x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

I flipped the right switches

After growing up on the family farm in Ireland, this lighting designer worked his way into a dream job in Dubai.

Damien McKay, a lighting designer in Dubai, earns more than twice as much as he did in the UK.
Damien McKay, a lighting designer in Dubai, earns more than twice as much as he did in the UK.

I am a senior lighting designer at DPA Lighting, the oldest illumination company in Dubai. One of the early projects DPA worked on was the exterior of the Sheraton Deira in 1979, which lit up the entire outside façade of the hotel. Since then the company has worked on projects across the world, including hotels, museums and public spaces. I had never considered working in Dubai until my interview with DPA in London at the end of 2009, because I thought it was the sort of place where only the "best of the best" could get jobs. I didn't rank myself that highly, although I believe I am good at what I do.

DPA agreed that I could come to Dubai for six months and see how it went. I've been here since January, and like it a lot so far; there's a great atmosphere in the office, so I'm planning to stay longer now. It's been a great career move money-wise, too. When my first pay cheque came in, it hit me that I was earning more than double what I would be earning back in the UK.

I grew up on a farm in Antrim, Ireland, near a village called Carnlough. My first experience with work was at the age of six, helping my dad around the farm. We had cows, sheep, chickens and even some goats. As a farming family, we were never well off. My dad always provided for us, but extravagances were rare. My mother died of cancer when I was 12 years old, and my father and grandmother raised us. I have four brothers and one sister: Anthony, 33, Randal, 31, Peter, 24, my sister Annemarie, 21, and my baby brother, Keelan, who is almost six.

At 13, I worked in a local hotel for three hours a week, emptying bins and doing odd jobs. I was paid £1.50 an hour. When I was a bit older I worked with two of my brothers on building sites during the school holidays. That was really hard work, but building was booming in Ireland. I was earning about £120 a week, which seemed a fortune compared to the £15 or so I was used to getting for odd jobs.

I remember, just before getting my GCSE results in 1997, my brothers' boss joked: "You'll get no [pass] results and then you can come and work here permanently from next week." I admire builders because it is the hardest physical work you can do, but I didn't want to do what my brothers were doing. I remember nearly crying with relief when I got my results and realised I wouldn't have to work as a builder's apprentice.

My brothers eventually moved to the Isle of Man and set up their own building company. They are doing well. I remember being a bit envious of their earnings, as I was the one who had gone to university, and especially because my first job was not highly paid. I graduated from the University of Ulster, in Belfast, in June 2004 with a degree in product and industrial design. I received benefits to pay for my courses because I came from a single-parent family.

I also took out a student loan of £9,400, on which I still owe around £6,000. I pay off about £200 per month, but now that I'm in Dubai, I am going to start throwing big amounts of money at it. Hopefully by the time I get to 30, at the end of this year, I'll have my finances in order and have some savings. After graduating, my first job in Ireland was as a lighting designer. I had never really heard of such a career, but I thought I'd give it a go.

The main idea is understanding and exploiting the architectural details of a building to cast light creatively. My first job paid me £12,000 a year, which coming out of university is about what you would expect. When the company sent me to London for a week's work, I realised that moving to the capital would advance my career faster. In January 2005 I flew from Belfast to London for an interview and was offered a job at Indigo Light Planning.

My starting salary was £22,000, and I thought I'd made it - big time. Of course, I didn't realise that £22,000 with bills, debts and rent doesn't go very far in London. I was ending up with about £500 in my pocket to spend each month. You can go through £100 on a night out in London, and then of course there is buying food during the week. Luckily, after a year I got a pay rise to £28,000 and felt more comfortable. I was then asked to move back to Belfast in 2007 to set up a satellite office for the company. My salary went a lot further there.

For the first year, the Belfast office did really well. However, when the financial crisis hit, four of our large projects stopped. We were told we might have to work a four-day week throughout July and August, plus take a pay cut. Sadly, the situation got worse after August, and by October I had made the decision that it might be better to look for work elsewhere. I had heard about opportunities in Dubai from various people in the industry, and by the end of 2009 I was offered the job with DPA Lighting.

I am now focusing on clearing my debts from home, though 2009 was a tough year for me financially. I had a girlfriend in England and I was spending a lot of money - around £250 - every weekend just travelling to see her. I had taken out a short-term loan plus a credit card, and quickly fell into the trap of not paying it off each month. I had debts of around £1,300, which I have now nearly paid back, not counting my ongoing student loan payments.

I had also bought a second-hand Mini for £9,000 in the UK. That was a huge financial commitment. I was paying back around £174 a month after putting down a deposit of £1,000. I've paid that off now and I still have the car back home - I don't want to sell it, as it is my first car. Funnily enough, the first company I worked for in Ireland gave it to me as a company car, and I was really sorry to give it up. Then, when I moved back again from London, I found it in a car dealership for sale.

I'll never sell it, and it's safely parked at my dad's farm. So now that my debts are nearly cleared, I want to start using my savings account. There is nothing in there yet, but I want to put aside as much as I can. I'd like to build my own house one day rather than moving into someone else's design. That might cost around £500,000. My dad has some land that he says I could build on in Ireland, or I may build in Italy or even Cumbria, where my ex-partner lived, and where I always felt very much at home. I don't know yet; that's the million-dollar question.

* As told to Jola Chudy * This article has been changed at the request of the interviewee.