Working in China: Help or a Hinderance to Careers Back Home?

Working in China: Help or a Hinderance to Careers Back Home?
Jul 20, 2022 By Paul Bacon ,

Different people come to work in China for different reasons. Some are recent graduates looking for a stint teaching English abroad. Others are mid-career professionals who have been sent out to head up their company’s latest overseas office. But how will time in the Middle Kingdom impact your employability back home? Here, we discuss if working in China is a help or hinderance to your long-term career.

working in China

The Great Debate

On my last trip home in the summer of 2019, I was invited to dinner with a friend and his boss – a senior manager at a large British company. Over dessert, the conversation turned to my plans for the future. Was I ever coming back to Britain or was I planning to continue working in China for the foreseeable future? When I told them I planned to return home at some point, my friend asked whether I thought my time in China would help me find a good job in the UK.

For many China expats, this is the million dollar question. Will employers see a spell in China as evidence of adaptability, an adventurous spirit and a sense of dynamism? Or, will they view it as an extended gap year and a bit of a doss? Will it grab the attention of HR departments or will they dismiss us as wishy-washy time wasters?

Then my friend's boss chimed in. "If I saw a stint in China on someone's resume, as a manager, my curiosity would certainly be piqued,” he said. “It would maybe be enough to convince me to offer them an interview. But, I don't think it’s quite as simple as it being either positive or negative. It just isn't that black and white."

The more I think about it, the more I’m inclined to agree. There are so many foreigners doing so many different jobs in China that looking at it in such simple terms would be silly. To help answer the question as simply as possible, therefore, I’ve broken China’s wide expat population down into two main categories.

Recent Graduates

Fresh graduates in many Western countries are currently leaving university to face grim job prospects. A global recession on the back of the Covid-19 pandemic and rising inflation has led to an increase in unemployment as businesses close or shed staff to cut costs. This, of course, makes finding a good job difficult, especially if you’re fresh out of university with no real work experience. Ambitious graduates need something to distinguish themselves from the mass of their peers, not to mention the rest of an older, more qualified workforce also looking for opportunities.

As my friend's boss suggested, time in China can help job seekers stand out from the crowd. However, there are limits and exceptions. For most new graduates looking to work in China, the most attainable job option is teaching English. Six months to a couple of years teaching in China could boost a recent graduate’s CV. But if the time stretches much farther than that, the perceptions of employers could begin to change. Rather than being seen as dynamic and adventurous, a graduate who spends too long in China could start to be perceived as a drifter.

Unless you plan to be a teacher for life, moving away from teaching, or at least moving into a more managerial role, is your best bet if you want to stay longer in China without harming your career back home. There’s usually plenty of scope for expat teachers to do both while working in China. Internships are also a good option if you don’t mind slashing your paycheck in order to gain more valuable professional experience.

Mid-Career Professionals

For older expats with more experience, the value of their time in China depends less on duration and more on how they use it. For many expats, China offers bigger opportunities earlier than they would find them in their home countries. The competition for management and high-level technical positions in the West is typically intense, with middle-management jobs usually going to people in their 40s and 50s with decades of experience under their belts. Many expats find working in China allows them to take a shortcut on this slow road to success, as Chinese companies, for whatever reason, seem more willing to promote foreigners to senior positions sooner.

Young hopefuls already working for big multinationals also often find that a willingness to relocate comes with fast-track promotions. Especially since Covid, many Western employers consider China a “hardship posting,” so persuading personnel to move here is always a challenge. While a management position in Europe or the US will be hard to secure without slowly working your way up the corporate ladder, a willingness to work in China could give you a considerable boost.

I’ve met several European managers who told me they were competing with hundreds of others for a handful of positions back home. Because they were prepared to move to China while others preferred to stay put, however, they got the opportunity to take relatively high positions at a surprisingly young age. This allowed them to accrue vital managerial experience, which they hope will help them leapfrog their competitors in the race for top jobs when they eventually return. I even met one expat who was finding employers back home almost didn’t believe how much professional experience he had acquired in China by the tender age of 30.

There is, of course, also a flip-side to this coin. If a mid-career professional does not use their time in China wisely, it can cause a once-promising career to stutter and stagnate. For those heading to China for a career break or just to experience working in the same industry abroad, the risks can be high. For example, I’ve met a few professionals from scientific fields – all well-qualified with a decade or more of professional experience – who came to China for a taste of life outside the lab. Due to the fast-moving nature of the scientific community back home, however, they found that they began to fall behind their peers with each month spent in China. This, along with the black hole on their resumes, had an impact on their employability back home.

So, is working in China and help or a hinderance when it comes to getting jobs back home? Always a country of contradictions, China has no clear answer. How well your time here works for you back home all depends on how you use it!

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Keywords: Working in China


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Interesting point of view, thanks for sharing your opinion!

Jul 21, 2022 01:48 Report Abuse