A city skyline is highlighted against the sunset. Two executives are shown shaking hands in silhouette.
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By Robert L. Reid

The civil engineering field is an increasingly global enterprise that poses unique challenges and opportunities for engineers and their firms. 

The 21st-century civil engineer operates in an increasingly global market in which his or her firm might open new offices around the world to provide services domestically or internationally, design projects with help from multiple offices in various countries, offer interested employees the chance to work in other countries on a short- or long-term basis, or achieve other goals by operating in international locations.

This global approach is pursued in different ways, depending on the civil engineering firm’s strategic interests, the business opportunities that arise at certain times, the geopolitical conditions in different parts of the globe, and even the makeup of the firm’s overall workforce.

Houston-based Walter P Moore, for instance, opened its first office outside the U.S. in Pune, India, more than 12 years ago when one of the firm’s Indian-born partners returned to that country for family reasons. “We didn’t want to lose him,” explains Dilip Choudhuri, P.E., F.SEI, M.ASCE, Walter P Moore’s president and CEO, who was himself born in India and came to the U.S. for his engineering education.

Soon after opening the Pune office, Walter P Moore launched its second international office, choosing Panama because of an opportunity there to work on projects with a local steel fabricator in what was typically a concrete-focused market, explains Choudhuri. The firm has since added another office in India as well as three in Canada and one in Mexico.

Staying power

New York City-based Thornton Tomasetti — which has more than 20 offices outside the U.S. in Australia, Canada, China, India, the United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam — works on projects around the globe but generally opens a new office only where the business opportunities are likely to be long-standing, explains Gary Panariello, Ph.D., P.E., S.E., a managing director in Thornton Tomasetti’s San Francisco office. In the early 2000s, for instance, Thornton Tomasetti engineered a series of soccer stadiums in Iraq during efforts to rebuild that country following the fall of Saddam Hussein. But the firm did not establish an Iraqi office because it did not expect to engage in additional work there, Panariello says.

By contrast, Thornton Tomasetti entered the market in China around the same time and did open offices in that country because its government was “very interested in building supertall structures, which is a Thornton Tomasetti specialty,” Panariello notes. Moreover, China sought out international design teams and offered the potential for ongoing work, which made the prospect of opening offices there attractive, Panariello says.

Geopolitical issues can also play a critical role in international operations. During the Iraqi stadium projects, Thornton Tomasetti hired a security team to help safeguard its engineers, who sometimes wore flak vests for additional protection in the field, Panariello says. The firm also used to conduct considerable business in Russia but stopped around 2022 as international relations between the U.S. and Russia deteriorated — prior to the nation’s war with Ukraine and other more recent disputes.

In an office, numerous plants line the backs of workstations.
(Photograph courtesy of Stantec)

There is no advantage “for us as a private firm to be in the middle of a battle between political superpowers,” Panariello notes, adding: “There are just some parts of the world where it’s more difficult to operate.”

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated that point as well, especially in China where the lockdowns in some cities were far more restrictive than anywhere in the U.S. Thornton Tomasetti even had to consider how to get food to its employees who were living in cities that had been completely shut down, Panariello notes.

Following the pandemic, Buro Happold — which is based in Bath, England, and has nearly 30 offices outside the U.K. in other European countries, China, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and the U.S. — has experienced an ongoing need to send its engineers to work in offices around the world, says John Piombino, a principal and the head of human resources for Buro Happold’s U.S. operations.

But the “world has changed,” Piombino notes, and so have Buro Happold’s global mobility policies for international assignments. For example, the rise of remote work suggests that what might have required a long-term assignment to a foreign office before the pandemic might now be accomplished by a shorter stay in the actual office or even just several business trips each month.

“We’re looking at each project and opportunity individually,” Piombino says, “and we are trying to continuously improve our mobility policies.”

Assessing sites

When the top leaders at Walter P Moore consider opening a new international office (or even a new domestic office), they follow a four-stage process — outlined in a company video — that provides guided instructions and resources to help them decide whether to approve the new site, Choudhuri says. These resources include “our history of office openings, past office business plans, financial performance of past offices, competitive maps,” and other information, he adds.

According to the video, the four-stage process begins with an assessment that examines essential information about market conditions in the proposed office location and explores how the company can be successful in this new market.

