activities limited. But despite the challenging temperatures and cultural differences the overwhelming evidence from engineers is that it is all worth it. "Where else would you be exposed to such a diverse range of unusual and exciting projects?" asks project manager Matthew Squires. Right now – nowhere.

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