Torn apart by the Gulf War and divided by deep political and religious rivalries, the Middle East may not appear to be the ideal place to go job-hunting.
But American job seekers have swamped the switchboards at the Houston offices of Saudi Arabian Oil Co. after the oil giant placed want ads in U.S. newspapers Sunday announcing 1,000 engineering and other positions in the Saudi kingdom. The hiring is part of a long-term, multibillion-dollar project to expand the capacity of Saudi oil production facilities.
“Our experience has surprised everyone,” said Saudi Aramco spokesman Bill Tracy. “Our switchboard was so flooded that AT&T; called and asked to see if our phones were broken.” To better handle the volume, Aramco’s next series of classified ads will refer job seekers to employment agencies, Tracy said.
The Saudi expansion program, coupled with the massive effort to rebuild war-shattered Kuwait--a project one Kuwaiti official estimated this week would cost $500 billion--will create thousands of jobs for American engineers in the Mideast and the United States.
The boom comes none too soon. The 1980s saw thousands of engineers lose their jobs as major Mideast construction projects dried up. More recently, the U.S. construc tion industry has fallen into a slump. And the new jobs also may appeal to some of the thousands of aerospace engineers and managers who have been laid off in recent years.
“They naturally want to look at allied markets to turn their talents to,” said Ralph Cooper, associate dean for research and development at the Cal State Long Beach School of Engineering.
The construction work won’t create many jobs for the electrical engineers who make up much of the aerospace work force, though. “It would be tough to take somebody who was programming microprocessors and start them building bridges,” said Sandy Lechtick, president of Los Angeles-based National Recruiters.
Such U.S. engineering firms as Bechtel in San Francisco, Parsons in Pasadena and Fluor in Irvine are expected to win major contracts in Kuwait. Already, Parsons is hiring about 1,000 engineers for oil facility projects on the Alaskan North Slope and in Saudi Arabia for Saudi Aramco.
The work will radically change the job picture in the engineering community. “Engineers . . . are going to be in hot demand,” said Robert Rollo, managing director in the Los Angeles office of Korn Ferry International, an executive recruitment firm.
Despite the dangers underscored by the Gulf War, engineering and petroleum industry officials expect no major problems attracting U.S. workers to the Mideast.
Saudi Aramco--criticized after its employees were told they might be fired if they left Saudi Arabia during the war--said that only about a dozen of its 2,700 Americans and Canadian workers have quit since Iraq invaded Kuwait in August.
In fact, up to 40 North American job candidates a week have been flying to Saudi Arabia to interview with company officials, Tracy said. Candidates are lured with salaries that average 30% higher than for comparable positions in the Unoited States, free flights home and low-cost rental housing. For example, a company-owned, three-bedroom home often rents for less than $400 a month.
Besides financial rewards, an overseas assignment in the Middle East--or anywhere else in the world--often helps workers climb the corporate ladder at multinational engineering and construction firms.
“The top executives at most major design and construction firms have done a stint abroad,” said Phyllis Dembowski, executive director of the real estate practice at Russell Reynolds Associates, a Los Angeles recruitment firm. And with so much attention focused on the region, an engineering assignment in the Middle East is “very visible, unlike maybe a development (project) in Jakarta,” she said.
The lucrative salaries and the appeal of working in exotic and even dangerous locales have always been a way of life for engineers involved with petroleum projects.
“Petroleum engineers are accustomed to working in difficult environments, whether it be in Alaska or the North Sea or Indonesia,” said John Chamberlin, a partner in the Los Angeles office of Egon Zehnder International, an executive recruiting firm. “Nobody drills for oil in Switzerland.”
RECONSTRUCTION STOCKS How shares in companies that have signed contracts to assist in the rebuilding of war-torn Kuwait--or which are expected to take part--have moved over the last week.
Stock Feb.19 Wed. Change Jacobs Engineering $31 5/8 $39 3/8 +24.5% Dresser Industries 22 3/4 27 5/8 +21.4% Baker Hughes 26 29 7/8 +15.0% Halliburton 47 3/8 54 1/8 +14.2% Fluor 46 1/8 52 5/8 +14.1% Foster Wheeler 29 1/2 32 5/8 +10.6% Morrison Knudsen 52 7/8 56 1/2 +6.9% Caterpillar 51 3/4 53 1/2 +3.4% CSX 37 38 +2.7%