This forms part of my brand new series, Grads Gone Global. Through interviews I aim to explore how travel can be useful to career, education and perspective, beyond boozing round the backpacker trail in Thailand. From these articles I hope to provoke discussion, provide practical advice and hopefully inspire people to incorporate foreign travel into their life – not as an escape, but as an integral part of their experience.

An Introduction

Pete Ward is a civil engineer by training, who spent twelve years working overseas, from 1989-2002.

During those twelve years he got a pretty good handle on the Dagbani language of the Dagomba tribe in Ghana, drove a Landrover across West Africa, picked up hitchhikers from the nomadic Touareg tribe, assisted in the development of the Light Rapid Transit system in Kuala Lumpur, and built palaces for the Sultan of Oman in Muscat.

He now works for a university and an NHS teaching hospital, in a joint appointment leading a team responsible for the redevelopment of their estate.

He’s a brilliant speaker and a hilarious writer, and in general a person who I hugely admire (not just for the exciting-sounding travel experiences, either).

He also happens to be my uncle.

Reading through Pete’s responses to the questions I sent, two key things he said stuck in my mind.

(That is, apart from the fact that in 1990 they had to use Morse code to report their progress back to London from Accra. In lieu of an email or a quick chat over Skype. Bonkers.)

The first is that travel gave him greater opportunity for responsibility than he would have had in the UK. This led to greater challenges, but also greater rewards – and learning to adapt to situations outside of a rulebook, which is key for the working world.

The second is that in order to get a job abroad, you need to have a demonstrable understanding of what they do there and perhaps why it is different from the UK. You need some sense of how you could contribute to the company, and why they should employ you.

For a full transcript of the interview, head to this page. What follows below is a condensed, pared-down version, but all of what Pete talked to me about was really interesting, particularly if you want a background on the places he worked and more specifically what he did. I’d recommend reading the whole thing!

Ghana working as an engineer

Travelling to get away from the smell of chip fat

I always wondered whether my grandparents’ intrepid lifestyle inspired any travel inclination in their children. In my mum, at least, it seems to have sparked a definite predisposition towards beach-based holidays, with cultural activities as a side-note, and only with much wheedling (on my part!).

Pete claims that his travelling tendencies came largely from growing up in a UK seaside town:

“The desire to get away from chip fat was pretty strong.”

I suspected it went deeper than this.

“I think I travel because I find it interesting to get different perspectives and understand what makes us fall in love with a place.  Inevitably, it’s not the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Tower of London, but the people.”

“I think I travel because I find it interesting to get different perspectives and understand what makes us fall in love with a place. Inevitably, it’s not the Sydney Harbour Bridge or the Tower of London, but the people.” Click To Tweet

We are in agreement: meeting different people is by far and away the most valuable learning experience of a trip abroad.

Pete said, “I’ve found that the main thing that attracts me to new places is wanting to understand how they value culture, respect and diversity.  Of course that often depends on the individuals, but I’ve often been struck that even in countries where a government seems despotic and malevolent I’ve benefited from many examples of kindness from complete strangers who had nothing to gain.  So that’s what helps me decide how, when and why to travel.”

Kids in Tamale, Ghana

Meeting the community, Tamale, Ghana

Adventures in Western Africa

He went on to talk about his experience driving overland across Western Africa, in a Landrover that – by the sounds of it – was held together merely by Sellotape and bits of string at the end of the trip. Still, a great story:

“In 1992 a group of us bought a Landrover and drove it across West Africa as far as the border with Morocco, in an attempt to get back to London overland.  Morocco refused to let us in despite our having made it across across Burkina Faso, Mali, Senegal, Mauritania and the disputed territory of Western Sahara – many of which had far greater issues with the rule of law.

The valiant Landrover on the road between adjoining capitals Bamako and Dakar. Probably should have taken the train. Senegal 1992

We ended up having to drive back across Western Sahara and shipping the car to the UK from Dakar because the authorities wouldn’t allow us to sell it.  But I remember as we sat in a bar on the Moroccan border disconsolately sipping Tonica – Spanish tonic water was the closest we would ever get to Europe – that the main thing is the journey.

