Outpost Recruitment: Don Breen Career Profile

How can I be a Project Controls Manager in Calgary? Our career profile of Niamh Ní Chrónín.

Curious about a career as a Project Controls Manager in Calgary? Get a snapshot of what it’s like, thanks to this career profile of Niamh Ní Chrónín.

At Outpost Recruitment, we strive to build learning tools to help newcomers be successful in Canada. We’ve invited a range of successful immigrants, across various construction and engineering roles, to share their experience in moving to Canada and growing their career.

In the latest of our series, Niamh Ní Chróinín chats with Ruairi Spillane and shares her experience in moving to Canada to work as a Senior Estimator and Project Controls Manager in Calgary.

Niamh Ní Chróinín – Senior Estimator / Project Controls Manager in Calgary (Main Contractor)

Niamh Ní Chróinín: Project Controls Manager in CalgaryNiamh Ní Chróinín moved to Canada in February 2014 after working as an Engineer in Ghana, Ireland and London.

She holds a degree in Engineering, an MSc in Construction Law and is a Chartered Engineer with the Institution of Civil Engineers in the UK.

Niamh’s greatest passion in life is playing sports and this was the primary incentive for her to move to Canada. As a child she rode horses, in university she was a Taekwondo Instructor and now she spends most of her free time training with the local swimming club or rock climbing.

Niamh held a dual role of Senior Estimator/ Project Controls Manager in Calgary with Aecon for 3 years before joining Berkley Research Group as a Managing Consultant.

Your move to Canada

Why did you choose Canada?

I had been living in London for 6 years – working on the Olympics and Crossrail whilst also completing my MSc and Chartership – when I began to really start hating the place.

I considered moving to Australia but friends who had moved there earlier had told me the market was slowing down. I also considered the Middle East, but I wasn’t sure the lifestyle would suit me. Then, there was Canada. So, I suppose my choice came from choosing the best out of an otherwise bad lot!

Was career progression or lifestyle a bigger decision factor in the decision?

I felt that I had already progressed my career hugely in the past few years but at the expense of what I love most – sports. Canada is renowned for having a great work-life balance and that definitely sold me on the idea of moving there.

What made you choose Calgary?

I didn’t! I wanted to move to Canada and the interview I had was for Calgary. I suppose you could say Calgary chose me!

Did you move alone?

Yes – just me and four suitcases.

Your education and professional experience prior to Canada

What motivated you to study civil engineering?

I actually started studying science (math and physics) in NUI Galway, but quickly realized that I was not suited for a life indoors or teaching (which seemed to be where the job opportunities were at the time).

After two years, I dropped out of science to re-apply for civil engineering. To be honest, I was destined to be a civil engineer – I still have several train and Meccano sets at home that I used to get each Christmas.

To what extent did your career diverge from the original plan?

I always had a great love of civil engineering math but when I started working on the Olympics I gained a huge appreciation for the contractual aspect of construction.

In 2010, I went back to obtain an M.Sc. in Construction Law and Dispute Resolution at King’s College London – this is when my path diverged slightly away from Project Management and towards Project Controls.

Briefly highlight your career path prior to moving to Canada.

  • B.Eng. NUI Galway: 2006
  • Site engineer (Ghana): 2006
  • Site Engineer (Sisk): 2006-2008
  • Junior Design Engineer (Oran Precast): 2007
  • Site Engineer, Olympics (Bam Nuttall): 2007-2009
  • Section Engineer, Olympics (BAM Nuttall): 2009-2010
  • Sub Agent/ Bid Manager (BAM Nuttall): 2010-2012
  • Project Manager (Dragados Sisk, Crossrail): 2012-2014
  • C.Eng. (MICE): 2013
  • M.Sc. Construction Law and Dispute Resolution: 2013
  • Moved to Canada: 2014

Preparing for the move

What did you know about your career prospects in Canada before you became a Project Controls Manager in Calgary?

Very little. To be completely honest I was motivated to move to Canada purely because it meant I was getting out of London. I had spent years working long hours, giving up weekends and social events for work. I didn’t even consider career progression – I was very happy just to sit at whatever rank I was at – I just wanted to get my life back.

What did you do to prepare for your move? What was the biggest challenge?

I was very lucky. My company organized everything for me: my flights, the apartment I was to stay in for the first few weeks, my visa and moving any furniture I wanted to bring.

The biggest challenge for me was moving back to Ireland from London and then further on again. I have to say my company was great and really understood the reality of being so far away from home. My phone was already charged the day I arrived so I could call home and they had already loaded Skype on my work computer so I could call during work hours. It has definitely made the move easier.

Had you previously worked in a foreign country?

I have worked in Ghana, West Africa and London as a Civil Engineer.

Did you have a professional network in Canada prior to your move?

No, I didn’t have a professional network prior to my move (in terms of people I actually knew); however, I am chartered with the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in London and they have an outpost here in Calgary called the Canadian Prairies Group of Chartered Engineers (CPGCE).

So, once I arrived I was introduced to the liaison officer and started meeting with the group once a month. Additionally, I am in constant contact with my institution in London and my mentors there so to be honest I don’t feel like I am isolated from my professional network or institution. Construction is a very small world.

