Sunday, March 23, 2014

Bidding 2014

The most interesting news over the past two weeks was another round of the OBO Construction Management bid list for Foreign Service staff.  The primary purpose of this blog is to educate prospective applicants about what being a Construction Engineer specialist is like - hence my ridiculously unimaginative but easily Google-able blog name - so I'll spend some time explaining my understanding of how the system works for us.

Each year Construction Management issues a memo asking Foreign Service staff for a rank-ordered preference list.  An assignments panel meets regularly and assignments are made, but of course it's not as simple as that. 

Our assignment process is different from the majority of Foreign Service Specialists and certainly Officers.  The Normals spend two years at their post and effectively every post is available.  Construction Engineers are dramatically affected by the variable schedule of construction projects at limited, frequently-changing posts: projects might start late or even get cancelled, and projects might end early or late.  This scheduling nightmare has domino effects on onward assignments, and it certainly affects the project post too.

Housing is a perfect example.  Post can far more easily anticipate the arrival date and family requirements for The Normals than they can for us Construction Engineers.  We might only be able to give post 30 days' notice because the contractor might mobilize to the site quickly after the contract awardThis can cause much angst for everyone: it's annoying for post to deal with families arriving at the last minute; I hear it's not unusual to end up in a hotel until housing is ready.  It's annoying for the Construction Engineer's family trying to plan ahead (paperwork, medical, consumables, packout, vehicles, kids, schooling, pets, etc).  BUT I think it helps a lot for both the Construction Executive and post staff to understand this before the situation occurs, as sometimes there are things we can do to mitigate the nuisance.

Considering the other "normal" variables - family members having health issues, specific career moves, retirees, etc - in addition to the project timing variables, predicting assignments is extremely difficult even for people with intimate knowledge of the majority of the circumstances.  My point is: it's important to not get too attached to a given assignment.  I was talking with a manager last week who, for one assignment, was going to an average place but ended up getting sent to an island paradise.  Of course the opposite can also happen.

I submitted a bid list a little less than a year ago and I don't have an assignment yet, but that's likely because I had less than a year of experience at the time.  Construction Management wants staff to spend their first year or two in DC to learn how the processes work.  I now have 18 months of experience: I submitted a bid list last week, so we'll see what happens for an assignment.

By the way, this official OBO website appears to list many of our current projects, so that might give you an idea of the kind of work we do.  Or if that doesn't sound like your style, there are many other international construction projects out there, like this $36 billion project to build housing in Libya that's ramping up now.  I know someone who'll be working on it - should be an interesting one!

(This post written while listening to Battle Tapes Feel the Same.)

Sunday, March 9, 2014

And then there were 5

A major staffing change did end up happening just over a week ago: another of my original group of seven new construction engineers ended up leaving after much deliberation.  His primary reasons were his relationship with his girlfriend and frustration with the construction engineer assignment process.  The CE assignment process is significantly different from the vast majority of other Foreign Service Specialists (and Officers for that matter) because each assignment depends on an enormous number of variables: timing of projects starting and ending, family-specific issues, personnel changes, and more.  This is useful to know for new hires' expectation management: the current program is for new staff to be in DC for 1 to 2 years and the actual departure date is very hard to predict.  In any case, I'll keep in touch with him on his new adventures and wish him the best of luck!

Coincidentally, a new FSCE just joined us the next business day after the aforementioned left.  This is very good, we need the help, but the loss of 17 months of institutional knowledge is significant.  With the new hire comes helping with training to get up to speed.  It sheds a lot of light on how much we learn in just a year, it's a steep learning curve, and I don't think it'll flatten out anytime soon.

Speaking of assignments, this year's Construction Management bid list should come out any day now - in fact, it's about a month behind when last year's was issued.  Looking forward to seeing what's coming up!  Until then, there's plenty of work supporting the ongoing projects.

As an aside, here's a recent confirmation of my long-held belief: always get the bigger pizza.

(This post written while listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers Runnin' Down A Dream)