In the second stage, a preliminary business plan is created that focuses on the vision and purpose of the proposed office. It considers which practice areas will be involved and what leadership and personnel will be required. The company’s legal and financial teams will assist at this stage with preliminary regulatory and financial assessments.

Stage 3 sees the development of a formal business plan that spells out the strategies and goals for the new office, explaining the motivations and key drivers behind the effort. The team will consider more extensively the financials, market conditions, and resources required to make the proposed office a success.

The final stage involves a review and evaluation of the plan as well as the ultimate approval or rejection by the firm’s CEO and executive directors. Should the proposed new office be rejected, the process is still considered useful for the information it generates, which the company can refer back to at a later date if conditions change, the video concludes.

Melting pots and skill sets

Thornton Tomasetti staffed its offices in China, at least initially, with existing employees of Chinese heritage who had been working in the U.S. These employees were willing “to either move back full time or shuttle back and forth” between the two countries as needed, Panariello says.

Having been founded in the melting pot of New York City, Thornton Tomasetti has many employees with historical or cultural ties to different regions of the world, Panariello adds, which makes it fairly easy to find existing employees who can assist with starting up a new location. Sometimes, though, that connection is only tongue-in-cheek. Kyle Krall, P.E., is a senior principal and director of Thornton Tomasetti’s UAE office in Dubai. “Though he tells everyone he’s from ‘Lebanon,’” Panariello notes with a smile, “he means Lebanon, Pennsylvania.”

Eventually, the firm’s international offices are staffed with locally hired engineers or with people from other countries in the region, depending on the ease or difficulty in obtaining work permits, Panariello notes.

A composite image juxtaposes a map of the world with arc lines and highlighted locations stretching from country to country, along with a skyline and silhouettes of executives.
(Photograph courtesy of istock.com/metamorworks)

Stantec, based in Edmonton, Alberta, has more than 400 offices around the world. The firm generally expands into new markets and countries by acquiring existing firms in those locations, which also means acquiring the existing staff, notes Joe Geller, a senior vice president, global integration leader, and the regional business leader for infrastructure in the U.K. and Ireland. But the firm has also opened new offices intended to expand its footprint in a particular region. In Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, for instance, Stantec started a new office that was initially headed by an engineer from the U.S. As work in that office grew, the American engineer eventually returned home and leadership was transitioned to an experienced local individual, Geller says.

Stantec’s goals in acquiring or opening new offices often involve a desire to “fill in the gaps” in the skill sets that can be provided from that location, Geller explains. In the U.K., for instance, Stantec’s initial acquisitions had focused on water engineering projects. But those were eventually supplemented with firms that specialized in transport, planning, civil engineering, mixed-use developments, structures, environmental engineering, and other infrastructure sectors.

In his own case, Geller joined Stantec in 2007 when his 60-person landscape architecture and civil engineering firm was acquired as Stantec’s first foray into the Boston market. By the time Geller left Massachusetts in 2019 to help Stantec with integrating global acquisitions, the company had become one of the largest multidisciplinary firms in New England, with nearly 1,000 employees there.

Opportunities and entrepreneurs

Even when an international office is staffed mostly by local engineers, there are often opportunities to send engineers from the U.S. and other locales to help with certain projects or assist the international office in various ways. This is especially true when an expatriate engineer has a particular expertise or experience that is needed on a particular project. Also, it helps when the new office is just getting started or has just been acquired and the parent engineering firm wants to help introduce its entrepreneurial corporate culture to its new employees.

“When we acquire a firm, we want to make sure they feel they are part of the Stantec culture as soon as possible,” notes Geller. That culture is “very inclusive and encourages a lot of investigation and innovation,” he adds. Plus, there is that strong emphasis on entrepreneurialism — which for Geller was part of the attraction of being acquired by Stantec because his own firm had been strongly entrepreneurial. “So the idea of joining a large firm that was so entrepreneurial, that provided so many opportunities to do great things, and where the culture encourages that” was a powerful incentive, Geller explains.

Moreover, “one of the real benefits of being part of a global company is that you have the opportunity to travel and grow across the globe and become part of that global business,” explains Geller, who has helped introduce Stantec’s culture to newly acquired firms in the U.K., Australia, and even the U.S.

Entrepreneurship is also critical to Thornton Tomasetti when opening an international office. “When you’re sending someone overseas, you want to know if this person has an entrepreneurial bent,” says Panariello. “Are they ready to try something other than just sitting in an office” and working on one particular project? Are they willing and able to “go out and win more business for the firm?” Panariello asks.

