Roger Raufer was a professor of mine during my masters program at the University of Pennsylvania and has a strong arsenal of useful and exciting job search tips to give to prospective international engineers. Let’s see if we can apply some of his insights as an international environmental engineer to our own careers abroad.

1. Please tell us briefly about your bio and background. Your career has been highly diverse in both scope and scale and we’d love to see what you’ve done.

I was a young student studying chemical engineering in the 1960s, and a trip to see some chemical plants – just before the first Earth Day in 1970 – played a formative role in my career.  We were supposed to be visiting the plants to see some ‘real-world’ distillation columns, heat exchangers, and similar equipment we were learning to design in class – but the real learning experience instead was seeing how these plants operated, and the tremendous damage they were doing to the local environment.  I realized that the pollution could be controlled with the same “unit operations” techniques we were learning in class.  If that had been gold dust instead of process particulate coming out of the stack, you can bet that the facilities would have figured out a way to capture it!

So I decided to study environmental engineering in graduate school, and worked for an engineering firm during the 1970s in the Chicago area, mostly working on pollution control at big, coal-fired power plants in the Midwestern U.S.  While working on these projects, however, I kept coming back to some fundamental questions: who wrote these environmental laws and regulations, and why were they written this way?

I decided that if I really wanted to understand (and help control) air pollution, I needed to know a lot more than just pollution control technology.  So I studied political science and public policy, and then went to the University of Pennsylvania to get a doctorate in energy management.  My focus there was on using market-based incentives to help utilities accomplish environmental air quality goals in an economically efficient manner.  The biggest air pollution problem at that time was acid rain, and my doctoral work (funded by U.S. EPA) concerned the development of emissions trading techniques and the establishment of an emissions market for sulfur dioxide.

So in 1990, I was in the rather unique position of having both engineering and economic policy experience for controlling pollution from coal-fired power plants – and I received an enquiry from the United Nations about whether I would be interested in doing such project work in China.  Of course I said “Yes!” – and much of that early work on emissions markets became the basis for incorporating such market-based instruments into the Kyoto Protocol in 1997.  I’ve been doing a lot of international project work ever since.

2. What was the impetus behind making that original move abroad? What is your “origin story?”

I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been able to incorporate international experience into virtually all stages and facets of my life.  My father worked in international sales at a company which manufactured electrical furnaces for the metals industry, and so we moved around when I was a boy.  We lived for three years in the U.K., and traveled extensively in Europe; and later, my family moved to Brazil.  I had my own young family by that time, but we visited them for an extended stay and traveled around South America, and also moved to Kingston, Jamaica when I taught at the University of the West Indies in the early 1980s.  Similarly, I’ve taught every summer in Paris for more than two decades, and worked as a technical adviser in the Division for Sustainable Development at UN headquarters in New York for several years.

Much of my work has tended to be ‘project’-oriented rather than ‘country’-oriented, however, so I’ve kept the U.S. as a home base throughout that time.  But I do tend to travel quite a bit: in just the past month, for example, I’ve worked in Singapore, China, Indonesia and Italy, on academic, World Bank and private-sector projects.

3. Do you feel that there exist strong opportunities in your industry for young expatriate professionals? What would they have to do to seize these opportunities?

There is absolutely no question that there are tremendous opportunities in the energy/environmental arena.  We are talking about a multiple-generation shift away from fossil fuels, towards renewables and the more efficient use of energy.  Pollution is basically waste, and so we have to learn how to reduce it by utilizing both technology and information systems more effectively.

In order to seize these opportunities, young expats need to know what they are talking about – and hence they need to get up to speed on both the technical aspects of the problem and potential solution areas.  Of course, not everyone wants to become an energy engineer – but since energy is ubiquitous throughout our economy, there are many, many, many opportunities to make changes, applying a wide range of skills.  I’m especially encouraged by the application of digital and information technologies in this area.  I think we’re just beginning to see the kind of efforts that will revolutionize energy usage, and reduce pollution.  And nowhere are these needed more than in developing countries – and especially those in Asia!

