Home > Expat Life > Work Abroad > Hélène: a process engineer in the United States

Hélène, also known as Poupette, is an active member of the French forums. Here she shares with us how her professional experience has been shaped due to her years as an expat.

My name is Hélène, I am 39, married and I have two children (4 and a half and 8 years old). Outside of my work and my children, which takes up 99.99% of my time, I like reading, going to the movies and the gym (not very original!!!). I have a PhD in Material Sciences. I have 13 years of professional experience in semiconductors, most of it gained overseas (in the Netherlands, Belgium and the United States).

I have been living in Fremont, San Francisco area for the past 8 years and I will probably be staying here for some more years.

It is my third expatriation after the Netherlands and Flanders in Belgium. Technically, those were never expatriations as my husband and I were always working for local companies on local contracts.

I followed my partner every time except the first time: after finishing my thesis, I bravely set out to do my post-doctorate in the Netherlands for 2 years (on a European Scholarship). When my scholarship came to an end, I found a job in Belgium, where my husband was working at the time.

Then my dear love got tired of his work and decided to change jobs. In a very short time, he managed to find employment in the United States (in Fremont) and to get me pregnant.

I took the time to take care of myself in Belgium because my partner had already left and then I gave birth in France, at my mother’s (thanks to the European labor law…). For immigration reasons we then got married head over heels when he came to visit his newborn child. And, suddenly, there I was in the USA with a one month old baby.

And this is where things got ugly. I did not adapt well at all to the interruption in my professional career as it came with too many other changes: a baby, being far away from my family and being totally financially dependent on my husband. On this last point, I want to emphasize that it was purely in my head because we had a joint-account and I was in charge of the budget and of the family planning.

So I had a period of feeling terribly lonely, a time which lasted only a few months because I quickly met other French women in the same situation as me (children/no work).

When I felt ready to start working again (after a year), the industrial sector in which I was working was in recession (it is a cyclical sector and this happens every 3-4 years). And it was impossible, unfortunately, to find a job, because of the difficulty in obtaining a H1-B work visa. This particular visa requires the employer to justify the hiring of a foreigner because it would be impossible to find a national with the same qualifications. The justification is very difficult when the streets are crowded with them due to large-scale lay-offs. I had to wait another six months, until the paperwork for the granting of my husband’s green card was far enough along. Effectively, at a certain point in this procedure, the partner of the applicant obtains a work permit even before the granting of the green card.

My job search was very chaotic for two reasons: the economic crisis in my field and unawareness of the local customs. In my field, I would say that 90% of the jobs are obtained on the personal recommendations of another employee, a professional relation or a friend. Just to give one example: I had the typical profile for employees at a certain company but I was never able to get an interview with them when I applied directly to human resources. I was finally hired following a recommendation, and the hiring manager confirmed that fact.

To go back to my professional experience, I finally found a consulting position in a start-up through my husband’s company. This turned into a permanent contract after a few months. I started working three days a week, then four. I used this experience to expand my list of contacts. After two years, when the start-up gave signs of weakness, I was thus able to find my next job through contacts.

I was also pregnant again. I stayed in the company less than a year for two reasons: the main one was that with two children, I wanted to be closer to my home and the second one because I could not stand the company culture. This time my move was perfect, as I was able to surf on the top of the employment wave and I found a better paid job, closer to home and with a hiring bonus…. of course, only due to a personal recommendation!!! This company is in the same line of business as the previous ones (equipment providers for the manufacturing of semiconductors). I have a position as a process engineer.

If I look back on my career, I have almost never worked in France. So, it is difficult for me to compare. Nevertheless, I think that the differences exist and I am speaking only about my line of business. In the United States, the professional relationships are a lot less hierarchic but a lot more competitive and the structures a lot more fluid and changing. They ask the employees to take a lot more initiatives: basically, to get the job done. Finally, one needs to know to sell oneself and negotiate. I do not think that the French education prepares us for that, such as its lack of emphasis on verbal communication. But, in my work, I do a lot of reports and presentations.

Finally, the attitude of the Americans regarding higher education and degrees awarded is not the same as in France. Here they put a lot more value on your professional experience. The degree gives a basic level and is a key to the company, but then depending upon the opportunities, one can work in a different line of business. That does not mean that the companies are not elitist!!! In my present company, it is better to have a thesis, preferably from Berkeley, if you hope to have a career. But then, if you have a science background, you may end up in sales…. Our present CEO, for example, is a former helicopter pilot!!!

The good side of things is that it is extremely dynamic, that we are not bored and that we learn a lot .

What I love, as well in the Silicon Valley, is the cultural diversity. I work with Indians, Koreans, Chinese, Iranians, English, Vietnamese, Rumanians, Russians, Philippines, Indonesians, Greeks, Japanese, and I am sure that I am forgetting some. And of course, we find all of the corresponding food in the surrounding areas.

Translated by Sophie

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