Overseas ITers jet into UK to forge foreign trade links

IT departments could find themselves acting as ambassadors for the UK under a new scheme to raise the country's profile abroad...

IT departments could find themselves acting as ambassadors for the UK under a new scheme to raise the country's profile abroad and forge links between UK companies and foreign professionals, writes Nathalie Towner.

The Bond Scheme is a Trade Partners UK initiative managed by the British Council. It aims to bring skilled foreign professionals to UK firms on one-year contracts in an attempt to have the UK presented in a favourable light abroad and open doors to foreign trade when the workers return home. African and Asian nations are a particular target.

Although the scheme is tailored for small companies with short-term aims, big players are also benefiting from the programme.

In March, Nariman Youssef, an IT professional from Cairo, was recruited to work as a member of the application services team at engineering giant Foster Wheeler in Reading. The company has an interest in Egypt and was looking for someone with very specific applications knowledge.

"I studied computer science at the University of Cairo and my first job was in a small software house in Cairo working on software development," says Youssef. When she heard of the opportunity at Foster Wheeler she was quick to apply. "I gave my resume to the British Council in Cairo, they interviewed me, and then I was interviewed by Foster Wheeler over the phone," she explains.

Once Youssef had been selected, the British Council put everything in motion to bring her to the UK.

Youssef's first challenge was to adapt to a different work culture. "To start with I was very intimidated because there were so many rules, but the team was really friendly and I got to learn a lot about the business side of the operation."

In her year in the UK Youssef designed and built an internal requisition and purchasing system for Foster Wheeler's IT, facilities management and central purchasing groups, as well as working as part of a team upgrading a core reporting package in preparation for Windows 2000. "I gained a lot culturally, I made lots of British friends and it was really good for me to learn how to function in a big company," she says.

Youssef has now finished her contract at Foster Wheeler and has enjoyed her time in the UK so much that she is considering taking a Web development role in London before returning to Egypt. "In London I can gain a lot of cultural exposure, I am very interested in the arts and London is excellent for this," she says.

The scheme has succeeded in making Youssef see the UK in a positive light, but Foster Wheeler will also benefit, albeit in the future.

"It gives international exposure to the individual, and the company benefits from the contact and the cultural overview it would not have been able to get from an EU national," says Robin Vidler, acting managing director of the Bond Scheme.

"If a company wants to develop a project for, say, the Chinese market but does not know how to target the product correctly or does not have any contacts, it can come to us and ask us to recruit someone from that country on its behalf."

The British Council has offices around the world and it will use these to find three suitable candidates for the company to interview. Once someone has been chosen the British Council secures the work permit and pays for the flight from the funds provided by the Trade Partners UK initiative.

"We set them up for six to 12 months, we feel this is the right amount of time for an exchange of ideas and hopefully the visit will result in long-term prospects," says Vidler.

Vidler is keen to point out that there is little incentive for companies to bring candidates over for their skill set alone - it simply does not make economic sense. For the scheme to be of any worth the company must have a genuine interest in developing trade links with the targeted country.

Although the scheme could take a long time to prove its worth, Vidler remains full of optimism. "The newly elected president of Colombia came to the UK on a similar scheme when he was a young man and he should now be well disposed to the UK as a result," he says.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)

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