Construction foreman lands job in Afghanistan due to experience in Iraq and TheLadders interview prep service.
By Patty Orsini
When you’re looking for work in a war zone, it helps to do some research to prepare you for what to expect. Peter Vasquez did his research, and it led him to a new work front in Afghanistan.
“The CEO was surprised that I knew as much about the company as I did,” the UpLadder member said about his interview with the head of Technologists Inc., a construction firm based in Rosslyn, Va., that was looking to hire people for a new construction project in Afghanistan. Vasquez, who had recently returned from a 15-month stint doing construction as a civilian contractor on a military base in Iraq, had a good sense of what this new job would entail. He knew what type of work Technologists would be doing and what the conditions would be like. And he knew how to find out what projects the company would be working on.
In fact, it was this knowledge that scored Vasquez the interview. “I was on the Internet 10 or 12 hours a day, searching for jobs and researching information about companies,” he said. “I saw that Technologists had won a contract from the U.S. government to build a police-training facility and sent a note to the CEO congratulating the company on the contract and attached my resume. A couple of days later, I got a note back from them, asking if I’d like to come in for an interview.”
With that hurdle vanquished, Vasquez faced another: the prospect of a job interview, something he hadn’t had to do in a very long time.
More prepared for the job than the interview
Vasquez, who had owned his own business for several years before working in Iraq, was a little nervous about selling himself. During his searching of TheLadders site, he recalled seeing a feature called Interview Prep. “It intrigued me,” Vasquez said. “I wrote to them: ‘I’m not an interview guru. Do you have any suggestions for me?’ Someone got right back to me.”
That someone was Alan Cohen, a certified executive coach who works with members of TheLadders. “With Peter, it was a matter of smoothing out the rough edges,” Cohen said. “What I saw was someone who was incredibly strong on values, on ethics. He was very hard working; he had worked his way up in the construction industry. All of these things set him apart and made him attractive to an eventual employer.”
Vasquez sent Cohen some information about Technologists along with the job posting, so Cohen could have some background. “My coach even did some research himself about the company,” Vasquez said. “He sent me some questions — the most-asked questions on an interview -- and told me to be prepared for them. He conducted a mock interview with me, and along the way would say, ‘Instead of saying that, say this,’ or, ‘Can you explain this better?’ ”
Cohen worked with Vasquez over the course of three days, preparing him for how to answer questions such as “What are your strengths?” and the dreaded “What are your weaknesses?” steering him to answer in a way that put his skills in the best light.
A wealth of choices
Part of the challenge for both Vasquez and Cohen was the fact that Technologists was considering Vasquez for three different positions. The company had openings for a construction manager, a construction foreman and a project manager. So, the interview would be anything but typical.
“The key thing I told him going in was to act like a consultant,” Cohen said. “If you say to the interviewer, ‘Well, it sounds like you are looking for help here. In my experience, this is what I have done, and this is what I can do to help you,’ you can show them how to solve their problems. And that creates value.”
Cohen said Vasquez was well on his way to presenting himself in that light before Cohen even spoke to him. “He told me, ‘I’d be willing to just look at the plans and tell them what I can do.’ He wanted to roll up his sleeves and show the company what he was capable of. That was great. He was already thinking like a consultant.
“The raw material was all there,” said Cohen. “Peter knew the business, but he hadn’t interviewed for a job in a long time. I often tell people, it’s not so much about selling yourself as having an exchange of information and trying to see if this job is the right fit. He needed to be prepared to answer questions but also to ask questions to find out if this organization was where he wanted to work. If he did, then he needed to go into sales mode.”
One other point that Cohen strongly coached Vasquez on was salary: how to negotiate, and when. “He was ready to go into the interview talking about money,” said Cohen. “But I told him, ‘Don’t talk about it until you are offered the job.’ Oftentimes, job seekers want to talk about it first thing, but that can be a big mistake.”
Armed with a new approach and a lot of confidence, Vasquez flew to Virginia to meet with several people from Technologists. When he got there, the first person he met was the CEO, and he worked his knowledge of the industry into the conversation.
“Without a doubt, I felt more confident going into that interview,” Vasquez said. “When you don’t do this every day, it can be mind-boggling. Put me in a room with architects, engineers, a PowerPoint, no problem. I’m not nervous. I could do that all day long. But an interview — that’s something a little bit new.”
Before that interview, Vasquez spent several months wondering if he would find a job He returned to his Chicago home in October from Iraq, needing to take care of loose ends with a business he had sold 18 months earlier. He had been working for KBR, the division of Halliburton that won many government contracts in Iraq. KBR would not hold his job for him when he came back to the States, so it was back to the job search in November.
Benefits of international work
While Vasquez would have liked to find work locally, “I looked, and there wasn’t much happening [in the U.S.],” he said. Vasquez had another reason for wanting to work overseas: the first $84,700 earned is tax-free, he said, as long as you spend only 35 days in the U.S. a year. That benefit meant he could keep more of his salary. So he hit the job boards, sending out what he estimates was 1,200 to 1,400 resumes.
He was looking all over the world: Canada, Dubai, Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries for jobs as a project manager, an estimator, a contract administrator, a carpenter or a host of other construction jobs. “I thought, ‘I might as well look everywhere.’ It seemed like a bad time, though. I wasn’t getting that many responses,” he said. “I figured, with the holidays coming up, no one was going to hire. Then I thought, ‘After the new year, maybe things will pick up.’ But it was very slow.
Then, the week prior to the Inauguration, things did start to pick up. That’s when I sent my letter and resume to Technologists.”
Things happened very quickly from there. He returned home from his interview on a Friday; by that Sunday evening, he had a job offer via e-mail. Vasquez is leaving for Afghanistan the first week of Feb. 5 to take the construction foreman position with Technologists Inc. He will leave his wife and 10-year-old son in Chicago but hopes he can come back every six months for a few weeks at a time.
“My wife at first wasn’t too keen on my going overseas again. But she sees now that times are hard, and I can get better-paying work in Afghanistan. My son said, ‘You do what you gotta do.’ I think he understands.”
“This will be different from working on a military base,” he said. “There will be some Americans, but we will be working with a lot of people from the local village,” which is about 30 miles south of Kabul. “Some might have construction skills, but we’re going to teach them how to do construction.”
And, while it will be hard to be away from his family in Chicago, he is looking forward to the change of scenery. “I enjoy the excitement of being in a different place,” he said. “It’s an adrenaline rush. I’m not a crazy thrill guy. But I enjoy different cultures. And this is a good company. It has doubled in size in the past two years. I hope to move up as they move up.”
This was something that attracted him to this small company based in Afghanistan. “I’m working for a young and growing company,” he said. “I’m not just a number. I’ve been told that there will be jobs in Afghanistan through 2025, so I think this is a good job move.”
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Patty Orsini is a general assignment reporter for TheLadders.