Project managers, quantity surveyors and engineers may be in demand across the globe, but salary prospects in the world's hotspots may leave travellers cold
Have you ever fancied walking the Great Wall of China, visiting the temples of Thailand, or pacing the sandy beaches of the Caribbean? If you have, but feel a two-week holiday is not long enough, there is some good news: the world could be your oyster. Experienced, British-trained project managers, QSs and engineers are in demand around the globe, according to the researchers of this year's Hays Montrose international salary guide. The bad news is that salaries have dropped from last year's levels – in some cases dramatically.
QSs have seen their international earnings fall the most. In Spain and France salaries have tumbled up to 28% for QSs, while in Thailand earnings have fallen by a fifth and those in Hong Kong a massive 50%. Project managers and engineers are also not earning as much as last year, although their salaries have slipped by smaller amounts.
Raj Sharma, senior manager at Hays International, says the increasing use of the internet as a recruitment tool is to blame. "Using the web gives companies a wider choice of who to recruit, which means salaries are being driven down," he says. Sharma also says that international companies are making more use of joint ventures with local firms, so there are fewer expat packages on offer. "The reduction in the number of these packages on offer has really hit average salaries," he says.
However, the survey's researchers say British know-how is still sought after. Continental firms are eager to learn from Britain's experience with PFI project management. They also value the specialised skills of British cost consultant, which is not a separate profession in any other European country.
Demand for British trained professionals is also strong in the Caribbean, where the market for hotels continues to expand along with the need for infrastructure projects to support the tourist industry. But here, too, salaries are less buoyant than last year. A project manager can expect up to earn up to £42,000 rather than the £50,000 earned by top professionals last year.
Salaries have taken the greatest hammering in the Far East, where countries are still reeling from the recession that took hold in the late 1990s. Salaries have slipped by as much as £10,000 in Thailand as companies have sought to lower costs. Nevertheless, as Sharma says, "The best in the industry are in demand everywhere."
Demand is healthy for a range of UK-trained professionals from both Spanish and British clients. Project managers and construction managers are particularly sought after, but the picture is less rosy for architects and QSs, who have seen salary falls of up to £10,000. Mark Bowden, who is setting up an office for Hays International in Madrid, says there is little work for foreign architects as they only tend to be used on large projects. “Spanish law allows engineers to design the buildings they construct,” he explains. Hays International’s Sharma says more and more UK firms, such as Bovis Lend Lease and consultant Mace, want to replicate their brand in Spain and are keen to work with British- rather than Spanish-trained professionals. He also points to the developing facilities management sector as multinationals moving into Spain increasingly look to rent space rather than buy. Citex is one British firm taking advantage of the trend. Peter Leng is project director with Silk & Fraser, a subsidiary of consultant WS Atkins, and has worked in Madrid for more than five years. He would not contemplate returning to the UK, partly because his wife is Spanish. “The climate has to be the main attraction. I also find the people friendly and open, though doing business can be frustrating because things move slower than in the UK,” he says, pointing to the red tape that must be surmounted before project work can begin. And siestas? Leng works the same kind of hours as in Britain and work only stops in the afternoon, when the heat becomes too intense.
Project managers are the favourites in Germany and demand is high for construction managers. But the Germans’ dislike of commuting is creating opportunities for British professionals across the board. Contractor Bovis Lend Lease and consultants EC Harris and James R Knowles are some of the British firms already set up in the market. Sharma says: “Germans don’t like to move to chase work, so if a company can’t fill its vacancies in the town where the project is based, it will look outside Germany.” He adds that the country’s three-month notice period is another reason why companies will look to the UK if a vacancy needs to be filled quickly. Sharma says there is a “stringent adherence” to employment law in the country, which states that an employee is entitled to 35 days of leave each year, and stipulates a maximum working week of 45 hours. Salaries tend to be higher than in the UK, and the cost of living is just 80% of the level in the UK.
Demand for British QSs is healthy in France but the market is competitive. Tina Ling, director of Hays Personnel France, says: “We are particularly seeing more opportunities for PQSs – those who work for the client rather than the contractor – but they must be able to speak French.” She says there is also a shortage of bilingual engineers and project managers. Those with a second European language command the highest salaries. Ling says the idea of the QS, or specialised cost consultancy, is slowly developing and emphasises how differently contracts are managed in France. “PFI hasn’t arrived yet in France, which is worth bearing in mind if this is the work you are used to.” Lunch is serious business in France. Employees are entitled to daily lunch vouchers – often of up to £30 – and a lunch break of more than an hour is the norm. Officially, there are strict controls on hours worked. If an employee works more than 35 hours per week, they are entitled to that time off in lieu. But Mark Seager, a senior electric design engineer with contractor Bouyges, says that, in reality, professionals work up to a 50-hour week in construction. Seager, who moved from London to Paris this month, says: “We work hard here, but somehow the atmosphere in the office is less pressured than in the UK.”
