EuroSmash – An American Working In Dublin
Careers & Jobs 19 years ago No Comments

contributed by Beth Cowan [architect / avid blogger / continent hopper] 

I finally got my wish. I’m working in Europe. Well, Europe-adjacent really. I live and work in Dublin, Ireland for Building Design Partnership. Been here for three months now and I’m still waiting for it to stop feeling like a really long vacation where I go to work every day. I have friends, I’m taking classes, I have a bank (that was no picnic, let me tell you) and yet, it still feels like I’m going to fly back home to Texas soon.

How did I do it” Well, it was a bit of ‘I made my own good luck’. I had heard that Ireland was building like crazy. So much building in fact that they didn’t have enough architects to do the work. Recruiters were told to find qualified people from anywhere, including the U.S.

I’d tried, as we all do, to find a firm in Italy / Switzerland / Germany / Spain / etc… to hire me, but no one wants an employee they cannot communicate with and no one wants to go through the hassle of work visas. Plus everyone is bitter about the U.S. green card system and retribution on the receiving end sucks.

But Ireland is so busy and so under-staffed, the government created a list of occupations they desperately need and those applicants are allowed to apply for a Work Authorization. This is a stamp in my passport that allows me to work as an architect for anyone in Ireland for two years. As long as architects are on the list, getting it renewed is a matter of a small fee and a day of processing. Stamp! Another 2 years. Stamp! Another 2 years. Until they run out of money or space to build. And considering the entire country is one big construction site, I think I’ll be employed as long as I want to be here.

Dublin, like most of Europe, relies heavily on placement agencies for their interviewees. I had contacted one such agency on a whim (there are several in Dublin that specialize in construction as it turns out), and she strongly urged me to come over to interview. I needed a vacation anyway, so two girlfriends and I hopped on a flight.

When I arrived, she had only lined up one interview, but I was “sure to get an offer”. Thinking I’d made an expensive mistake, I then got lost on a bus and ended up sitting next to an Associate in a large firm who gave me his card, said they were hiring like crazy, and urged me to call for an interview, telling them he’d sent me. That’s when I decided to call another agency to help me. Good thing I did. She lined up more interviews than I could handle.

I sat for one when I returned to the U.S. We arranged a phone call after I sent them portfolio images and my resume. I got up very early one morning, made some strong coffee and got to wear my pajamas while fielding questions like “What was your involvement with this project” and “What’s your design philosophy”” Certainly an interesting way to get a job.

I was given 3 offers to mull over. The good part of using a placement agency is that she is MY agent. They pay her, but she’s in it for me and it’s her job to get me the best offer she can. We talked about the salary I required, my high and low figures and happily, she landed me right in the middle of my range.

My next step was to apply for the visa, get my passport renewed and start disassembling my life in Dallas . It’s a lot of little things to deal with. Turning off your cell phone. Getting out of your lease. Canceling your insurance. Selling your car. Disposing of all the crap in your apartment that you’ve been lugging around for years… Oh yeah, and telling my boss that, although I love my job and am very happy there, I can’t pass on this opportunity. Luckily they were excited for me.

Applying for the visa is pretty straight-forward. Two photos, a one page application, copies of your degree, letter of offer from the company you intend to work for, a valid passport that won’t expire during the 2 year period, one week to wait it out and presto! Have a nice time in Ireland .

You apply at the Irish embassy. Texas is covered under the embassy in Chicago, which is open from 10-12, 2-4 Monday thru Friday. Got that” 4 hours a day with a 2-hour lunch. I called to have all the paperwork sent to my parent’s home in Wyoming since I was there for Christmas for a week. The conversation went something like this:

Me: I’d like the application for a work authorization sent to me please.
Irish Shrew: You have to interview you know.
Me: Yes, I’ve already done that and have an offer from an employer.
IS: Did you actually go over and interview” Cause you have to have a job offer before you can apply.
Me: Yes, I have the offer.
IS: What field is it in” The visa is only good for particular trades and you might not even qualify.
Me: Architecture.
IS: Did they advertise in the paper for that” They have to prove that no one in Dublin is qualified for the position.
Me: Ummmm….
IS: Do you even have a degree in Architecture. You’ll need one you know. From a qualified university.
Me: (exercising great patience) Yes, I have 2 degrees in architecture. Now, can you please send the form to me”
IS: We don’t deal with Wyoming, you’ll have to call a different embassy.

Long story short, you can go to any Irish embassy – outside of Ireland – and have the paper work done. I flew to London and they finished it in four days. It cost me a little more, but Chicago was promising a six-week turn around. I’d never been to London . We can always use a good excuse to travel. London Bridge is really tall.

I dispatched all of my things, bought a ticket, went to many farewell parties and then landed in Dublin late in January. It took me three months. I stayed in a hostel for four days before signing a three-month lease on a room in a house with an Irish girl. Turns out we get along very well and I’m now staying for a year.

It was remarkably easy for me, especially when I compare it to the tales of woe from Anna, my Polish co-worker. I was very lucky. Rents are very steep in Dublin. A dinky studio in the city centre will run close to $1000 a month, more if it’s really nice. Further out of the centre, prices remain pretty constant, but the size increases slightly.