4. Can you tell us some of the most interesting projects you’ve worked on?  In what ways did these experiences give you a unique competitive advantage as a manager and as an individual when doing business in Asia?

I did a series of projects for the United Nations in China, beginning with those addressing coal combustion in the early 1990s, and then progressing into ones focusing on the country’s increasing urbanization – both dealing with pollution at the municipal level, and then dealing with its extremely rapid growth.  Pollution control always requires the active role of regulators (and thus of the government), because if companies can dump the pollution into the environment for free, that’s usually their approach.  But dealing with governmental and regulatory institutions in a country like China is very, very different than doing so in Western countries – for cultural, political, social, economic development, and a host of other reasons.

So that culture shock – the same feeling that many ex-pats face when moving to a new country — has been a tremendous educational experience for an engineer like me.  Even if similar pollution control technologies have been employed, the results can be very different when applied in a country like China.  Understanding the reasons for such differences, and trying to develop viable solutions to the severe pollution control problems faced by Chinese regulators, has thus become a life-long quest.  I appreciate that my Chinese colleagues have spent so much time providing me with an education in these matters – and I truly hope that I have been able to reciprocate with my own expertise contributions.

5. Language fluency is increasingly becoming a basic requirement for international professionals – regardless of their position within the company.  Have you ever felt this hindered you from thriving in Asia?

Absolutely.  Nothing is more frustrating than asking a question, having the meeting participants argue vociferously amongst themselves for ten minutes, and then receiving a monosyllabic answer: “No.”

Unfortunately, however, my linguistic skills have never matched my technical ones, and this got me into trouble in my early U.K. schooling.  I would routinely receive “the strap” for flunking language exams – and this had an effect 180 degrees opposite to that intended.  Instead of spurring me to further effort, I grew to hate language classes – and have paid the price ever since.

Having a U.S. base for my work has also been a hindrance, since I tend to spend a month or six weeks at most “in-country” on projects – hardly conducive to deep linguistic study, or to everyday immersion.

But I’ve been very lucky that my native language is English (even the French professors in my Paris programs lecture in English!), and it has been amazing to watch the linguistic ability of Chinese and other Asians develop over the past two decades.  Believe it or not, I’ve actually had a Beijing taxi driver tell me (in English!): “Your Chinese very, very bad!”

Hopefully, though, someday I’ll learn.

6. Where would you recommend that aspiring international careerists head for jobs in Asia?

Truthfully, I believe that anywhere is Asia right now is fertile ground, although the energy and environmental issues are obviously quite different in individual countries.  China’s industrialization and urbanization have both had profound environmental effects, and India isn’t too far behind on many comparable concerns (e.g., coal-fired power plants).  I’ve worked recently with UN ESCAP in Bangkok on rural development and energy access issues in Southeast Asian countries, however, addressing the more than 900 million Asians who have no access to electricity at all.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m so happy to see your own efforts, encouraging people to think about developing careers within this region  (Thanks Roger!). Most studies show that the real global warming impacts in the future will not be associated with North American or European CO2 emissions, despite their magnitude.  Instead, the real impacts will be associated with emissions growth in non-OECD countries – and especially those in Asia.

So there’s plenty of energy and environmental work to be done here.  I certainly hope that your clients give it considerable thought!

About Roger Raufer

Roger Raufer is an independent consulting engineer with more than thirty-five years of private-sector experience in dealing with environmental impacts in the energy sector.

He has worked as a consultant for the United Nations, the World Bank, and U.S. AID in numerous countries around the world (with a particular focus on Asia). He teaches every summer at the Institut Français du Pétrole Energie Nouvelles (IFPEN) in Paris, and also lectures in executive education programs at GE’s ‘Oil and Gas University’ in Florence, Italy.
You can find a detailed c.v., links to recent papers, and other information at: www.roger-raufer.com.