“British people get paid more than Dutch professionals doing the same job because there is a severe skills shortage,” says Jonald Vos, a consultant at Hays International. Vos says British QSs and project managers are particularly sought after because they are perceived to be more flexible than the Dutch. “In Holland, people like to stay in their home town,” he says. But he warns that this means some Dutch companies assume that they can move British staff around a lot. “If you are given a job in Amsterdam, check that is where you will be staying or you could be moved somewhere you don’t want to go,” Vos advises. Ian Foulds is contracts manager for Dutch construction company Vanoord, in Gorinchem, east of Rotterdam. He says the Dutch way of managing projects is more mature than in the UK. “The management style is flatter and there is a realisation here that everyone is entitled to his or her say,” he explains. Foulds adds that the Dutch have better leave entitlement and that companies “realise that their workers have families they want to spend time with”. But not all Brits feel the same. David Atlas, director of Aukett’s office in Europe, says: “We are trying to work in a more UK-style project way. Although fee scales are the same in Holland as they are in the UK, buildings sell at lower prices, so our margins are very tight.”
A strong zloty and the slow reform of Poland’s economy have meant that last decade’s office-building boom has largely dissolved. In its place, however, there are growing opportunities in warehousing and retail. Alongside these are interesting projects in refurbishment – updating the interiors of historic buildings that have fallen into disuse. A recent boost to construction was the announcement that Poland will join the EU in 2004. “We are very excited about gearing the economy to the bigger market,” says Peter Maitland, facilities manager in Poland and central Europe for EC Harris. “It has added an important level of confidence that could boost the industry.” He hopes this will help address the urgent need for investment in roads and basic infrastructure such as water stations. UK consultancy firms have a particularly strong presence. The fact that quantity surveying has never been a recognised profession means that firms such as Gleeds and EC Harris have been able to step in, clearing the way for UK architects and engineers and providing the extra skills in cost management needed for new work. Firms in place include Bovis Lend Lease, Turner & Townsend and Mace, although they face tough competition from Scandinavian and German companies. In Warsaw, expat life can be pricey, with as much as half a salary going on rent – a two-bedroom apartment might cost between £2000 and £2500 a month. Yet increasingly, Western companies are offering to split costs, if not provide free housing. The cost of living is about 75% of that in the UK, while food and vodka are pretty cheap.
Salaries for QSs have fallen sharply on last year – by up to £8000 in some cases. Most work is to be found in civil projects, such as irrigation and roads, often in remote areas. Sharma says the most profitable sector to work in – and the one paying the highest salaries – is leisure: “Some very plush five-star hotels are being built, and the sector looks like it will grow.” But the market in Thailand is relatively small – Hays International has placed only four people there this year. QS Orbit HBP is one British firm to have established itself despite the size of the market. Sharma says the Thai economy is so volatile that consultancy work is worth pursuing: “Somebody always needs a consultant.” While salaries are on the low side, the cost of living is significantly lower than in the UK.
Salaries are still slightly above the international average, but half the level of a year ago. The recession in South-east Asia is still being felt and Hays International’s Sharma says that, although business is picking up, firms are cautious about recruiting expats. “The government wants to use local labour as far as possible. Recruiting expats is expensive. Also, you must prove that nobody in Hong Kong could do that job.” Despite the red tape, British contractors Amec and Balfour Beatty are finding work in the civil engineering sector. Robert Wallis, deputy chief executive of contractor Skanska and board member of its Hong Kong contractor Gammon, confirms that work is flowing steadily. “Margins are around 3%, as in the UK. I think the Chinese government has behaved in a mature way by not interfering too much in the way the construction industry operates in Hong Kong.” He says contracts are still managed in a British style, although the industry in Hong Kong is behind the UK in terms of safety and holidays. Sharma advises those interested in working in the country to avoid contractors. “Jobs with consultancies are more stable as the economy is still a bit wobbly.”
