Pack your bags

As career opportunities dwindle at home, it may be time to look abroad

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By Diane Dierking

U.S. Department of Labor statistics show the unemployment rate has been fairly steady at about 5.4% this year. The fact that chemical companies aren’t investing domestically doesn’t help this situation for engineers. So the employment outlook in the chemical industry is unlikely to change any time soon.

Chemical companies, however, are investing in new plants abroad, mainly in Asia and the Middle East. If your company asked you to take a temporary overseas assignment, would you?

Having traveled for four years both internationally and domestically, my advice would be to go for it.

But the world is a different place today than it was in the mid-1990s when I traveled. Personal safety outside of work is now a concern, as is site security. As a result, Middle Eastern assignments are hardly as attractive as they once were, especially to those with families.

Depending on where the assignment is, your company might make living arrangements for you that will address your safety concerns. Regardless, your safety and that of your family is something with which you must feel comfortable before accepting any overseas assignment.

There is also the real possibility of coming into contact with life-threatening diseases, such as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), encephalitis and hepatitis. You can be inoculated against some of these maladies, but it can be an unpleasant experience.

Now that I’ve painted a bleak picture, I’m sure you’re wondering why I would ever suggest you leave home. I do so because working overseas will present you with growth opportunities, both personal and professional, you won’t find elsewhere.

Brenna Mannell, a recruiter with Capstone Search Group in Des Moines, Iowa, agrees. “Many of my clients feel it is a plus for prospective employees to have worked overseas, especially those with experience in material procurement, sourcing and purchasing.”

I spoke with an engineer and former colleague who has traveled on short assignments, as I did, as well as a two-and-a-half year assignment in Singapore with his current employer.

This engineer says his manager asked him to go to Singapore. His main incentive for going was not the money, although the pay was very good (not to mention he wouldn’t have a house or car payment while he was gone). Instead, his motivation was that he still had the travel bug after his years abroad with a former employer. The longer assignment also meant he and his wife would be able to do some sightseeing in the South Pacific.

As my former colleague and I both learned, the work you do overseas may not be so different from what you do here. But the way you go about getting things done and the people you work with are different. They have values and ways of communicating that are part of their culture – and dealing with these dissimilarities presents growth opportunities.

“I had to learn to listen better and make more of an effort to understand other people’s perspectives,” he says. “When working overseas, it’s more important to understand another person’s point of view.”

When you listen more carefully, you also have more time to think about what you are going to say and consider how the other person might respond to it.

As a female engineer, I found it was even more important to do this since men in certain cultures don’t readily accept supervision from a woman. Without being able to show that I understood what the person was saying and that I respected his opinion, there was no way I was going to be able to get my point across or get people to do what had to be done at the plant.

Another benefit to working abroad is gaining a global perspective. I have often heard that U.S.-based businesses are America-centric. One way to overcome such a bias is for companies to send their engineers to work at their overseas plants. There’s no better way to see beyond your borders than to actually step outside them.

I would never trade the four years I spent traveling since the experience has made me the person I am today. Given the chance, would you pack your bags?

Diane Dierking is senior editor of Chemical Processing magazine. E-mail her at ddierking@putman.net.

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