June/July 2007

Living the high life

International experience adds spice to Canadians’ careers

By D. Zlotnikov

Around the middle of the workday, Rudy Zdravlje takes a break for, as he terms it, “a thorough mixing session.” This isn’t a typical way one would describe a cafeteria lunch, but then this isn’t a typical work setting. Zdravlje is a Canadian mining engineer currently working at the Antamina copper and zinc mine in the mountains of Peru, roughly 4,000 metres above sea level.

The mine is a joint project, co-owned by four major investors: Teck Cominco (22.5%), BHP Billiton and Xstrata plc (33.75% each), and Mitsubishi Corporation (10%). Zdravlje and his colleague, Giorgio Akiki (who, at the time of writing, was out of communication range, rafting the Apurimac River), are two Teck Cominco engineers working in Peru on a year-long “secondment.”

The secondment, explained Debbie Martin, manager of talent attraction and development, Teck Cominco, is a professional exchange program. A Teck Cominco engineer is sent for a one-year project placement to an operation such as the one in Peru or the Pogo gold mine near Delta Junction, Alaska. In turn, an engineer from that site comes over to the appropriate Teck Cominco operation. The secondment has tremendous value not just for the employee, but for Teck Cominco as well, Martin pointed out.

“Exposure to a different language or culture helps our people round out their experience and skills,” Martin said. “What they absorb in one of our operations, they can carry to others and share that with their colleagues.”

“As a company that’s a partner of choice in the industry, cross-cultural awareness and training is important to Teck Cominco in fostering strong employees and strong organizations,” Martin added. “The experience, insight, and contacts gained are part of building a broader network.

“We do often visit other companies,” Martin continued, “so if you’ve made that initial contact you can call them up and say ‘we’d like to come and visit, have a tour, have some discussions …’ That really increases their overall effectiveness and value to the organization. The process of knowledge exchange at the corporate level can be greatly smoothed through these personal networks.”

Tom Reid, global director of marketing and communications at Hatch, agrees and offered some impressive examples.

“Look at the major areas of the world where we weren’t [present] and then suddenly were. South Africa, for example - we’ve met some great partners there, and we’re now doing one of the largest infrastructure projects in the world.” All this, Reid said, is due to knowing the right people, who Hatch has worked with in the past.

“We have worked on projects and found our kind of people: very capable and very professional. The same thing happened in Australia; that’s how we came to buy BHP Engineers from BHP Billiton. We bought the whole place, and that was 12 offices and 900 employees.”

Hatch, a major EPCM (engineering, procurement, and construction management) firm based in Mississauga, Ontario, does a lot of personnel movement around the globe. “Most of our activities are outside of Canada; they’re in South Africa, Australia, and South America,” said Reid. A major project can last as long as two years, from the concept stage all the way to construction and commissioning. Most personnel get brought in as the need for their skill arises, but “at the top of it all, there’d be a project manager who’d be there for the duration.” Needless to say, all this travel adds up to an enormous juggling act. “We have meetings once a week where we talk about nothing but the resources and moving them around the world or moving the work around the world,” explained Reid. “Sometimes it’s easier to move the work than to move the people.” But people still get moved around, and in impressive numbers. “We just recently moved a team from Australia to Canada and I think it was upwards of 200 people that were moved.” Some of these employees were returning from a previous posting to Australia, but the number is still very impressive.

Overall, Hatch employees are excited to have the opportunity to go and work in foreign countries. “One of our very first major overseas projects was the Richards Bay Mineral project in Richards Bay, South Africa, in the early 1970s. We sent about 15 families.” The project lasted almost two years, and the employees and their families stayed there for the duration.

To say that these families’ experience was positive would be an understatement. “Every single person that I’ve interviewed that was on that particular project all say they wish they could go back to South Africa, they loved it so much,” recalled Reid.

This reaction is not limited to the employees of Hatch. Four months into his year-long stay, Rudy Zdravlje is already thinking about going back to Peru. He’s also happy with his linguistic achievements. “Now that I am fairly fluent in Spanish, and I should be very fluent by the time I return to Canada, I can definitely see myself visiting more Spanish-speaking countries.” But, always open to new experiences, he added, “then again, might feel like trying another language.”

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