“QSs are in demand, and project managers with experience in refurbishment and fit-out projects,” says David McLean-Reid, a recruitment consultant at Hays International Australia. Project managers with experience in the completion of medium-density residential projects are particular favourites. He says there is a trend towards temporary contracts rather than permanent recruitment – for engineers in particular. Demand is high for engineers with experience in rail, earthworks and roads. Australia is a lot cheaper than the UK in terms of general expenses such as food, travel and entertainment, but rents can be high. Overall, salaries are lower in Australia than the UK, but, as McLean-Reid says: “Working in Oz means endless hours of sunshine, a higher standard of living and it’s warm in winter.”
The main concentration of Chinese development is still in and around Shanghai. Here, more cranes seem to frame the sky daily as the building of office and apartment towers continues. UK firms are taking advantage of this, with Baileys, Levitt Bernstein Associates and Davis Langdon & Everest among those already settled, but developers from Hong Kong and Singapore are leading the boom. Shanghai is the place to experience China’s mix of old and new. “On one side of the river is the flashy office district, the Bund, with its nightclubs and Bond Street-style shopping; on the opposite side, you’ve got the old town, its narrow streets lined with traders,” says Igor Rukuts, chairman of Northcroft and director of the Hong Kong and Singapore offices. The current drive is to attract foreign staff with families, which means, Rukuts says, a new generation of low-rise, US-style luxury housing – serviced apartment-blocks with health clubs and swimming pools. Beijing is less glamorous but there is still a range of construction projects. It is worth noting, however, that work in China does not reflect great opportunity for everyone. There is a sufficient local supply of engineers, so wages are low. Consultants, by contrast, are highly sought after to guide China’s young construction market, although bureaucracy and language problems can put off Westerners. Outside the big cities, heavy civil engineering dominates. There is a host of power and irrigation projects that tends to be run by six- or seven-firm-strong consortiums. UK brands such as Bovis are beginning to open up this field, but work on the schemes can be tough. The day usually lasts 10 or 11 hours with only one day off a week. They also tend to be based in remote places with poor transport links.
“British trained PQSs can walk straight into jobs,” says Hays International Australia’s McLean-Reid. Highly experienced senior project managers are also extremely sought after and can command a salary of up to £60,000, though the average is much lower. However, the market is very tight, with tender margins of 1-2% and last February Hartner Construction, a top five contractor, went bust. Consequently, those who can have a proven track record of negotiating contracts do best. McLean-Reid says the forecasts for the end of the year are positive and should pick up from September. There is a general shortage of mechanical, structural and civil engineers. Companies are particularly keen on Kiwis returning from the UK with good experience.
West Indies and the Caribbean
The main part of construction activity across the islands that make up the West Indies and the Caribbean is, not surprisingly, in the leisure sector. Most of the work is swanky hotel development, an area that demands specialist installation work and high-calibre teams that can achieve the level of finish often demanded. There are also jobs building the infrastructure to support the tourist trade. Interesting projects include providing facilities for cruise ships and upgrading harbours and ports, many of them historic fortifications. Projects last four to five years, but teams of high-tech experts are usually only brought in for a few months at a time. Firms already established include Mouchel, Mott MacDonald and Gibb. According to Adam Andreski, associate director of consultant WPS, there are major obstacles to working in the region. “The biggest problem is that local staff are not qualified and those that are tend to go to the US. It means there are severe skills shortages in all areas. “There is also the logistical problem of setting up an office. Each island has a tiny economy and you have to move with each project.” Some areas are notorious for racial and political conflict, particularly Trinidad. Between the rum and coconuts, the lifestyle on offer has obvious benefits, especially since work is usually on beach resorts and natural beauty spots. Nightlife and water sports are omnipresent and hotel meals and accommodation are often included in the package.
Joint ventures are the norm in Egypt, with three to four key foreign firms working alongside a local construction team and consultancy. These schemes are often funded by the World Bank or the municipality. Work is growing in the retail and leisure industries, with beach resorts being built along the sands of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea coast. The market elsewhere in Egypt is patchy, although Mace has found work on a cement factory in Alexandria for Blue Circle, and Bovis Lend Lease is developing supermarkets for J Sainsbury. There is a shortage of the more highly skilled workers, especially structural and civil engineers, architects, surveyors and construction managers with an M&E background. Keen to entice this kind of key staff away from the wealthier Arab states, Egypt offers foreign workers tax-free salaries. International companies are also conscious that they have to stay friendly to keep staff on board for the average two-year project. They offer attractive relocation packages, including salary protection, company cars and, increasingly, loyalty bonuses. Accommodation is also provided, often in big safe apartment blocks that have been chosen to dispel fears of terrorist attacks. Yet, despite all this, and the fact that the cost of living is 65% that of the UK, a relatively poor quality of life means this is not the place to take a family.