It is unusual to live alone here, so the market for sharing house / apartment / flat is huge and offers much better deals. My sister talked me into sharing, thinking it would be nice to have a friend right away, and she was right. I rely on Flatmate Suzie for a lot, especially logistics. And it’s nice to have breakfast with someone on the weekends. She’s introduced me to several of her friends and she set me up on a blind date. It’s a good way to avoid isolating myself and avoid seeking out other Americans. The point of being here is not to surround myself with Americans.

Additional paperwork for my job included a bank account and a PSRI number, which is like a U.S. social security number. Many offices will only direct deposit salaries, so getting an account quickly is an imperative. But to apply for the account, I need proof of permanent address in the form of a bill, PSRI number or signed lease. I had none of those things.

I tried to get my PSRI number with a letter from my landlord and that didn’t work. I tried the letter at the bank and that didn’t work. I finally found a bank that would take a letter from my employer, three bank statements and the letter from my landlord as proof that I’m not a money launderer (aren’t there better places to do that””). That’s how I chose my bank. I had the right combination of documentation. But when I arrived…different story. They needed the PSRI number and that would take four to six weeks. I put all the documentation I had in front of the PSRI guy and then proceeded to beg him for a letter, on official stationary, validating my permanent address; he grudgingly agreed to do it. I took that to the bank and in no time had my new handy current account. By the way, they don’t have checking accounts, they have current accounts.

Four to six weeks later, I received my paperwork for my new PSRI number, which was reported to my employer and the revenue department here. They use all the information to figure out my tax rate, which they extract from my pay check monthly. Bad news: until they have all the paperwork taken care of, they tax you at the highest amount possible. Good news: they give you the refund in one lump sum on your paycheck. And since the Euro is stronger than the Dollar that amounts to a windfall plus an extra 30% when you send it home to pay off debts.

The tax rate here is pretty easy to figure out. The first 30,000 Euro of your salary is taxed at 20%, the remainder at 42%. It’s steep, but it includes your health care. H&R Block has assured me that I can claim all of that tax on my 2005 Income tax statement and it will count toward anything I owe in the US , the rest to be refunded to me. We’ll see how that works out next April. I might have quite a little savings, I might not. One can never tell with the Internal Revenue Service.

So what’s it like to work in a foreign office” It’s pretty much like working in the U.S. No one likes their chair, the cubicles are de-humanizing, the coffee sucks, the pay is too low, our bosses are too clueless… Deadlines are deadlines and there is never enough time to get it all done anyway.

But, the big advantage of working here is this: Vacation. By law, I’m entitled to a minimum of 15 days per year from my employer. Then there are the national holidays, St. Patrick’s Day, Christmas Eve / Day, Easter (Good Friday and the Monday), etc… Plus, there is this wonderful system of Bank Holidays, where we get Monday off for the purpose of absolutely nothing. It works out to about 30 days a year paid time off. What’s not to love”

The day-to-day part of my job is frustrating in ways I never anticipated. My first task was to redesign an office block for a mixed-use development. The first wave of panic came when I realized that not only did I not know how large things are in metric, I also didn’t know what 4325mm is. AutoCAD measures in millimeters, so area calculations are divided by 100,000 to obtain the square meters. Luckily one of my co-workers sent me a handy little program that converts English units to Metric and back again. It’s been a lifesaver. I now know how thick a wall should be and what that translates to in inches.

My second wave of panic came when I realized that I don’t know how large a large room is. My idea of a two-bedroom apartment is vastly different from the Irish version and much roomier. But I still don’t really have a concept of 74 square meters (just under 800 square feet) and how one can possibly get three bedrooms into that space. Going metric is almost like starting over. The good news is that AutoCAD works the same in any language. X-refs don’t change, w-blocks, base files, title blocks – it’s all the same, so I haven’t lost all my value as an employee.

The hardest part of what I do every day is finding the information I need. I know what to look for, just not where to look for it. All the accessibility standards are different. The fire safety information has changed. The building regulations are different, as are the codes and code books. It’s like an Easter egg hunt and I end up asking a lot of questions. “How much room do I need to leave on the pull side of the door” What about the push side” No requirement for the push side”” O-kaaaaaay…”

And then there is building technology. It’s called timber, not wood frame, and they build mostly out of steel frame, in-filled with concrete block, veneered with thinner concrete block and then plastered. They use two layers of Tyveck in two different places on the assembly and call it two different things on the drawing. Confused” So was I.

We do a lot of drawing as communication. I’ve found that pier and beam construction is called “pile and raft”. They think RCP [reflected ceiling plan] is awfully clever of me, but stare blankly when I say MEP [mechanical / electrical / plumbing] or HVAC [heating / ventilation / air-conditioning]. My notes on drawings make my co-workers laugh. My verbiage is “too formal”. “They wouldn’t have the slightest idea what I was talking about in the field”. I needed to “Irish it up a bit”. It’s frustrating, but I’m learning. I find myself doing a lot of SD [schematic development] and DD [design development] work at the moment, which is called concept design here.

All in all, the job isn’t very different from what I was doing in Texas. I come to work at 9, leave at 18 (the 24 hour clock is difficult to adjust to as well) and take a one-hour lunch. There is the standard overtime when projects are due, and the design always takes it in the teeth when it goes in front of the planning department. But, it’s good experience and I’m learning. And that’s what I’m here for.