Moving abroad can be the only way to find work in a recession, but it can also be a gamble. Emily Wright spoke to three farflung Brits about the sacrifices they have made and the difficulties of fitting in, as well as the exciting opportunities for those willing to play the game
Times like these call for drastic measures. And sometimes that means working half a world away from your family, or risking frostbite just to attend a business meeting. The recession has forced people to look for work wherever they can find it, unfortunately at precisely the same time the industry’s favourite bolthole, Dubai, has come grinding to a halt. So moving abroad, while for many a necessary means of survival, has also become an increasingly risky business. Building spoke to three UK professionals who have taken the gamble.
Robert Hewitt, 38, is a director at Turner & Townsend. He moved to Mumbai to head up the firm’s Indian operations in June 2008
It was very daunting, moving here. You fly in over the slums and when you get off the plane the heat is like a wall. You just think, “How am I going to get my head around this?” The poverty is hard to deal with. Every time your car stops you get children tapping on your window. I try to focus on the fact that us being out here brings regeneration to the country and we are looking into projects that will mean rehousing slum dwellers into affordable accommodation.
The other difficult thing is that I have come out here on my own. My wife has her own business that she couldn’t leave. So we make do with speaking every day and I get home every six weeks for a week or two. When you work for a firm with 60 offices worldwide, you can’t expect to be sitting behind one desk in one office forever. My wife understands that.
But it helps that I am always busy. I work six days a week and I start at 8am. To stay in touch with the UK, which is five-and-a-half hours behind, I have to work late regularly too. It can be a long day. It can be a slow process to get things done here, but you just have to accept that. Here we say “TII” – This Is India. Things just take time. Clients want to know you, trust you and understand you, so it can take 18 months of just talking and meetings before you start to pick up work.
You really need to do an awful lot of research before coming out here. While living in India is cheap in many ways, flat rental is expensive, especially in Mumbai where prices can be even higher than in London. On top of that, you’ll probably need a car and a driver – otherwise, finding your way around these streets is impossible. It’s chaos.
There has definitely been an increase in interest in relocating to India from UK consultants. We are getting three or four CVs a day from British candidates, from T&T and rival firms. We are looking for both local and expat staff with particular interest in people of Indian origin in the UK.
Jones Lang LaSalle’s Charles Cresser, 30, moved to Russia with his fiancée Kate in October 2008. He is now associate director in the firm’s Moscow office
You don’t ever think about the temperature difference between 0°C and –20°C. That is, until you move to Russia. I was totally unprepared for the cold and I had to buy a proper Russian hat, coat, gloves, thermals – the lot. It is –25°C in Moscow at the moment and I am going somewhere for a meeting next week where it’s –48°C. You can’t show any skin at all there or you’ll get frostbite.
I came out here with my fiancée and she has now got a job at the British embassy. But it was tough at first. I remember arriving at the airport with all of our luggage and looking at each other in the taxi as we were taken to our apartment and thinking, “Right, well here we go”.
Apart from the cold, anyone looking to relocate to Russia needs to be aware that life will be very difficult if they don’t speak the language. And it’s very hard to learn. When I arrived, I couldn’t even drive as I was unable to read maps or road signs. I have been learning the language for a while now so at least I can look at a map.
Business in Russia involves a lot more paperwork than in the UK. I used to get frustrated at how long everything took, but I am getting used to it now. It’s a country with a lot of corruption, so the police have strict rules and accountability procedures, which require a contract to be signed and stamped before almost anything is done. You also need to be much more aware of who you’re dealing with out here than in the UK. You must check that who you are talking to is who they say they are. That’s why we only work with corporate clients.
While it is true that quite a few ex-pats went home after the start of the crisis in October 2008, over the past few months we have seen renewed interest from the UK. I have spoken with architects, contractors, surveyors and clients who are all sending staff over in the next few months. The staff tend to be at senior or director level.
People forget that Moscow is only four hours from London. The potential is huge as is the scope for development. There are big projects like the Winter Olympics coming up, which should provide a boost, and there are signs of recovery on the property side of things. UK firms in particular have a good reputation for being honest, transparent and successful out here.
My advice for anyone looking to relocate to Russia would be to visit first to see whether it will suit you. Also make sure you get your accommodation sorted before you arrive through an agent here. Finally, be ready to drink a lot of vodka. There are entire aisles dedicated to it in supermarkets. That’s one major perk of course, the vodka is amazing!
Paul Benson, 48, moved to Sydney in September 2009, and now heads up the hotel and leisure sector group at Cyril Sweett
Things went wrong for me in the UK when I found my position in Cyril Sweett was made redundant along with a third of the workforce in 2009. Those who weren’t “let go” were reduced to part-time or took a pay cut.
