Working in New Zealand as a civil engineer

Life for US civil engineer Jeff Ray has changed in ways he couldn’t even have imagined when he moved to New Zealand in 2011.

Lake Rotoiti, Nelson Lakes National Park

For starters, he is now a father of three boys. Jeff’s wife, Amanda, found out she was pregnant with their first son soon after Jeff accepted a job in Christchurch, in New Zealand’s South Island.

“Discovering we were about to have a baby prompted us to do lots of research about New Zealand, on everything from its healthcare system to midwifery,” says Jeff.

“Then we said, ‘Hey, this place fits our values. Let’s go for it.’”

Jeff cites two main reasons why moving to New Zealand from North Carolina was the right move for him and his family – the quality of life, and the range of work opportunities here.

Work hard, play hard

Jeff Ray at work

“New Zealanders do a lot of work, but they also do a lot of play,” says Jeff, 32.

“I like hiking and mountaineering, ideally with the kids.

“My three boys are quite rambunctious and they love the outdoors. There are fewer boundaries here.”

Jeff and his family have endless opportunities to explore the outdoors – within two hours of Christchurch, it’s possible to ski, hike, mountain bike, raft, surf, swim, play golf, bungy jump, and see whales, dolphins and seals. 

A life outside work

While US workers have no statutory minimum paid vacation, Kiwi workers are entitled to four weeks of paid holidays a year.

Jeff’s employer, global engineering and infrastructure advisory firm Aurecon, also has a purchased leave scheme that allows employees to ‘buy back’ up to four weeks of leave each year. The scheme spreads the reduction in pay evenly throughout the year, rather than deducting it from just one pay period.

Jeff usually takes at least a couple of weeks of purchased leave each year, and sometimes more.

“The vacation leave I’ve had here is a massive reason why we haven’t gone back to live in the States,” he says. 

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Jeff and Amanda Ray

Arthur's Pass National Park

An international CV

Jeff says New Zealand’s building sector is booming thanks to the country’s strong economy, the rebuild after the 2011 Canterbury earthquake and the need for new infrastructure to cope with population growth.

He has tackled a wide variety of projects in New Zealand, ranging from being part of a team tasked with rebuilding Christchurch’s quake-damaged roads and water networks to helping build four-unit apartment complexes.

“Professionally, coming to New Zealand has been great for my CV,” he says.

“I’ve done three times the number of projects in the last four years in New Zealand than I did in the four years I worked as a civil engineer in the US.”

While Jeff has a fast-paced working life, he says his employer assigns other staff to help if he is unable to complete his tasks with a 40 to 45-hour working week.

“It’s good to work for someone who understands that your productivity goes down if you work for more than 45 hours a week,” he says.

Overcoming challenges

Jeff Ray and family

Learning different engineering terminology and working in the metric system were the biggest professional challenges Jeff faced when he moved to New Zealand. He says it took him about a month to get up to speed.

He has found the cost of living in New Zealand higher than in the US but says salaries are good and he has been able to save money in other ways – such as being able to cycle to work, which means he and Amanda haven’t needed a second car.

While Jeff misses family members back home, technology makes it easy to stay in touch. His father has been over several times at Christmas, which is in the New Zealand summer.

Jeff and Amanda are now celebrating being granted residency in New Zealand. 

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