|YMF Hosts Executive Panel Discussion on International Work|
Given the current economic climate throughout the United States, many engineers have been placing an emphasis on working internationally or looking at new emerging markets overseas. To provide further insight into this issue, the Younger Member Forum selected "International Work" as the topic for its Ninth Annual Executive Forum; which was held at the new academic building (41 Cooper Square) at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art1 on February 26, 2010.
Although the weather conditions deterred some attendees, many people braved the lingering effects of a snowstorm to attend the event, which was kicked off with a networking reception that included cocktails and hors d'oeuvres. After the networking reception, Arthur J. Alzamora, Jr., P.E. served as the moderator for a panel discussion among several speakers from international engineering, construction, and architecture firms that included:
The Executive Forum provides a unique opportunity for younger engineers to draw insights from leaders in the construction/engineering field on various projects throughout the world. Our speakers have been involved with many high-profile international projects, like the Rion-Antirion Bridge in Greece (showcase of the 2004 Athens Olympics), Sheikh Rashid Bin Saeed Crossing (longest and tallest spanning arch bridge in the world), and Burj Khalifa (tallest man-made structure in the world); just to name a few.
Each of the panelists first gave a brief background about their careers and described how and why they became involved in international work. The panel also shared their opinions on the challenges of working as an American engineer in a foreign country; and the potential for new work in developing nations.
One of the most frequent questions posed by young engineers and students during the Executive Forum is with regards to continuing education beyond the bachelor's degree level. The panelists all were in consensus that given the economic climate, this is a good time for college students to remain in school and pursue an advanced degree, whether it is a technical degree (MS degree) or a management degree (MBA), it is important to make the best out of the current situation. It was also discussed that regardless of the degree, in order to be successful in a engineering/construction career, being technically proficient and having the ability to answer technical-based questions is especially important. The panel mentioned that there are many things that young engineers can work on in order to grow in their career such as working on listening skills, on the job training, be personable, be patient, and build trust in client relationships. All of the speakers echoed the same thought that learning does not stop after college and it is important to expand on technical knowledge.
Panelists were also asked how they originally became involved in the international market. The speakers acknowledged that the need to work internationally is not typically fueled by economics, per se, but that many of their existing clients were looking for support on international projects and their companies were willing to provide full-services wherever their clients needed them. Basically, if a client is looking at a project in another country you want to be there for your client to keep the relationship strong and to meet the client's needs. In some circumstances it is much better economic policy for an American company to work domestically versus internationally given the size of the United States economy versus the rest of the world. For instance, the United States GDP (gross domestic product) is nearly 25 percent of the entire world's GDP; and much greater than most of the countries that a company would be pursuing work. Additionally, pursuing work internationally now introduces competition from other foreign engineering and construction companies, which can sometimes make pursuing a project more difficult.
The panel indicated some of the difficulties with working internationally. Taxes are among one of the largest issues since there is a direct correlation with project costs. Additionally, in some cases a company needs to pay taxes domestically to the U.S. and the local international market. Taxes can make it difficult to for U.S. companies to compete with other foreign companies on projects. Another issue for projects is having staff working overseas, since it requires expenses for housing, salaries and travel.
When working internationally, engineers must be mindful of the cultural differences in the areas where they are planning on working. The panel discussed the importance of having an understanding of local culture and to show respect to their international counterparts, so that one does not come off as being arrogant. It is important for engineers to acknowledge state-of-the-art in practice for a region and know what types of materials (i.e., concrete, steel, equipment, etc.) are available for construction. Building codes and standards can also be an issue and in many of the locations that U.S. companies are working. Many times there are no local building codes or standards set in place. In addition, some projects can have several companies from various countries working on a project, which could make coordination a challenging task to say the least. It is not uncommon on an international project to find an engineer and architect to have designed the project using completely different codes. With that said it is important early in the design process to identify the building code and standards that the design team will adhere to, so that there are no issues in the future.
It was mentioned that one of the key issues for working with an organization such as Engineers Without Boarders (EWB) is that sometimes engineers can have difficultly managing expectations of the residents in the areas that are being helped. This is due largely in part to the local community would like many problems/issues to be resolved by EWB at one time, which is not possible. Given those circumstances, it makes the planning process and development process that much more important and engineers need to acknowledge these issues.
Regarding foreign licensure, the speakers were asked how professional licenses transfer internationally; or how someone would go about getting international licensing. The panelists mentioned that in some countries, it might not be possible to transfer United States licenses to international licenses. Some of the international licenses also require specific residency requirements that would not allow U.S. engineers to get licensed. In many instances, in order for companies to work internationally, the U.S. companies typically end up teaming up with a local engineering firm, whom has a presence in the area. This allows the U.S. company to perform the work, but the local engineer is technically the engineer-of-record. This is a typical process that is performed all over the world.
The speakers provided some advice towards pursuing international work. In order to be successful, engineers need to be a sound business person as well as a technical engineer. A company needs to have a commitment to international work, including being flexible and open minded. Engineers need to also be aware of learning curves for everyone on a project. It is also important for executives to pay attention to currency rates and exchange rates, since some countries can have exchange rates vary drastically over short periods of time. This can ultimately be the difference between making and losing money on a project. It is also very important to be aware of project time zones and deadlines all over the world.
The Executive Forum was a huge success and was due to the hard work of the section, the esteemed panel, local college students and the engineers whom attended the event. As always the success of the event was due largely in part to the various sponsors; and for that we would like to thank The Cooper Union, The Architect's Newspaper, Langan Engineering and Environmental Services, AECOM, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Hardesty & Hanover, Turner, FXFOWLE, and Dewberry.
Summary by Arthur J. Alzamora, Jr., PE, LEED AP, M. ASCE
1The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art is a distinguished private college of art, architecture and engineering founded in 1859 by Peter Cooper, an inventor, industrialist and philanthropist. Since its founding, all admitted students have received full-tuition scholarships. The award winning new academic building is the first LEED-certified academic laboratory building in New York City.
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