But I remember as we sat in a bar on the Moroccan border disconsolately sipping Tonica – Spanish tonic water was the closest we would ever get to Europe – that the main thing is the journey. Click To Tweet

Although we didn’t make it home overland I still remember the trip incredibly fondly and shared it with some of the people I’m still closest to today. On the way back across the Sahara, we picked up some people from the nomadic Touareg tribe.  We had been afraid of encountering the Touareg because of stories from other travellers of tribesmen stealing their vehicles and equipment as they tried to cross the desert by the Tamanrasset route.

In fact our passengers were lovely and wanted nothing more than a boogie to James Brown, which suggest that (a) we invented carpool karaoke, and (b) you should carefully check your sources.”

It seems to me that learning about the kindness of strangers is an important life lesson, if only because it sparks some desire in you to be that kind stranger in somebody else’s life, some day. Whether you’re the kind stranger giving a nomadic Touareg tribesman a lift across the desert, or the local giving helpful directions and a smile to a weary backpacker, these things tend to pay themselves forward.

Travelling by landrover across western Africa

Near Tambacounda, Senegal 1992

Finding the opportunity

More concretely, though: how did Pete get these opportunities for some seriously good pub quiz knowledge and great material for the ‘two truths, one lie’ ice breaker game?

He suggested that it’s not as difficult as it might sound. As long as you don’t pitch the job application as, ‘I’d like to travel the world on somebody else’s dime, please,’ you’ll probably have a fairly high chance of success.

“I got my first job with a UK-based contractor, Taylor Woodrow, who had a graduate training scheme which included some time spent working on their projects abroad.  After university I had applied to quite a few UK firms which were active overseas and had a surprisingly positive response – perhaps because I was able to show that I understood what they did internationally, why I was interested in it and how I could contribute – rather than just having a vague idea about wanting to travel as an end in itself.

“People sometimes say those opportunities are rare, but 75% of UK FTSE100 companies’ earnings come from overseas and most firms now recognise the value of having a diverse and engaged workforce.

More: 8 ways travel makes real life a whole lot easier

“In my recent experience they’re keen to help people travel and broaden their mind, but they do need the candidates to be willing to put together the case for doing it in an objective way, and focus on the value they can bring in those roles.”

Crucially, he pointed out that, “working overseas gave me more responsibility and opportunities than I would have had in the UK, and that was what drew me to it.”

Pete with earthmoving team in Ghana, 1991

Travelling right

Pete also had some wisdom for the Lonely Planet-aholics, of whom – let’s face it – there are many.

“I saw many people on that journey who religiously followed the recommendations in their guide books, even though the guide books themselves said they should find what worked for them.

More: Why I’m rethinking budget backpacking (and maybe you should too)

I met quite a few people who seemed to be doing it more because they wanted to be perceived in a certain way, even if they would have been much happier travelling in a different way, or staying at home.

I think the key is to find what genuinely works for you and make sure you’re doing it for reasons that make sense to you, rather than how you might want to appear.”

Coming home

Then of course, he eventually came home. Was it hard? I wondered. The answer was a bit surprising, but then I found that I totally identified with it from my own (more limited) experience.

“I had anticipated hating the rain and dark evenings and thought we’d be desperate to work abroad again after six months.

“Maybe it was something to do with good weather in that first winter; or remembering how beautiful the seasons can be; or perhaps the fact that much of the kindness and friendliness we found in people elsewhere in the world could also be found in the West Midlands if you knew where to look.

Maybe it was something to do with good weather in that first winter; or remembering how beautiful the seasons can be; or perhaps the fact that much of the kindness and friendliness we found in people elsewhere in the world could… Click To Tweet

“Whatever the reason, I’m glad I travelled when I was young enough to enjoy it to the full but also that I came back when the time was right.  I learned a huge amount in the process.”