Your professional development in Canada

How did you find your current role?

I found this role through a recruitment agency in Ireland.

Initially, they had not offered me this role because I don’t think many people understand what project controls entails. I began to get ‘assertive’ with this agency as I really wanted to move to Canada and asked them to start listing roles in companies they were hiring for. Project Controls Manager in Calgary came up and I knew this was something I wanted to move into more formally.

What are the key differences between your role in Canada and in London?

Here in Canada I am managing and supporting a larger area and there is a much bigger appreciation for project controls.

In London, I found that project controls was a good idea and every major project had a department but there was a disconnect between it and the operations side.

Was there anything you could have done prior to your move to prepare?

I had worked in project controls before but if I could do it again I would spend some more time reviewing the terminology.

It wasn’t a big deal but I did spend the first few weeks trying to align how things in Canada worked versus Ireland or the UK.

Have your career objectives changed since you arrived?

Well there are definitely more opportunities for career progression here in Canada and the companies are a lot bigger than those I am used to. To be honest I don’t really have an objective as such – I’m still learning every day and I like being a Project Controls Manager in Calgary because it is so versatile.

Working environment in Canada

Is the working environment in Canada similar or different to previous locations in which you have worked?

I think the working environment here is different. It’s not as adversarial as at home and to be honest, I kind of liked it at home because you could be completely honest if you had reservations about something.

Here, it’s very defined and you have to stick to the chain of command and sometimes I find that difficult.

What are the three main challenges you had to overcome to adapt to your role as a Project Controls Manager in Calgary?

  1. Legislation: I was more than familiar with the UK and Ireland in terms of H&S legislation and contractual mechanisms. I was a bit deflated having to re-learn such systems and I am still learning them.
  2. The roles and responsibilities of teams members: Definition of a site engineer isn’t really the same as at home, nor is foreman so I was getting confused putting tenders together as sometimes I didn’t have the required workforce.
  3. The lingo: Schedule = programme; letter of credit = unconditional bond; rock truck = moxi; ride = lift. I have a list on my desk at work so I don’t unintentionally insult someone during a conversation!

What actions did you take to help you settle into your new work environment?

Honestly I really didn’t have to do anything. My colleagues made me feel at home from the first day. There were lunches and drinks organized with the various teams so I could meet everyone and I was sent to our head office in Toronto 2 weeks later to meet my counterparts there.

How is the work-life balance as a Project Controls Manager in Calgary?

Very good but as with any other job you are in charge of it. If you want to work 24/7 companies will welcome it. Here, I feel it is not expected as much as it was in the UK or Ireland.

How would you rate the career prospects for newcomers in your role/industry?

The sky’s the limit in terms of career prospects for both my role as a Project Controls Manager in Calgary, and the industry.

One thing I do find that’s different here is that age doesn’t seem to be a problem so you won’t be held back just because you might be a bit younger. If you show talent and enthusiasm there will be nothing in your way from progressing.

Your lifestyle in Canada

What do you like most about Canada?

For the most part, I am home at 5:30pm and the whole evening is my own. Actually, for the first few weeks here it was nearly lonely because I was home so early.

But now I have joined several clubs and I am doing some kind of activity every evening. Also, I love the mountains. Calgary is a city but nothing like London so I feel a lot more comfortable here having come from the countryside (County Clare) than I did in London.

What actions did you take to help you settle in Canada on a personal/family level?

I went out, joined clubs, made friends and bought a massive winter jacket!

Do you see Canada as a long-term home?

I am afraid to answer this! I love Ireland and I will always want to move home regardless of where I am. So to answer positively I will say:

  • I am applying for my Permanent Residency.
  • I have made loads of friends and I find the majority of Canadians are very similar to the Irish.
  • I am enjoying travelling around Canada and the U.S.
  • I am definitely enjoying playing loads of sports again.
  • The weather does not bother me – as a matter of fact I love winter.
  • Could I settle here? Yes.

Success factors

What was the best career advice you have received?

I have received this advice several times and even recently when I was dealing with a sensitive matter.

The advice is: be decisive. Weigh up the issues, use your judgment and make a decision. 80% of the time or more, you will be right.

As for the other 20%, at least you will have made a decision when others wasted time. The 80% will carry you through.

One colleague even told me to read about when Alex Ferguson dropped Jim Leighton as Manchester United goalkeeper, and I have zero interest in soccer but I did read it. It highlighted the importance of decision making. You will not expand your career unless you can rise above the rest, make decisions and accept whatever consequences there may be.

What advice would you give to people looking for work in your field?

Every day is a school day, be humble and continue learning.

Project controls is a growing field with several niche areas, you need to have a good grasp of everything from finance, tendering, contractual matters, project management, working with and managing people and scheduling to name a few.

More often than not, for this role we pick those based on enthusiasm and train them to suit the role. Not everyone can juggle all these tasks. Be open to new challenges and show an interest in all of the aforementioned topics.

Follow Niamh’s path

Interested in working in construction or engineering within Canada? Want to build a career as a Project Controls Manager in Calgary like Niamh?

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Other articles in this series: