Foreign Affair

Working abroad can make you a better engineer everywhere

Photo: Kevin Van Aelst

In his 14-year career as an industrial and electrical engineer, Carlos Founaud has worked or done business in Austria, Switzerland, Ireland, Portugal, Germany, Britain, Australia, and Italy before returning to his native Spain.

”I called myself a multicultural interface,” he laughs. ”If something broke down, the Spanish way was to focus on the problem—let’s have a look, make a decision, and do it. The Austrian way was to find out who’s guilty. The British way was to open the manuals and find the different procedures for fixing it—and afterward go to the pub.”

Founaud has found that this multicultural approach to problem solving, while maddening at times, has also made him better at his job. Now general managing director of iA Soft Aragón, a Saragossa firm that develops public administration software, he seeks out foreign programmers specifically to challenge the procedural mind-set on his home turf.

Foreign postings often offer more autonomy and responsibility, a faster pace, higher pay, and tax breaks, as well as the adventure of foreign lands and languages. The posts can also improve your skills.

”I believe working abroad exposes you to new technologies and creative approaches, and working with multicultural teams makes you more flexible,” Founaud says. ”You have to cope with ways of thinking that you could never imagine”—like thinking ahead to your next gig. ”Nobody is going to promise you a job when you return,” he notes. ”Things change so quickly in engineering; companies go up and down. Decisions promised today are not valid tomorrow, and contracts don’t mean anything. You have to look at going abroad as an adventure.”

Robert Brems, a mechanical engineer based in Coshocton, Ohio, agrees: ”Out of sight, out of mind. You might miss advancement opportunities and become vulnerable to layoffs if your position ends.” Before retiring four years ago, Brems worked on nuclear power plants in Korea, Yugoslavia, and Slovenia for engineering firm Gilbert/Commonwealth, formerly based in Reading, Pa., and now part of the Australian engineering conglomerate WorleyParsons.

”Job insecurity is one of the dangers of being abroad,” concedes Jaime H. de Sola, an MIT-educated chemical engineer who runs an energy industry consultancy from his native Curaçao, an island in the Netherlands Antilles in the Caribbean. He spent years in India, the Netherlands, Russia and Eastern Europe, Venezuela, and the United States working for Shell, Hess, and Amoco. But, he says, ”if you do a good job in a difficult place, the company will be grateful.” He says oil companies in particular are accustomed to sending people abroad, ”so I’ve seldom heard of their employees coming back to no job position.”

The engineering sector determines the prestige of the post, says Founaud. For electrical engineers working on electronic clocks, a Geneva firm is prestigious. There’s San Jose, Calif., for IT, Qatar for gas, and Austria for gas engines, while Germany, Switzerland, London, and New York City have cachet for managers. But Brems notes that as more countries develop local engineering capabilities, overseas posts are increasingly located in rural parts of developing nations, which raises concerns about substandard health care and living conditions.

Companies generally provide assistance looking for houses and schools. It helps if you have an adaptable spouse and younger children, as education may be less stable with changing posts. Founaud returned home because he wanted educational stability for his children once they entered grammar school. But it was his multinational work experience that landed him his current job.

”That experience working as a cultural interface is what brought me to this IT company,” he says. ”The owner wanted someone who could deal with different cultural mind-sets. That experience was my ’value added’—not the knowledge of the customer, sector, or technology.”

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