A brief history of working across the world

The key point of this series is to provide people with practical advice (as well as, you know, wisdom from those who have done it), about how you can incorporate travel into your graduate career. To this end, I asked Pete to give me a quick run down of who he worked for, how he got each job, and what he would advise for those who would aspire to follow a similar path.

“After graduating in 1989 I went to work overseas almost straight away and only came back to live in the UK in 2002.  That wasn’t my intention at first, but the social and cultural appeal of travel grows on some people with every step, so I ended up living and working abroad for 12 years.”

Time flies when you’re having fun.

Here’s a summary of Pete’s international career:

  • Graduate scheme with Taylor Woodrow International that took him to Ghana, Oman and Malaysia. This company has now been incorporated into Vinci.
  • Design secondment in Malaysia with Travers Morgan, now Vivendi.
  • Worked for Omnium de Traitement et de Valorisation for the rest of his time in Malaysia, now also part of Vivendi.
  • Was contacted by Tarmac to work in Trinidad and Dominica, which then became Carillion (which went bust in 2018).

Here’s what Pete has to offer by way of advice for aspiring global engineers:

“I got a 2:2 in civil engineering in 1989 from manchester university, and suspect I narrowly avoided a third.

“I worked in Ghana, Oman and the first half of my time in Malaysia for Taylor Woodrow International, which has since been incorporated into Vinci.  For my design secondment in Malaysia I worked for Travers Morgan, which then became Symonds and was subsequently acquired by Capita from Compagnie Generale des Eaux… which then became Vivendi (now Veolia).

“I joined Taylor Woodrow’s graduate training programme and trained under agreement for my chartered civil engineering exams, and became a chartered engineer and Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1995, and a Fellow in 2013.  I would recommend that people think about what counts as a serious qualification in their chosen field, and work towards that.  You always take those qualifications with you and they are a measure of your commitment.

“For the second half of my time in Malaysia, I worked for Omnium de Traitement et de Valorisation (OTV), part of CGdE and then Vivendi.  I was contacted by Tarmac to work in Trinidad and Dominica, which then became Carillion which went bust in 2018, twelve years after I had left.  The commercial world is always changing, which is why it’s so important to be clear on what we want and need from it.

“All my projects have been associated with public infrastructure.  Most UK and international contractors work in public infrastructure, so I’d suggest that people build their expertise in delivering projects in that sector while developing a clear interest and understanding of how it is relevant to developing economies.  Most companies support that as part of their business or Corporate Social Responsibility programmes, which is a good way to build your CV when the time comes to apply for roles abroad.

“On many occasions I have had to do jobs I found boring, lonely, tiresome and difficult to stick with; and several times I’ve realised (usually thanks to wise advice) that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was, or was focused on the wrong things or doing them for the wrong reasons.
“So I think anyone seeking fulfilling travel has to be willing to be quite resilient and patient, and to put short term frustrations in the context of their overall journey.  It also helps to objectively identify people you respect (and ask yourself why); to be brave enough to ask them for mentoring and honest advice, and to be ready for some uncomfortable discussions.”

Final thoughts

“Civil engineering was a good subject and gave me a numerate degree and a working knowledge of how to build a bridge, although I can’t think of a time when I’ve really used the technical content of the course.

“I did find myself in Northern Ghana in 1989 needing to know the equation for the volume of a sphere, and had to work it out from first principles because I couldn’t explain what to write to the morse code guy.  That seems amazingly anachronistic in the age of the internet, but even now travel encourages you to live on your wits when there’s no wifi, which can only be good.

“I was lucky enough to travel early in my career and was given huge responsibility for projects for which I was completely unprepared.  Now that I work back in the UK, I often find that people are uncomfortable dealing with work and social situations where there isn’t a rule book.  That happens almost every day when you travel, and often when you try to host a modest dinner party.  So the key is to get out there and have a go.  Employers recognise this as a skill, honestly.”

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Grads gone global: civil engineer around the world