Nebraska Engineering Fall, 2005
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Alum Takes His Career Beyond Borders

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When Jim Hawkins began working with Caterpillar almost 20 years ago, he had no idea he’d end up working on the other side of the world. He was perfectly content just to work for a company that had “all the best toys in the world’s biggest sandbox.”

He didn’t know that sandbox covered places such as Belgium, Geneva and Paris, but he’s certainly glad it does. “Working with Caterpillar has given me the opportunity to extend my career in ways I never imagined,” Hawkins said. “That’s why I joined the company.”

Initially, Hawkins designed construction and mining machines then moved on to marketing, where he wrote functional specifications for machines. Although he calls it the “dark side,” Hawkins is grateful he made the change because it got him closer to the customer. “My product knowledge helped them be successful,” he said. “And that’s a measure of our success.”

A 1986 graduate of mechanical engineering, Hawkins first moved overseas in 1992. The first stop was Belgium, where he and his family stayed for four years (both children were born there) then returned to America. In 1999 he moved to Geneva, working with cement and quarry industries in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, then it was off to Paris in 2002. “It’s been a fun career so far,” he said.

But he didn’t always feel that way. When he arrived in Europe, things felt “very alien.” He and his wife saw Europe as a bit backward and very different. But as they integrated into the culture and work practices, they began to appreciate much of European culture. “There is this perception that Europeans are lazy,” Hawkins said, “but that’s not true. They work very hard, play very hard and take vacations very seriously.” For example, he said, an American manager works while on vacation. But Europeans completely segregate their work and personal life. “When they are working, they work hard. And they work long hours.” But when on vacation, they forget about work. “I found that to be a good thing.” Alum Takes His Career Beyond Borders

Hawkins and his family recently returned to the United States and live in Minneapolis. His children, who spent most of their lives overseas, experienced culture shock. A softspoken man, Hawkins explained it this way:

“In Europe there is a greater focus on the family.” Children attend school and focus on academics—there are no sports, no extra activities. You won’t find many soccer moms running children from one practice to another. Children come home from school, do about three hours of homework and spend time with family. In addition, students get periods of time off from school, during which they might go skiing or participate in some other activity—with family.

“I don’t know how we’ll be able to do that in the United States,” he said. “We’re recognizing that we have to do things differently.”

Hawkins said his time in the College of Engineering helped him “tremendously” in his career. “An engineering education gives you the analytical framework to solve problems.” And those skills, he said, are applicable to working in business. He was impressed by the quality of the faculty. “They were extremely intelligent, motivated and willing to help,” he said. “I had a lot of fun. My only regret is not taking university more seriously. Knowing what I know today, I would have done things differently.”

In what way?

“I would have gotten an advanced degree,” he said. He explained that in Europe, entrylevel engineers are more educated and more mature, largely because most European countries had mandatory military service so people entered the work force later. They also have a better worldview. Most Americans are “U.S.-centric,” he said. But to compete globally, Hawkins said, students need to think globally. That’s why he urges students to participate in international engineering education programs.

“The world has shrunk and the competition for jobs is intense,” he said. “It’s important for students to expand their experiences and learn more.” And with more and more jobs moving overseas, students must have a better understanding of other cultures if they hope to compete.

“I would encourage students to think hard about where they want to be in 10 years. It may change the way they look at college. That worldview is important and they need to figure out what they want so they can make the most of their education.”

—Constance Walter