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At Outpost Recruitment, we strive to build learning tools to help newcomers be successful in Canada. We’ve invited a range of successful immigrants, across various construction and engineering roles, to share their experience in moving to Canada and growing their career.
In the latest of our series, Stephan Blank chats with Ruairi Spillane and shares his experience in moving to Canada to work as a construction estimator.
Stephan Blank – Construction Estimator
I am a Senior Construction Estimator at Kinetic Construction who relocated from Germany to Vancouver in 2006.
I am a single dad of an amazing daughter and construction professional of 22 years.
I am the current Chair of the Under 40 Professionals at the Vancouver Construction Association and I am training to finish my first Ironman.
Other articles in this series:
- Eoghan Hayes – Mechanical Engineer / Energy Modeller (Building Services Consultancy)
- Colin Rigney – Construction Project Manager, Buildings (Main Contractor)
- Fergal Duff – Project Manager, (Owner Representative)
- Dave Green – Commissioning Consultant, Buildings
- Niamh Ní Chróinín – Senior Construction Estimator / Project Controls Manager (Main Contractor)
- Alan Moat – Construction Estimator, Buildings (Main Contractor)
Your move to Canada
Why did you choose Canada?
I have traveled almost entire Europe and 2006 Canada was my first destination outside of Europe.
I spent three weeks around Vancouver / Vancouver Island and simply fell in love with this place. Also Canada had just been awarded the 2010 Winter Olympics and it was “construction paradise” at the time which made the decision even easier.
Was career progression or lifestyle a bigger decision factor in the decision?
Both are equally important and this remains the case.
In Germany, you tend to work hard and don’t really enjoy live as much. What I found here in Vancouver is that you still work hard and you have fantastic opportunities to progress in your career but also you take the time to enjoy live.
What made you choose Vancouver?
The pure beauty of this place, the ocean, the mountains and the nature. Also, you have similar weather conditions to Europe.
Did you move alone?
This was the most difficult part of the decision. I am a single dad, my daughter was nine years old at the time, and I didn’t know how this whole plan would work out.
I left her with my parents for 18 months until I was fully settled in, and then brought her to Vancouver.
It was a hard time, but looking back it was the best decision I made in a long time. Moving to a new country is a bigger deal than people think at first.
I had packed up my bags four times in the first year, and was ready to give up. Today I am very happy that I didn’t, but I’d advise anyone to really think everything entirely through – it really is a very big decision.
Your education and professional experience prior to Canada
What motivated you to study construction?
I was always fascinated by construction of any kind, so my career choice was quite easy.
I wanted to be a Project Manager, but I wanted to learn the job the proper way and start on the tools. I did my apprenticeship in bricklaying and formwork carpentry, and worked my way up through the ranks as lead hand, foreman, superintendent, and finally became a Project Manager before doing my masters.
To what extent did your career diverge from the original plan?
It didn’t. Somehow, I was very lucky and driven, and everything worked out as planned.
Tell us about your career path prior to moving to Canada.
From 1994 to 2006, I worked for a general contractor which specialized in concrete work up to €30 million.
- 1994 – 1997: Start apprenticeship as bricklayer / formwork carpenter
- 1998 – 1999: Lead hand
- 1999 – 2000: Foreman
- 2001 – 2003: Superintendent
- 2003 – 2006: Project manager
Preparing for the move
What did you know about your career prospects in Canada?
What did you do to prepare for your move? What was the biggest challenge?
The biggest challenge was the language. I didn’t speak a word of English, so I booked a course in a three-month language school in Vancouver.
In the last month, I spoke enough English to apply for a job and go to interviews. Once I secured a job, I rented an apartment and went back to Germany to sell everything in my old place, and three weeks later, I started working in Vancouver.
Had you previously worked in a foreign country?
Did you have a professional network in Canada prior to your move?
Your professional development in Canada
How did you find your current role?
The quick answer? Hard work.
My first experience in Canada was anything else than pleasant; a larger formwork contractor here hired me as a project manager.
The week I moved here, I was told they didn’t have a project for me and asked if I could start on the tools for three months.
Once started, I found that the owner had done this with a few more people and that was just the beginning. I got charged a crazy amount of money for my work permit and I was paid less then half what was agreed to in the contract.
I confronted the owner and his response was: “Your work permit is only valid for my company, what do you want to do? Go back to Germany if you don’t like it.”
Exploring my options, I found a great general contractor who was willing to help me.
I signed a job offer with PCL Westcoast in April 2007, but had to wait until October 2007 for the new work permit to arrive.
In this time I was still working on the tools for the first contractor. I worked for four years at PCL as a Construction Estimator and Project Manager and met some great people who helped me grow in this industry.
Moving on, I had good opportunities at Doka Canada and Scott Construction before starting as a Senior Estimator at Bouygues Building Canada.
In this role, I was exposed to Design build and PPP projects valued at over CAD$100 million. Now, I am working as a Senior Estimator for Kinetic Construction, a mid-size general contractor specializing in new construction, tenant fit outs and design build projects.
What are the key differences between your role in Canada and Germany?
Now as an estimator, I am responsible for securing the work instead of executing the work as project manager back in Germany.
Was there anything you could have done prior to your move to prepare?
Learning the language, and especially all the specific construction terms.
Have your career objectives changed since you arrived?
Not really, I am still in construction. The only thing what changed is the actual full time estimating position, which now brings great and exciting new goals that I want to archive.
Working environment in Canada
Is the working environment in Canada similar or different to previous locations in which you have worked?
It depends on the size of the company you choose to work for.
Working for a larger contractor was a far different environment than the family-sized company that I am used to in Germany. That’s probably why I feel very happy working at Kinetic, as it reminds me of the company I worked for back home.
Both the large and the small contractor have advantages and disadvantages. The actual construction environment is quite different in construction methods and quality of work.
What are the three main challenges you had to overcome to adapt to your role?
There were really just two: the language and the construction methods.
What actions did you take to help you settle into your new work environment?
I asked a lot of questions. Never assume something and never be afraid to ask a question doesn’t matter how silly the question may sound.
How is the work-life balance in your profession?
It’s as balanced as you choose to make it. I tend to focus more on work than free time but it’s definitely possible to have a good work-life balance.
How would you rate the career prospects for newcomers in your role/industry?
Great! Canada has not nearly enough professionals for the years to come.
Your lifestyle in Canada
What do you like most about Canada?
I love all the fun things I can do here. Swimming, mountain biking, hiking, cycling and skiing.
What actions did you take to help you settle in Canada on a personal/family level?
Volunteering to meet some people.
Do you see Canada as a long-term home?
You never know what the future has in store, but I am sure it will be in Vancouver.
What was the best career advice you have received?
Listen, learn and ask questions. Surround yourself with people in positions you want to be in and learn from them. Go out and network.
What advice would you give to people looking for work in your field?
Make a plan and see it through. There will be problems just keep sticking to your plan and don’t give up. Get some help from people like Ruairi.
Follow Stephan’s path
Interested in working in construction or engineering within Canada? Want to find a Construction Estimator role?
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