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James Brayshaw, 49, an engineer from Liverpool, has worked in Saudi Arabia, Sweden and Denmark for Dataworkforce. Now he is on contract to Nortel, testing circuits across Europe. "I would not go back to anything else. It's a lot more freedom and a lot more money," he says. "You can pick and choose what you want to do." The company offers training when necessary to make sure its contractors fit the temp jobs, which can involve everything from designing new cellular transmission stations and selecting sites for transceiver towers to supervising construction and troubleshooting reception problems.
Although 75% of the workers are on 12- to 18-month contracts, many bring families with them. Fleming's wife and kids joined him on one-year assignments in Rio and Washington but are staying behind in London while he is in Seattle. As a former Royal Navy communications expert, he is used to the travel and knows it helps his resume, but he sees the downside too. "If you have a young family, it's hard to leave them behind, but moving can be an unstable life for them," says Fleming. The company often helps by giving housing and moving allowances or by putting workers into company accommodations. British consultant Elvis Gibbs, an expert in network switching, knows mobility is key in the current market. He moved his wife and three kids from Dallas to San Francisco this month for a new job with Dataworkforce, after three years in Texas.
The biggest hassle of the business is getting work visas. In the U.S. it can take three months or more to clear a tech worker for an H-1B visa--almost the same time it takes to get an American worker into a European Union country. When Ericsson recently tried to bring a dozen Dataworkforce contractors from Britain to Dallas, the three-month wait stretched into five months and nearly killed the deal.
Culture shock is a constant factor in matching contractors to jobs. Martin Kelman, 35, a Briton who until recently headed Dataworkforce's U.S. office in the Dallas suburb of Plano, says he found U.S. business culture "a real buzz," because "in the United States, it doesn't matter if you have the right school tie or who your father was." But one contractor he brought in from Indonesia found the change unsettling. "One day he's riding his bike to work in Jakarta; the next he's in Manhattan," chuckles Kelman. The company nurtures its contractors on the road. Brayshaw says Dataworkforce phoned him weekly in Saudi Arabia to see how he was bearing up in the desert heat.
Dataworkforce has taken a hit with the economic downturn, going from 500 to 300 contractors worldwide since 1999, largely by dropping less-skilled workers. Franklin now concentrates not on building new cellular networks but on optimizing them--making them work better--a strategy that has brought in $18 million since his U.S. office opened 21 months ago. And Franklin sunnily predicts that 24,000 telecom engineers will be needed worldwide if companies are to make use of the commercial 3G licenses being issued in the next few years.
--With reporting by Thomas K. Grose/Bromley