'Canada was supposed to be a summer holiday, but I knew I wouldn’t be coming back'
Without a degree, I've had much more opportunity to grow my career away from Ireland
Shane O’Connor, who is originally from Spancilhill, Co Clare, lives in Munich and works for an environmental and food science company
Working Abroad Q&A: Shane O’Connor from Spancilhill, Co Clare, now lives in Munich, where he works for an environmental and food science company.
How did you end up in Germany?
I left in Ireland in May 2012 for Vancouver. I remember being so glad to leave after doing work placement with the HSE (as it was then) in Limerick as a student social worker. Canada was only supposed to be a summer holiday, but I knew I wouldn’t be coming back, as I realised that social work was not something I was cut out to do. After an incredible two years, I returned home to Ireland after an unfortunate leg-break playing rugby. I did rehab on my leg until I was ready to set sail agai - this time for Spain in the summer in 2014 as an English/sports teacher. After the summer had ended, I literally had no idea where to go. I knew I wasn’t ready to go home just yet, so I decided to take a chance and go somewhere I had never been before and live there. I shared a car using the platform BlaBlaCar with a Spaniard, a Mexican, a French girl and an American, and off we went from Madrid to Berlin. An unforgettable experience!
Tell us about your career?
It has definitely been an unconventional route to get where I am now. Having zero professional experience, I found it hard, but finally got a role with an immigration consultancy firm where I assisted businesses to acquire visas for their staff to countries like Saudi Arabia, India and China. After one and a half years, I joined a young digital start-up. I was lucky enough to stay on and work in Arizona for a month to help build up our US operations team. On returning to Berlin, I joined ResearchGate, a Bill Gates-backed platform for scientists, researchers and academics. It was here that I started in sales and really learned about the ins and outs of business. I also realised that I wanted to work for a company that not only had a mission to be a successful company but also to impact science and society on a global scale. I had two other sales roles within start-ups in Berlin before finally leaving and moving to Munich.
What do you do on now?
I am now working for an environmental and food science company called METER Group in Munich. METER design, manufacture and provide scientific instrumentation and software to both environmental and food scientists.
You have an interest in nutrition. How does that fit in?
I have a huge personal interest in nutrition science and especially the role food has in preventative medicine and longevity. So much so that I actually applied for nutrition science courses in this year’s CAO. I was very close to moving back home to Ireland, but I decided against it, to try further my career in business in food and nutrition science. I still harbour hopes of one day opening up my own longevity clinic when I finally get around to doing my degree.
What projects should we know about?
One of the main reasons METER really struck a chord with me as a company was some of the projects they were working on. Our weather stations are being used in an initiative called the Trans-African Hydro-Meteorological Observatory, where our instruments are being used by farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa to collect weather data so they can help produce more food and manage their crops more efficiently.
In Fukushima, soil scientists are using our cloud software and sensors to help them decontaminate the radioactive soil after the nuclear disaster so farmers in the region can start producing food again.
On the food side then, we are helping nutrition companies create nutrition bars for malnourished children all over the world with our water activity meter which helps lengthen shelf life and prevent spoilage. These bars then thanks to the World Food Programme and UNICEF are distributed to the regions that need them the most.
What is it like living in Munich in comparison to Berlin?
Munich is chalk and Berlin is cheese. It feels like another country down here and I now understand why Berliners and Bavarians have this sort of disconnect and resentment towards one another.
Berlin is a very young, liberal and hedonistic city where the music and party culture is hugely prevalent. It has chewed me up and spat me out more times than I can remember, but for that, I am grateful. The term “Nevereverland” is used sometimes to describe how people never truly grow up there. It’s truly a unique place that holds a special place in my heart.
Here in Munich, it is much more traditional and conservative, but it feels a lot like in Ireland in many ways. The people are friendlier and more down to earth here, the weather is quite temperate since we are in close proximity to the Alps which also means the air is a lot cleaner and the majority of people here are always hiking and cycling on the weekends so you’re definitely immersed more in nature which I hugely missed living in Berlin. It’s much more expensive down here, especially when it comes to rent ,but the wages are much higher so it all balances out in the end. I have also learned more German here in two weeks than I have done in almost five years in Berlin, which is great.
Has working abroad offered you greater opportunities?
Definitely. Some companies in Ireland from my experience still focus heavily on a candidate’s education, rather than their work experience. I interviewed for a medical device company last year in Ireland and they really couldn’t fathom how I carved out a career in business without an applicable university degree. This traditional mindset in Ireland could have massively hindered my chances of starting my professional career,so I am so grateful for all of the opportunities Berlin gave me as education isn’t a priority for many of the companies there.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?
I guess I can only give advice to people who are in a similar predicament to mine. Just because you don’t hold a degree in something, doesn’t mean that should stop you in your tracks to becoming whatever you like. Of course this doesn’t mean you can become a doctor or an architect overnight, but within business especially, with hard work, determination and a bit of luck, you can build a successful career, so don’t feel like you can’t.
Is there anything you miss about living in Ireland?
As side from my family and friends of course, I miss the people. After seven years of living away from home, you start to miss the small things. I love coming home to the warmth and friendliness. I also miss the fresh sea air, great pints of Guinness, the home comfort foods like bacon and cabbage and playing hurling and rugby. Thankfully it is only a few hours away, so those cravings can be quickly quenched. I have no doubt that I will return for good in the future, which I am looking forward to massively.
If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a little information about you and what you do.