With many Western nations experiencing stagnant economies and high unemployment rates (7.9% in the US, 11.2% in the EU), more foreigners than ever are moving to Mainland China to reside and work, as they perceive its economy outlook and job market to be comparatively rosy. However, China's economy is also changing—transitioning from a producing nation to a consuming one that has millions of increasingly well qualified 20- and 30-year olds seeking employment. For better or worse, these factors (along with many others) subsequently affect employment opportunities for the expat community in China. In light of this, here are several tips that will increase your chance of landing a job and succeeding in China's changing expat job market.
1) Lower your expectations
First and foremost, lower your expectations from China's "expat job market" of 10 years ago. A decade ago, a many foreigners could land a high-paying job quite easily. But now, with the job market shrinking due to increased competition from other foreigners and qualified Chinese alike, such "face jobs"—hiring a prototypical Westerner primarily for their appearance and fluent English—are becoming less appealing, costly and unnecessary for many companies. According to a 2009 China Daily article, Colin Friedman, managing director at China Expert International, said one of the reasons the job market for foreigners is shrinking is because there are more Chinese people with fluent English and lower wage demands to occupy these positions. The same report also quotes Yang Jiameng, spokeswoman for the information center at the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA), "In the past, we have had many [expat] job vacancies, but not enough applicants, but that has completely changed now." Simply put, there's just too much competition out there for high paying "face jobs" to remain prevalent.
2) Be willing to work for less money
It's said that expats generally make more than their Chinese colleagues for doing the same job. And while these "inflated" expat salaries don't seem to be significantly dropping or rising, they are however become weaker in real terms, as the cost of living throughout the country continues to climb—likely due to a combination of the Yuan's steady increase against the Euro and Dollar, inflation and the general growth of the Chinese economy. According to ECA International's Most Expensive Cities for Expat Employees in 2012 report, Shenzhen and Guangzhou both significantly rose, from 55 to 49 and from 56 to 34 respectively. Meanwhile, London currently ranks 62 and Madrid ranks 83. (Note: the survey does not factor in the cost of accommodation, utilities, car purchases and school fees since these are often incorporated into employment packages.) For example, the cost of meat and fish in these two Guangdong cities has risen 12% since 2011, while taxis, rentals, utilities, haircuts and just about everything else have also been increasing across the entire country.
3) Learn Mandarin
While this might seem somewhat obvious today, 10 years ago, knowing Mandarin was not a requirement for very many expat positions. At best, it was a tiebreaker between two equally qualified foreign candidates. But in China's present job market for expats, fluent Mandarin is no longer "a bonus"—more often than not, it's essential. According to a recent New York Times article, a recruiter at Beijing Meidan Foods now requires foreign employees to speak Mandarin since most of their staff can't speak English. The recruiter also noted that Mandarin-speaking foreigners with a better understanding of Chinese culture, often have an easier time working in the office environment and have a better rapport with their Chinese colleagues. Furthermore, learning Mandarin also allows you to network and build guanxi much easier. Guanxi is a fundamental principal of Chinese business culture and society, synonymous with the Western saying, "It's not what you know, but who you know." Simply put, meeting the right people, especially those in positions of power, and being able to communicate with them in their native tongue can lead to extraordinary job possibilities if you play your cards right.
4) Have a skill besides speaking Mandarin
While Mandarin has become a crucial ability for expats looking to work in China, it's important to note that it's not the only skill one should possess. Apart from education—mainly in the ESL field—IT and finance companies are among the largest employers of foreigners in China, while marketing, PR, management and sales positions are also quite prominent. In today's expat job market, having a background in one of these fields is incredibly beneficial. In addition, speaking another languages along with Mandarin and English (such as Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and/or Arabic) could also fill a niche at an international Chinese company and help you stand out from the competition. This presents a quagmire for many expats looking for employment in China who do not have any of these skills. Perhaps the best advice to give if you don't have a degree or experience in your desired occupation is to take an online course for certification, apply for an internship or get out there and build a start-up project yourself. And if you're interested in learning or brushing up on another language, it's fairly easy to find a language institution in any one of China's larger, more globalized cities.
5) Move to second-tier or third-tier city
The free market economic law of supply and demand also applies to labor. Therefore, moving away from the major industrialized coastal cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen (where expats are most plentiful) may naturally increase your chances of getting hired, due to less competition. And while it's true that there are perhaps more opportunities in the developed first-tier cities, that's not to say that the others are completely vacant. On the contrary, many inland cities are booming. A 2011 China Daily report stated that western cities like Chongqing and Chengdu are currently some of the best investment destinations in China, as they boast huge populations, established universities, low operational costs and billions of RMB in federal funding from the PRC's "western developmental strategy" campaign, thus making them ideal centers for international investors. Moreover, many Fortune 500 companies have already realized the benefits of moving away from the coast and relocated their operational centers to these western hubs. Cisco and Hewlett-Packard have set up bases in Chongqing, while Intel's assembly/testing centers and Motorola's R&D headquarters are located in Chengdu.
Bonus: Reconsider the ESL route
Whether you strive to be a teacher or not, doing so in China can allow you to practice your language skills, better understand the culture, make contacts, build guanxi, earn a living (with an above average local salary) and wait for that perfect opportunity to come your way. And as many full-time ESL teachers only work 20-30 hours per week, it can also provide you with the free time needed to pursue a skill-developing internship, work on a start-up project or find other ways to "get your foot in the door". Moreover, ESL positions are still in incredibly high demand since roughly 300 million Chinese (about the size of the entire US population) are learning English. According to a Fins Asia-Pacific report, English First, one of the largest ESL institutions in the world, predicted their placements jump 45% from 2011 to 2012. EF's head of HR even went on record saying "no matter how many teachers we recruit, there will always be more positions available." And even though the Chinese government has introduced new laws to raise the standards for ESL teachers—making a university degree, TEFL certificate and even prior teaching experience a requirement for positions in the larger cities— as long as China's obsession with English continues, there will continue to be numerous openings for ESL teachers.
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Keywords: China expat job market working in China employment opportunities for foreigners in China China changing economy and job market
I know they won't issue visa for teaching, in the public sector, for fresh grads any more.
I am not sure if this is the same for the private sector, but as it is the local government and not the school that puts the 'chop' on the paperwork, it could well be.