Foreign workers relocating to Pittsburgh cope with culture shock

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In the summer of 2010, Thorsten Luetzler and his wife, Ariane, were living in Leverkusen, Germany, on the verge of buying their first home.

That is, until one day at work for the Bayer Corp. Mr. Luetzler received an offer for a position in Pittsburgh, with the instructions to sleep on it and talk it over with his wife.

"I don't need to talk to her, I don't need to sleep on it," he answered right away. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

The 33-year-old Mr. Luetzler and his wife -- who had once worked in New York City and hoped to return to the United States -- now live in Imperial and are the parents of an infant son, Benjamin, who was born in Pittsburgh.

As head of communications for Bayer Business and Technology Services, he acts frequently as a cross-cultural go-between, on matters as small as explaining to Germans why Americans aren't available for meetings around the fourth Thursday in November or as big as explaining to Americans the intricacies of German labor unions.

"For me, this was a game changer to understand the American way of working, to look at Germany from this perspective," he said. "It's really a global business. How can you work effectively with other people if you don't know their culture, their language?"

Mr. Luetzler is one of dozens, if not hundreds, of foreigners who have come to Pittsburgh for job opportunities.

Some, like Mr. Luetzler, work for foreign-owned companies that frequently move employees around the world. Others are recruited to the U.S. for their expertise in a particular subject matter.

Moving to a foreign country can be incredibly daunting, and most companies willing to employ international workers also provide support to help them settle in.

Christine Probert owns a South Side-based company called Presenting Pittsburgh that specializes in corporate relocations. Up to 15 percent of her business each year is international employees, and she'll often spend several days helping them choose a neighborhood or school system, taking them to the Social Security office and getting them set up with drivers licenses and cell phones.

As far as she can tell, international relocations here peaked with the tech bubble in the early 2000s, when about 30 percent of her business was international -- 90 percent of which was tech workers coming from India.

Now, the people that she works with -- about 20 to 25 families per year -- are much more evenly distributed from places around the world.

Akustica, a nearly 50-person tech company on the South Side, has 10 international employees. Five are German -- a natural consequence of Akustica's acquisition in 2008 by the German company, Bosch -- with others from places such as Finland and China.

"Our business is international -- a lot of our customers are over in Asia," said Susan Earley, vice president of finance and administration for Akustica, which designs and manufactures miniature microphones and was founded in 2001 as a Carnegie Mellon spinoff. "People from different countries bring different perspectives."

Eric Ochs came from Germany in 2010, following his boss at Bosch in Germany, Stefan Finkbeiner, who was named CEO at Akustica.

Mr. Ochs had never heard of Pittsburgh until he and other employees looked for it on a map to figure out where Mr. Finkbeiner was moving.

A physicist by training, Mr. Ochs is now director of packaging and assembly for Akustica. He and his wife live in Mt. Lebanon, where their two children attend elementary school and high school.

From a work perspective, he has embraced all the changes -- from a large corporation to a startup company, from working in automotive division of Bosch in Germany to a consumer business here, and from the German to American work culture.

It has been gratifying to watch the changes in his children, as well, he said.

"The school system makes it easy for people who don't speak English to integrate," he said. "After half a year, my kids were not fluent but they were able to call their friends and make appointments for play dates. After a year, they started making fun of mine and my wife's English."

Though it may seem unrelated to the working world, one of the keys for companies who want to employ foreign workers is to make sure their families are happy.

"An international relocation can cost a company upwards of half a million dollars, with two or three kids, a spouse, visitation trips, household goods being moved," said Ms. Probert. "If the family doesn't acclimate, that's a huge, huge loss to a company."

As part of her services, Ms. Probert suggests social clubs or activities that the employee's spouse might be able to participate in. International moves can be hard, she said, because the spouse often can't work here because of visa issues and doesn't have an established social network.

Bayer has done research into successful international placements and makes a concerted effort to keep the entire family happy.

Mr. Luetzler was able to get his furniture moved from Germany, for example, and the company provided an English tutor for him and his wife. Bayer is also willing to sponsor a visa for his wife, who hopes to find a job here in marketing.

Because the couple have a baby, Mr. Luetzler said, his wife has been able to make friends fairly easily, taking Benjamin to activities such as baby yoga and kindermusic. The couple, who lived in Mt Lebanon until last month, appreciate the number of families they've met with young children. Because of the high cost of living in Germany, families there are much smaller.

While they've been able to connect easily socially, there are certainly some cultural differences that have required a learning curve.

In Germany, he said, checks are virtually never used; money transfers are made electronically. When he needed to use a check here to get his driver's license, he had to ask the clerk how to fill it out.

Similarly, he and his wife were utterly flummoxed on the first night in their rental home by a power outage -- something he had never experienced in Germany because power lines there are buried.

He had to meet his new neighbors by asking basic questions about what to do about the furnace and the freezer.

Some foreigners who settle in Pittsburgh like to preserve their life in their home countries as much as possible, said Ms. Probert, while others go for the American experience, complete with a big house in the suburbs and a trip to Disney World.

She laughed about one European couple who "just jumped on this American culture hook, line and sinker. They went to Vegas and got married by an Elvis impersonator."

Ron Kroushore, owner of Prudential Preferred Realty, in McCandless, said he has encountered a few unusual situations over the years when house hunting with international workers, such as Chinese workers interested in the east/west positioning of the house and the bedrooms for feng shui purposes.

At Bayer, a group of employees based in Pittsburgh works full time on international employee relocations.

The "international mobility team" helps with visa issues, tax preparation, language services and anything else imaginable. The company currently has 19 "in-patriate" foreign nationals working in Pittsburgh and 81 "expatriate" employees from American offices working abroad.

"This is a big part of the career development for many of our business leaders," said spokesman Bryan Iams, of Bayer's international assignments. "We as a company take a significant role in this process. We don't just say, 'Good luck and here's your job.'"

Daniel Marsula/Post-Gazette

Anya Sostek: or 412-263-1308.


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