The Varying Standard of Expats

In among a series of rather haphazard comments on this post, reader Kale Sid raises a point which is worth discussing further:

the … system that perpetuate mediocrity over excellence in the name of local content allows some nitwit from elsewhere that are not qualified to be painters in their countries to lord themselves around as ” expats”.

Unless I am mistaken, what I think Kale Sid is saying is that countries which have stringent local content laws end up employing useless Western expats.  On this point, I can do little but agree wholeheartedly.  Where we probably differ, though, is why that is and whether I benefit from this state of affairs.

It is no secret that a hefty proportion of Western expats employed in the oil industries of Africa, South America, Asia, and the former Soviet Union are utterly useless and – in the words of Kale Sid – not fit to paint a wall.  A large chunk of these are alcoholic womanisers who are more sex tourists than migrant workers, and it is worth having a look at how these people can find themselves in positions which, in theory, require experienced professionals.

In my experience, the standard of expat one can find in any oil town is related to the following two factors:

1. The general competence and work ethic of the local population.

2. The strength and pervasiveness of prevailing local content legislation.

In places like Aberdeen, Houston, and Stavanger the foreigners are roughly of the same standard as the locals in terms of experience, competence, and general behaviour.  This is because the local standards are high and underperforming foreigners would not be tolerated in any great numbers.  With companies always preferring to employ a competent local hire over an expatriate all things being equal, the number of truly expatriate positions in these places are relatively few (most foreigners are on local contracts, or they are secondees of international firms on assignment for professional reasons: rarely are foreigners required to bring in technical expertise).

In places like Russia, Kazakhstan, Brazil, and Indonesia the local standards are lower and as such the requirement for expatriate expertise and competence is higher.  Local content laws are also more stringent, both in terms of employees that must be hired and company ownership.  In line with what I said above, the standard of expatriate is somewhat lower but there are plenty of good ones to be found.

In places like Africa and the Middle East, the local standards range from low to extremely low and they are highly dependent on an expatriate workforce to get anything done.  Because of this, local content legislation is very strong and companies are forced to take on large numbers of locals and use locally-owned companies (Africa) or route all their operations through a local sponsor (the Middle East).  The standard of expat in these places tends to be lower still, and in many instances can be embarrassingly bad.

The root cause of a country finding itself infested with poor-quality expats can be found by looking at why they need expats in the first place.  Usually this is because the country is simply badly governed, and has been for a long time: competence, hard work, initiative, and transparency are not rewarded and personal progress (e.g. wealth, status, recognition) is achieved via family connections, tribalism, corruption, dishonesty, and violence.  The more this is the case the more a country will need foreign workers to get anything done.

The trouble is, if the criteria for individual success in any given country lead to the wrong outcomes overall, it is unlikely different criteria will be applied when it comes to inviting in foreign companies and hiring foreign workers.  Those charged with drawing up and enforcing local content legislation not only hijack the system to enrich themselves, but they are also completely unable to judge whether a company or individual meets any kind of international standard.  If bribery and toadying behaviour are rewarded among the locals, why would anyone think hard work and transparency are appreciated in foreigners?

The results of this are severe.  Hardworking, competent, and honest locals find themselves working alongside and reporting to useless, bone-idle, and exceptionally dim compatriots, and those that can leave to work in an environment more appreciative of their abilities, i.e. the West.  This reduces the numbers of much-needed competent locals, and ensures the upper ranks are stuffed full of mediocrity and incompetence.  The more competent expats learn to avoid certain countries and companies, or demand sky-high salaries to work there.  If the job market is booming, even handsome day-rates can’t attract enough of them.  This results in expatriate positions being filled with people who may struggle to get a job elsewhere, or are there for completely the wrong reasons (which range from dodging alimony or the taxman to getting cheap pussy.  And don’t for one minute be fooled into thinking that this does not apply to senior managers in very well known international companies, either).  The locals have little or no idea how to differentiate between a useless expat and a good one, and usually congratulate themselves on being able to find somebody calling himself an engineer who only wants $300 per day instead of the $700 that the other candidates wanted.

