At 61 years old, Claude Bernard doesn’t code and social media doesn’t do much for him. But he can run a marathon in three and a half hours, has moved house 32 times in 40 years, and agreed to a new expatriation in 2018 –the eighth one in his career – this time to Saudi Arabia. This engineer – who knows nuclear projects like the back of his hand and has never stopped learning – definitely has the wanderlust gene.
“For me, young and old engineers have complementary skills. And that’s particularly true for the export projects I work on. Because when you work abroad, you experience situations that are completely new to you and you deal with clients whose personal and professional culture are totally different from your own. That means you’ve got to adapt, which is a skill that the young, enterprising generation definitely has. But it also means knowing how to step back and take stock. And to do that you need experience”, says Claude Bernard enthusiastically.
Having graduated in civil engineering from the ESTP engineering school in Paris in 1980, and now working on a two-year expat assignment in Saudi Arabia which he started in mid-2018, Claude knows what he’s talking about. Before joining Assystem four years ago he had spent 32 years at EDF. “When I graduated, after doing a work placement at Bouygues, I was offered a job at EDF and after a short stint working on site surveys I was very quickly sent out to work on EDF’s new builds”, he explains. “So I started my career in the same areas that I’m working on today, namely selecting sites and nuclear power plant new-builds”.
40 years’ experience built up in 8 countries
Claude worked for a year and a half at Chinon, was involved at the very start of the construction process for the Civaux power plant near Poitiers, and worked on the completion of the Chooz plant in the Ardennes region. “On top of that, I was fortunate enough to be head of department for four years at two different plants in their operational phase. One year at Belleville-sur-Loire and three years at Dampierre, one of the first plants to be built in France. That allowed me to really get my teeth into the issues of maintenance and management that are essential for an operator of this type of facility”, explains Claude. “In that type of job you live at the same pace as the plant. It’s nothing like an office-based engineering job. You really get to understand the importance of everyone’s role in carrying out a nuclear project, safety included”.
France isn’t Claude’s only stomping ground. He has worked in eight different countries, including six for EDF: Italy, Lebanon (in a gas-fired combined-cycle plant), Chernobyl (Ukraine), where he helped develop the New Safe Confinement, China (at Daya Bay as head of civil engineering for China’s first nuclear power plant), and the UK (on the Hinkley Point C EPR project).
Stepping back and taking stock is therefore definitely in Claude’s repertoire. At Assystem he joined the Space Cowboys, a group of some twenty experienced senior engineers who provide support and advice on Assystem’s most important projects, most of which are outside France.
“When it comes down to it, I think that we “elders”, if you will, can deal with pressure better than youngsters. I’m not saying it’s any easier for us. But to confront a situation and find the best solutions for making a project move ahead successfully, you need patience. And that’s not necessarily a forte of young project managers”, laughs Claude.
You’re only as old as your attitude!
For Claude, age is only a number. And with parents who are coming up to 100 and six children ranging in age from 16 to 38, he certainly knows how to bridge generation gaps.
Claude is currently based in Saudi Arabia on the K.A.CARE project, working as a deputy to the project manager, Billal B. who is 37. “I work mostly on the technical side of the project, whereas Billal manages progress and planning, and knows the financial aspects better than me. But both of us sometimes have to work in the other’s domain. For instance, Billal is involved in one of the project’s five technical deliverables, and I have helped him on client aspects of the project. Working this way helps us learn from our colleagues and continuously hone our skills on the ground”, continues Claude.
“Having said that, don’t go asking me to design an information system for document management! I’m definitely not a specialist when it comes to digital. I’m just a user. What’s important is knowing how to use the software we work with, and to do that I’ve often taught myself as I’ve gone along”, he adds.
Claude hardly ever uses Facebook, saying he “doesn’t have time”, or Twitter, “even if the President of the USA finds time for that”, but he’s right up there with the youngsters when it comes to get-up-and-go. His career is proof of that. As are his 32 house moves in 40 years of marriage. Not to mention his sporting prowess. “I can still run a marathon in three and a half hours. I train four times a week to keep fit, even though I don’t compete any more”, he tells us. “But at the end of the day, it’s not a question of whether you’re a has-been because you’ve hit the other side of 60. It all comes down to attitude. If I’ve got any advice to give it’s the same as I give myself: enjoy what you do. That’s the best way to stay at the top of your game. And I certainly love working abroad.”
Lastly, time and experience have taught Claude one all-important factor that applies to both his personal and professional life: “Communicating and sharing knowledge is essential.” In other words, there’s no point wanting to always be right or trying to fight a generation war.
“There’s never just one right answer. There are always different ways of doing things and it’s by working together that we find the best solution. That’s what I’ve learnt more than anything in my long career. Without forgetting of course that even if confidentiality is part of our business culture, communication and information sharing help to enrich both our work and our individual personalities.”
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