05 Nov 2020

Moving to Australia during COVID-19 as a Project Manager

Case study
Moving to Australia during COVID-19 as a Project Manager

For Ben Keen, Marine Programs Manager at Babcock Australia & New Zealand, moving to Australia was a dream some 10 years in the making.

In this article Ben shares his story of transitioning from the UK to Australia during the height of the pandemic, his advice for other project managers looking to move overseas and what impact he sees the border closures will have on project delivery in Australia.  
 

FROM ENGINEERING STUDENT TO MARINE PROGRAMS MANAGER

After completing a Masters in Civil Engineering in the UK, Ben’s first role out of university was as a Structural Engineer. Together with his wife, he then decided to leave his office-based job and head to the South of France where he worked as a Captain on a Super Yacht. The role took them around the Mediterranean and across to Florida and the Caribbean.
 

“This was an amazing experience and the role was similar to running a mini project, as I managed the finances, resources, schedule and was ultimately responsible for the safety and success of each trip onboard. We then returned to the UK to start a family. From there I set up two businesses, the first a residential construction business, and the other delivering super yachts around Europe,” says Ben.


After running those businesses for around seven years, Ben joined Babcock International in 2015 as a Senior Project Engineer to seek a different career path and to achieve a better work/life balance through working for a flexible international company.

Over the years, he has held a range of roles at Babcock, including Business Improvement Manager and Head of PMO. Prior to leaving the UK, he also worked for six months as Chief of Staff for the Chief Executive Nuclear, where he helped define and run through the actions taken to manage the impacts of COVID-19.

 

“This was a real eye-opener to see how the Executive team worked through the situation, with no playbook on operating during a global pandemic. I was very impressed and learnt a lot from that experience. In my current role as Marine Programs Manager for Babcock Australia & New Zealand, I have taken on a complex Defence program and I am managing a multi-disciplined team, which I am really enjoying.”


For a fellow project manager looking to move up to a more senior role, Ben says that “depending on the role, you can either progress through having a deep depth of knowledge of the industry and becoming a subject-matter expert or by developing a breadth of skills across multiple areas.”

“Project, Program and Portfolio Management requires an ability to know enough about a lot, whilst remaining comfortable with not being the specific expert in the room. Being able to bring together such experts, set them with a clear direction and provide leadership is key to progressing in this field.”

Ben reflects that it can be challenging making the transition from being responsible for “doing” to being responsible for the people that are “doing”. “Delegation and leadership requires trust in both directions. Always put your team first, they are your most important resource,” says Ben.
 

MAKING THE MOVE FROM THE UK TO AUSTRALIA

When Ben first met his wife in 2006, she told him that “I am going to live in Australia!” Nine years ago, they came over on a Graduate working visa. They started on the East Coast in Sydney and went up to Cairns and ended up working on the Whitsundays. “I fell in love with Australia and I could see exactly why my wife liked it so much. We’ve been trying to get out here ever since,” says Ben.

Ben and his family immigrated to Australia in July 2020. Emigrating during a global pandemic proved to be the greatest challenge for Ben and his family.
 

“There was no big get-together or farewell party with our family and friends. On our flight from London to Perth, all of the air crew wore hazmat suits, masks, shields and gloves. The passengers also had to wear masks and shields and were given all the equipment to wipe down our seating area. It felt as though we were in a sci-fi movie! When we landed in Perth it was incredible - we suddenly understood why Australia was in such a good place, particularly Western Australia. They made sure we didn’t come into contact with any other passengers, from any other flights.”


Ben and his family were taken by coach with police cars escorting them to their hotel and they then stayed there for two weeks quarantine. “It gave us a nice transition period from the craziness of being in the UK in lockdown and saying all our goodbyes, before we started our new lives here,” says Ben.

For project managers overseas looking to come to Australia, Ben’s advice is to be patient. “It may be a long process, and during the current climate without an exemption it may be difficult.”

 

“For the visa we waited in a virtual queue and we were fortunate enough that my wife’s Uncle and Aunty were able to sponsor us, which gave us more points. So we got the visa off our own back, but fortunately the job came up with Babcock at the same time. There was a lot of paperwork and approvals, and then the pandemic hit and that was a further delay. Fortunately, because my role supports the Defence program, we were able to obtain an exemption to allow us to travel," says Ben.  


"I appreciate now how difficult it is for people to get here, and there are many hurdles, however you just have to keep going and remain positive."

 

THE FUTURE OF PROJECT DELIVERY

With less project managers coming from overseas to Australia, Ben believes the immediate impact on project delivery is we will not be able to import project management capabilities.
 

“So then you have to look at how we are going to get them. However, our world has become smaller thanks to online collaboration tools. One of the skillsets of project managers is bringing people together and as a discipline we have proven that we have been able to now do that right across the globe, to deliver many complex and challenging projects.”


“We’ve delivered projects far quicker with the sense of urgency COVID has brought us, whilst working remotely, than we ever achieved when we were there on site or in the office together. We must learn from this.”
 
When major projects are brought forward in Australia, if border closures continue, to ensure we have enough skilled project managers available to drive these projects forward, Ben says we can utilise transferrable skills from a lot of other industries that are not typically looked at.

 

“A lot of people who may not have been trained in project management right through university, may be able to take on project related roles. You could then use experienced project managers and put them into the assurance roles to define functional excellence. Those people who move across from other industries and background could be guided and governed by more experienced project managers, to allow them to learn and develop through coaching and mentoring.”


“For those who do move across from other industries, we can upskill and improve their project management knowledge by using information from bodies such as AIPM. That’s the benefit of an organisation like AIPM, as you have templates, frameworks and principles available on your site as a resource and you can steer people through that when they need guidance.”


 

 
BEN’S PLANS FOR THE FUTURE

“It feels like I’m home now. We are very happy here and this is long term for us. I have been with Babcock for almost 6 years, and I have been very fortunate that they have given me plenty of opportunity for development and fully supported my family and me coming over here,” says Ben.

“Through that they have earnt my loyalty. My plan is to stay with Babcock and continue to develop and grow.”


 



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