Canadian engineering students should explore exciting opportunities to work abroad.
Dirt, dust, bugs and long workdays. Whether in Africa, South America, the Middle East, or elsewhere, engineers working abroad can expect much the same conditions. But, by far, the great work experience, exciting challenge, and opportunity to learn and directly apply their expertise are the greater common denominators.
Even while studying, Olivier Gemme had career travel on his agenda: His first overseas assignment had him at an iron ore mine in a Middle Eastern desert for several weeks. That was just one year after earning his mechanical engineering degree from École Polytechnique de Montréal in 2010.
“Everything happened well for me,” Gemme says. “I was in my director’s office and he asked if I minded going to the Middle East. Two weeks later, I was on the plane. When you get the chance, you say yes.” Since then, he has spent six weeks on his own in Dakar, Senegal, managing a team of locals to build the structure required for a gold mine in Mali and meeting with suppliers there and in Casablanca, Morocco.
He explains that when starting at GENIVAR as a coop student in 2008, he worked on countless drawings for African projects. Without a formal plan, he was preparing to go overseas. So, when the time came, he was ready. “Most people say, ‘Oh, you’re lucky, you travel for work.’ I tell them, ‘I’m not travelling for work, I’m working overseas,’” says the junior mechanical engineer who works in mining and mineral processing. And, while it pays well, he stresses that if that’s a main motivation, don’t do it.
International doors open for Canadian engineers
Gemme matches the profile of many Canadian engineers working abroad. Chris Newcomb, Past-Chair of the Association of Consulting Engineering Companies, an association of nearly 500 Canadian independent consulting companies, says that having a can-do attitude, resourcefulness and empathy for the local population are key traits. Having a second or third language is definitely an asset, too.
Catherine Fagnan, Senior Advisor, Global Mobility, GENIVAR
As the fourth largest global exporter of engineering services in the world, Canada has an excellent reputation. As such, Canadian engineers stand a good chance of going abroad. With a career spanning over 40 years, Newcomb has worked in such far-flung locations as Tanzania and Ecuador. Even now, as president of Vancouver-based McElhanney Consulting Services, he thrives on occasional work abroad. After the devastation of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, Newcomb joined his company’s team to support the Canadian Red Cross. He helped plan and design some 25 new villages.
“Living and working in a different culture is amazing,” states Newcomb. “I learned to speak Spanish and some Swahili and a lot about different cultures. I also became more self-sufficient. There’s often no one to turn to for advice so you get terrific experience.” He advises that engineers stand a better chance with a larger firm than a small one because “most overseas projects tend to be larger projects, such as highways, water and sewer systems, dams, hydro plants, mines, ports and airports.”
Communication skills and humility are crucial
What that means for Catherine Fagnan, Senior Advisor, Global Mobility for GENIVAR, and other international human resources professionals, is that they hire from most fields of engineering study: civil, industrial, electrical and others. Yet, whatever the field, she looks for specific skills and aptitudes. “These engineers must have very high communication skills,” Fagnan explains. “It’s sometimes more important than having the technical skills. You also have to be humble. You work in collaboration with others so you must be open. Learn from them and they will learn from you.”
Adaptability also ranks high on her list. When interviewing prospective employees, Fagnan asks if they’ve travelled or studied abroad, perhaps helped build a school or clinic. That’s a real advantage. “I also tell young engineers to concentrate learning and skills development in one area,” she says. She cites building hospitals, hotels and other structures.
She points to Gemme’s co-worker, Olivier Amoussou. The electrical engineer gained five years of company experience, putting his master’s degree in project management from the Université du Québec à Montréal to use on international business development support, then at a two-year building upgrade project at McGill University. During 2011, he gained knowledge of the mining sector and by early 2012 was ready for his first onsite experience: a gold mine in Mali. “You must be patient and build your expertise,” says Amoussou, a project manager. He spoke up often to his managers about his desire to work overseas and it paid off. He recommends that others do the same, right from the start, but diplomatically, of course.
With his first 30-day intensive work stint under his belt, he looks forward to more of the same, back in Mali or elsewhere. “I learned that you have to be patient, understand the environment and decide what you think is the right way to act. And maybe the right way there is not the same as in Canada.” Amoussou was born in Benin, “so I know Africa. But I was born in the city and the rural area is quite different. People are poor, but they are hard workers. You can give your expertise and gain a good feeling from changing people’s lives. I think I’m doing that, I hope so.”
Les carrières de l’ingénierie 2013