Getting work in the UK is now extremely difficult even with a substantial and extensive CV. Redundant directors of companies are competing for more junior positions. So I turned my attention abroad. In August 2009 Cyril Sweett’s international division contacted me to see whether I would be interested in a position in Sydney. I jumped at the opportunity.
My role is to help Cyril Sweett structure its growth in the QS sector within its newly acquired company BurnsBridge and to assist on technical work. The sort of work QSs do out here in Australia is very different to the UK. The Australian QS is a cost planner. Most British QSs out here are either frustrated or have found their way into project management. The experienced QSs see project managers around them doing just what they used to do and that can be difficult.
I would say that if you are an associate surveyor upwards applying for work out here then you don’t have to be afraid to go for PM jobs. If you are more junior then go for the QS roles and enjoy the fact that you will have excellent training by Australian standards.
There are plenty of opportunities here for construction professionals and there are more and more expats arriving, but going abroad was not an easy decision for me by any means. I had to leave behind my wife, my son of 13 and my daughter of 20, and I lost a life I was entirely used to. You can be very lonely in a big city such as Sydney. Aussies are a friendly bunch, but they all have homes to go to. I have found lots of time to go to the gym and ride horses. I go to the beach at weekends and read a lot. I’ve read over 20 books since I arrived in September.
I try to get back home as much as possible, but it can sometimes be four months before I see my family and friends. I may move them out here, but that would be a huge upheaval. It sounds so obvious, but while the culture is similar to the UK’s, you have to remember that when you move to Australia you are going to the other side of the planet.
Original print headline - Risk!
Why choose India?
According to Global Construction 2020, India‘s economy will grow by a massive 164% in the next 10 years and will overtake Japan to become the third fastest growing market in the world. On top of that, opportunities in India are well suited to UK firms as it has a large English-speaking population and UK expertise is well respected owing to the large number of Indian nationals who have been educated in the UK.
Turner & Townsend certainly thinks the time is right to be building up a presence in India. The firm has an office in Mumbai and has plans to open another in New Delhi later this year. There are now 25 people in the Mumbai branch but the company aims to employ 100 people in India by the end of the year, a large proportion of whom will be expats.
Why choose Russia?
While there can be little doubt that its commercial market has suffered in the recession, according to the Global Construction survey Russia will be the highest growing construction market in eastern Europe between 2014–20, with growth predicted at 7% a year between 2009 and 2020. The report adds that construction output will increase at about 1.5 times the rate of growth in the overall economy, reflecting the poor condition of the country’s housing, the shortage of high-quality commercial property, and the comparatively poor state of infrastructure.
There are opportunities in the immediate future, too. In 2010 the construction of residential properties is planned to reach 12.5 million m2 a year. Infrastructure is a particularly strong area, accounting for more than two-thirds of output. Capital spending on roads, railways and airports will be driven by a 13 trillion rouble (£275bn) federal programme to modernise the country’s transport system between 2010 and 2015.
These transport projects will include the country’s first PPP contracts, signed in 2009. Some 20% of infrastructure development and modernisation projects planned for the next 10 years are to be financed through PPPs, and UK expertise in this area would be well received.
Opportunities for UK firms include a £950m contract for the construction of the first section of a toll motorway between Moscow and St Petersburg, and a £1.3bn contract for the upgrade of Pulkovo airport.
James Morris, director of project and development services at Jones Lang LaSalle, says Russia is an attractive location to send UK staff: “And it’s not just in Moscow – it is worth remembering that big international companies are building out in the smaller cities too.”
Why choose Australia?
Australia is looking increasingly attractive to UK firms suffering in the downturn. The country avoided going into recession, and looks likely to retain a resilient economy thanks to the fact it is a predominantly resource/commodities based economy and is oil and gas rich with good export links to China. The forecast for growth of the country’s construction output between now and 2020 is 4.3%. Though this may seem relatively modest, it is based on a continuation of already robust growth rates over the past few years.
Cyril Sweett’s Jimmi Bradbury has been back and forth a lot to the country over the last year and is convinced that sending over UK staff is a sensible strategy. “With all the infrastructure work to be done in Australia, plus the oil and gas people could de very well indeed working out there.
We have sent someone out there to set things up and we will be looking to send more staff too in the coming months. We are definitely on the lookout for QSs and project managers.”
David Knowles, managing director of construction recruitment firm PRS Selection, says he has noticed demand picking up in the last few months: “There is a lot of infrastructure work going on in Australia at the moment and there is the added bonus that the country’s economy has not been affected as much as the rest of the world by the recession.”