At the extreme end of the scale one finds that even the most useless expat can outperform most locals, as regular commenter Adam points out rather bluntly here.  But in most places, even in the very worst, you still get useless expatriates being outperformed by locals who are on a fraction of their salary.  This, in my opinion, has been a major failing of foreign companies in the developing world, and will probably do more long-term harm than any other policy they have adopted (the reasons they continue to assign such people is, as in the host country, the criteria for success in their own organisations are equally warped).

I suppose if I was from a complete basketcase and my countrymen unable to run a whelk-stall, I would grudgingly admit we needed foreign help from people who would turn up, live like kings, and take off with the local womenfolk.  But the flip side of the deal is that these foreigners had better be an order of magnitude better than what can be found locally, or I think I’d be looking to join a guerrilla movement: I can’t think of anything more humiliating than being told what to do in my own country by a useless, incompetent foreigner who has been hired specifically because he supposedly knows better.  I’ve seen locals in this situation, and I admire their restraint.  It is appalling, and Kale Sid is right to point it out, and he is also to be commended for noticing the connection between this and local content laws.

That said, he made the assumption that I, by virtue of my being an expat, must therefore benefit from this.  This implies that I am a useless expat, and I might well be, but it should not be assumed that professional expatriates benefit in any way from countries and companies which cannot see beyond the white face to judge competence.  They would rather see the back of the charlatans which infest the oil industry and depress standards and salaries for the rest.  Kale Sid’s remarks implied that he or she thinks all expatriates are useless, which is quite simply wrong.

So my advice to Kale Sid and others like him would be to quit doing what his compatriots have been doing for years – judging people by their pasty face and/or passport – and put themselves in a position where they can recognise genuine competence and evaluate which people are adding value and which are not.  They can then lobby their own management, hierarchy, policy makers, and governments to ensure that people who are not fit to paint a wall are not employed in their country.  It might be a tough task, but that’s the only solution I can see.

“I’d be an OIM in Nigeria.”


4 Responses to The Varying Standard of Expats

  1. Adam says:

    An excellent summary of the topic. I would like to comment on this part:

    “I can’t think of anything more humiliating than being told what to do in my own country by a useless, incompetent foreigner who has been hired specifically because he supposedly knows better.”

    This accurately sums up the feeling of a lot of Australian offshore workers to Americans in this country. Not to all Americans, but to a significant proportion.

  2. Jake Barnes says:

    Thanks, Adam.

    This accurately sums up the feeling of a lot of Australian offshore workers to Americans in this country.

    I have worked with Americans, Brits, and Australians and come to the conclusion that they are the very best and the very worst and everything in between. It all comes down to which individual is the one you’re dealing with, and the nationality doesn’t seem to preclude whole swathes of them being utter fuckwits.

    There are some nationalities which tend to produce more fuckwits than others, but I’ll state here that I’ve seen Nigerian technical people and managers wipe the floor with their expat colleagues.

  3. Rutherford says:

    Been a year and a half working as an expat in the nuclear business. Our project has a pretty high standard of expats (with some clinkers) largely because the source countries have collapsing nuclear power industries. Who could blame the best and the brightest white South Africans with a nuclear background seeking foreign employment?

    I’m from the US and find the expats on my project to pretty much reflect global standards. The major problems arise from the local government and local top management being so new to nuclear standards. The young locals have a hard time keeping up but mentoring the good ones is a great personal reward.

    I would agree that the local oil guys do enjoy the local females who are also expats from 3rd world countries.

  4. victor says:

    Very nice article, loved to read it and agree on the most of the points. I have been worked at the number of oil and gas projects here in Kazakhstan and can confirm that a very few number of expats I met could not be called “ignorant idiots” though most of them were in managerial positions. It’s sad that western oil & gas companies do not understand a simple fact: the specialists raised by the Soviet education system in many cases are better professionals than their colleagues with foreign passport.