A company’s culture is also shared with international offices through the use of logos and other branding, by the color schemes within the office, and even with the selection of office furniture that is intended to be similar to the furniture in the company’s other offices, says Choudhuri. Providing the same level of technology is also critical so that whether you are in an office in the U.S., India, or Mexico you can plug in your computer and easily access the same conference call you could be on in any other office, Choudhuri notes.

It takes “some planning and thinking and knowledge management strategies” to ensure that level of technological compatibility, Choudhuri adds. “We’ve had to pay attention to the internet infrastructure in different countries to make sure the speeds are there for the offices,” he says. Moreover, with the spread of hybrid and remote work because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Walter P Moore also ensures that individual employees in the U.S. and around the world have sufficient internet access at home. This includes a stipend to help employees maintain their home internet connections.

Overcoming obstacles

Working in another country is definitely not a vacation. Instead, it can lead to difficult adjustments for the employee and his or her partner, spouse, and other family members. That is why Panariello wants to be certain that a potential candidate for an international office “knows how to deal with challenges and how to thrive in a new environment. You want to be sure they won’t be overwhelmed by the change and be counting the days until they go home.”

Ironically, the ideal candidates for certain international assignments are sometimes also the people least likely to take such opportunities, says Piombino. That is because the visas and work permits required by certain nations are granted more readily to engineers with specialized skills or experience. But those engineers also tend to be the most senior people in an engineering firm who might have multiple business or personal commitments that make it difficult to spend weeks or months away from home.

Junior engineers have much greater flexibility about such travel, Piombino notes, but do not necessarily have the experience the assignment requires.

Among the many challenges in opening and operating international offices are the different tax codes from country to country, which Piombino says are becoming more complicated. At times, it is more expensive for a firm to send an engineer from the U.S. to certain locations than it is to hire someone locally through an employment firm that charges a stiff commission, he explains.

In some circumstances, it can be advantageous to set up international offices or groups of offices as separate entities within the parent firm or as completely separate companies. Some nations also impose currency restrictions that limit what a foreign firm can do with the revenue it earns within that country. Even the real estate of the international office itself can create issues.

When Stantec acquires new firms, for instance, it often consolidates offices within the same city or country. But this can be complicated by leases for the existing office spaces that expire on different schedules. In Perth, Australia, for instance, Stantec had to wait roughly two years to bring together about 500 employees from three separate offices around the city. But Stantec believes the effort is worth the time it takes because it helps promote collaboration “when you’re all together in same office,” Geller says.

When civil engineers are going to spend lengthy periods at international sites, their firms can assist them with understanding their new tax situations, setting up bank accounts in the new cities or countries, finding housing, and meeting the other necessities of living abroad. Buro Happold, for instance, tries to provide temporary corporate housing for employees in new cities and countries to give them time to examine their new settings and find out where they would like to live, notes Piombino. The firm also tries to provide some corporate housing for employees when they return to the U.S. after several years in other countries to help them adjust to coming home.

Paydays and holidays

Language is a potential challenge in many international situations. Although English is commonly used for business across the globe, people do speak and write it at different levels of proficiency. So Panariello feels it can be difficult for an engineer who does not speak the language of the country in which he or she is working — whether it is an American in a country where English is not the primary language or an engineer who comes to the U.S. from a non-English-speaking country. If the work is not done “in your native language, you’re going to have to work (harder) to be as effective as you want to be,” Panariello says. Consequently, firms have, on an individual basis, assisted some employees with language courses.

Payroll issues are also a concern. Depending on how long an engineer will be working in another country, it can be more competitive to pay him or her in the local currency, notes Piombino. Moreover, in the U.S., many companies give out bonuses in December, says Panariello. But in China and India, for example, the most important holidays are at different times of the year, and it helps to instruct your accounting department on the different schedules for paying out bonuses based on location, Panariello explains.

Being prepared to meet the challenges and opportunities of international operations is good advice for anyone in today’s civil engineering industry. For the engineers themselves, it can be especially wise to keep their passports up to date. There is a big world beyond one’s own borders and a lot to build in it. 

Robert L. Reid is the senior editor and features manager of Civil Engineering.

This article first appeared in the May/June 2024 issue of Civil Engineering as “World View.”