Dominic De Prins has been working for Jan De Nul Group (JDN) for 12 years, a company known worldwide for its maritime, civil engineering, and environmental projects. Dominic spends most of his time in Latin America. He has been an expatriate in Colombia and Panama, among other places. He has spent the last two years living and working in Guayaquil, the main port of Ecuador. 'What I miss most about Belgium is my family, the cycling opportunities and, of course, the culinary overindulgence, but we have created a kind of 'shopping rule' for that. When fellow expats go to Belgium on holiday, we often give them a shopping list.'
You are never too young to learn
At the age of 23, Dominic was sent out to Spain as an operational superintendent. 'It was the perfect start to my career. When I got the chance, I didn't hesitate for long. It was a fantastic first experience as an expat.' During his stay in Spain, Dominic worked on several projects along the coast, from Barcelona to Valencia. When the financial crisis hit Spain hard, he had to put his expat adventure on hold for a while. He returned to Belgium. 'While at the office in Aalst, I ended up having a chat with my current boss in the lift and he didn't hesitate for long before sending me on a foreign adventure. Three days later, I was on a plane to Mexico. I'm still grateful to him for that.'
In Lázaro Cárdenas, Michoacán, Dominic formed the link between the dry earthmoving, the reclamation, and the dredger. He directed the creation of a new turning basin and the reclamation of the surrounding land.
What Spain and Mexico have in common is the language, but their cultures are otherwise completely different. 'In Spain, I felt like I was at home: it is Europe, after all. But Mexico felt so different.' There is a different (working) culture. 'We Belgians naturally take a direct 'no-bullshit' approach, but when I worked in Mexico, I had to choose my words far more carefully.' Dominic had the opportunity to lead a local team at the outset. 'Here, I was given responsibility more quickly. That kept it interesting and forced me to shift up a gear.'
After the adventure in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Brazil, and Panama were next on the list, with an intermezzo in Qatar and Russia. Then, in 2013, he was sent back to Barranquilla (Colombia).
The De Prins family
This expatriate experience took him to a new position and a new stage of life. 'I was given the opportunity to start working as a project manager and I met my wife. The story of Latin America was complete.'
For expatriates, a good work-life balance is important in order to keep going. You therefore have different statuses under which you can work. As a bachelor, you rotate every two months. You are then temporarily abroad. If you are in a committed relationship, you can become an expat living permanently abroad and go on holiday to Belgium. 'I started out as a bachelor, but after my adventure in Barranquilla, my partner and I decided to move forward together. Now, I work five months and get one month's holiday.' This gave Dominic a certain degree of stability. It was also more appealing for his employer, because by staying longer he guaranteed continuity for internal and external contacts.
When the project in Colombia ended, the family moved to Panama for an extended period in 2015, where Dominic was assigned his first major project as a project manager, the expansion of PSA Panama terminal near Panama City.
Neighbours and the Overseas Social Security, a welfare safety net
In 2018, Dominic was contacted in relation to a project in Guayaquil, Ecuador. 'Not a pleasant city,' he admits, but fortunately the couple found a nicer place to live, just outside the city. 'The living environment is very important to find rest after work and build social contacts. As my wife is from Colombia and I work closely with the locals, we have less of a need to shack up with other expats. Many of our friends are Ecuadorians and people from other parts of South America. If you have a good relationship with the locals, you are surrounded by people who can help you from nearby. This becomes even more important if you don't have family close by. You may have good insurance, but sometimes you just need help from your neighbours.'
'In Ecuador, you do have social security, but if you want the same welfare safety net as in Belgium, you have to join a Belgian expat insurance scheme.' Dominic's employer has an extensive insurance package for all its expatriates, including a section with the Overseas Social Security (NSSO). And that gives him a certain peace of mind.
Dominic and his family have been welcomed with open arms wherever they lived. 'It's a kind of positive discrimination.' Expats with the Jan De Nul Group are often welcome guests because they bring total solutions to complex problems. In Dominic's case: making Ecuador's largest port more accessible.
He is currently responsible for the daily management of the Guayaquil access canal. The dredging company ensures that the canal always has a certain depth so that ships can easily sail to Guayaquil, about 90 km inland. In addition, the shipping traffic can be controlled with a Vessel Traffic Service system, a shipping traffic control system, which is funded by the dredging company. 'As Managing Director of the local company, I also lead a team consisting of local engineers, topographers, administrative staff, and so on. In this way, as an organisation, you also give something back to the country in which you work as an expat. And that's perhaps the best thing about being an expat.'