May 09, 2016 By Trey Archer ,

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.

5 Tips for Succeeding in China’s Changing 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

40 Comments Add your comment



So there are people that can't find teaching jobs? I find that I little hard to believe. Just this week I turned down two different job offers.

Dec 04, 2012 08:13 Report Abuse



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.

Dec 04, 2012 18:15 Report Abuse



99.9% of the job offer found in any classified section are teaching jobs, teaching job got banned there -

Jun 18, 2014 17:29 Report Abuse



yes, people from non native countries aren't hired for teaching jobs

Aug 11, 2015 22:26 Report Abuse



Thanks for the link AKNO :-)

Oct 29, 2015 20:12 Report Abuse



Why are all the job related articles about teaching? What about other ex-pat jobs like Raytheon or McKinsey sending employees to China? I have friends at both companies that were sent to China and think that there are other opportunities in China other than teaching. Plus you get to make USD rather than RMB and get other ex-pat benefits that you wouldn't with just a teaching job. So the best route to go is to get sent to China by a great company rather than go there to try to find a job on your own or get a teaching job.

Dec 04, 2012 19:26 Report Abuse



Did you even read the article?

Dec 04, 2012 20:53 Report Abuse



Obviously he did not...

But what must be stressed a about looking for a job in the 2nd or even 3rd tier cities is that speaking Chinese is a sine qua non!

The reason being that even with foreign companies almost all of the staff are Chinese now. Naturally the work language is Chinese. So there's simply nothing meaningful that you can do without speaking the language.

My mandarin is still not sufficient to really engage in a working environment and this is exactly what I've discovered while looking for an internship in Jinan.

If you are not fluent in Chinese I think that your only chance will lie in the 1st tier cities, because the senior positions (where most of the foreign staff still can't speak Chinese) is there. So the working language there is still English. I wonder what will happen if the CEOs have also become Chinese..

Dec 04, 2012 21:29 Report Abuse


Yankee doodle

Working for Raytheon or McKinsey is a "great" job? sounds like US bullshit to me.

Dec 05, 2012 08:32 Report Abuse


JAY (Just Another Yangguizi)

"...speaking Chinese is a sine qua non" - did you do that on purpose?
I always thought trigonometry was more of a sine qua non.

Dec 09, 2012 11:20 Report Abuse



The biggest reason for the fading expat job market is the rise of the 'sea turtles' - Mainland Chinese who have studied overseas, and are now returning to China to work. As the number of Chinese who study overseas swell, the ranks of the 'sea turtles' become more and more numerous.

Frankly, there appears to be little reason why any company (international or foreign) would rather hire a recent Western grad rather than a 'sea turtle'. Sea turtles are obviously fluent in both Chinese and English, have a fancy Western degree, obviously understand Chinese culture very well, and are willing to work very hard for a local salary. What does a recent Western grad have to offer?

That's why a quick scan of the echina jobs board reveals heaps upon heaps of English teaching jobs, and precious little else - besides the odd modelling gig or low-paid billingual secretarial job. The days of easy money are long gone, so unless you really want to teach English or are lucky enough to be send to China on an expat package, its not really worth coming here. The only exception is if you want to study or do a short-term internship in China in hopes of CV padding.

Dec 05, 2012 05:38 Report Abuse




Dec 05, 2012 06:25 Report Abuse



I can see one main advantage of coming to China.
Let me draw a parallel. In the late 80s and early 90s there was a huge growth in business between Japan and the west of the US. Specifically in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was outward investment by Japanese. Most Japanese only speak one language. Workers who spoke Japanese, even if they were not great at their job, saw rapid advancement.

Now China is moving into a time where outward investment is the pattern, inward investment has plateaued. Although there are many English-Mandarin speaking Chinese, they are not all living overseas. Not all Chinese businessmen will come with their entourage, certainly not when the business settles down. There will IMHO be opportunities for non-Chinese Mandarin speakers in their home countries.

Everyone laughed at Japanese cars, and the idea that they would one day dominate the world market and open factories in other theatres. 20 years later, they had done it, and in Hi Tech. We laughed at the Korean Cars and hi tech, 15 years later... Currently people are laughing at the idea of Chinese cars and hi tech.

Being able to speak Mandarin, and having an appreciation of Chinese business culture (really only garnered from working here), could be valuable.
And even if it isn't the experience is enriching our lives, even if we bitch about it now.

But as @sadelux points out. Getting your mandarin up to the standard to do business is no small feat.

Dec 05, 2012 17:48 Report Abuse


JAY (Just Another Yangguizi)

@ Dara re: "There will IMHO be opportunities for non-Chinese Mandarin speakers in their home countries."

You are of course entitled to your opinion, but my suspicion has been that this has been very overblown.

By way of comparison, you might want to look at a study conducted 22(?) years ago by Eleanor Jorden, the doyenne of Japanese language teaching in the US, who noted that the vast majority (something like 90%!) of students surveyed with 4 years of Japanese language training under their belts were not employed in capacities or careers where they used their language skills. She was quite saddened at the fact that so much collective energy and industry had been spent in a direction that had proved unproductive for so many students, and maybe even felt a bit guilty about her role in promoting Japanese language education in place of something else that might have proven to be of greater utility.

For my part, I've reluctantly been coming round to the conclusion that "the pony is not in there anywhere," if you get my meaning. This (for me at least somewhat heartbreaking) assessment has gradually evolved over several years considering factors at play on both sides of the Pacific and I've discussed it in greater detail a few times in this forum.

Find something else that you enjoy doing, that you can have a professional practice in, though I'd advocate staying away from law, finance, or medicine these days (at least in the US).

Dec 09, 2012 22:56 Report Abuse



This article is wrong, if you have real skills and drive you can find a good job here, or anywhere. All the recession has done really is separate the chaff from the wheat. So many people here deserve to be right where they are, dancing like a white monkey in front of class of bored Chinese college kids. The company I work for (financial industry), hired two ex English teachers to try to help out. Big mistake, both of them were not capable of doing the work and lacked the maturity to learn how. Both gone within 5 months. My boss said he would never make that mistake again. If you are a fresh graduate and want to make a name for yourself, sales is the way to go. You can get a sales job here where you’ll learn maturity and accountability that just isn’t there in the realm of bullshit ESL teaching. It’s no fun working on commission only at first, but it sets you up to meet the right people to get a real good salaried position, think of it as purgatory. Companies see teaching on your resume and it goes straight in the trash. Sales is the way, I came here at 22 and I’m 25 now making 24K a month. Not a rich man by any means…but good enough for now. Teachers are trash.

Dec 05, 2012 23:16 Report Abuse



Not all teachers are trash, in the same way that not all salesmen are narcissistic.

Dec 06, 2012 01:58 Report Abuse


Dingle betty

Not all salesman are amoral. Some are just arrogant.

Dec 06, 2012 02:42 Report Abuse



There are very few cultures in the world, including modern China, where salesmen have any real social status.
There are also very few cultures in the world that look down on teachers.

Dec 06, 2012 03:36 Report Abuse



My friend, also an ESL teacher, makes 30 k a month teaching 30 hours a week. He does TOEFEL, IELTS, GRE, SAT, great work is it not? All just for dancing. A question for you: Do you really "sell" or does your company roll you out to show a white face when they need to?

Dec 06, 2012 21:26 Report Abuse


Mr. Martel

John, I know a number of teachers who make more than you do.

Like Willie Lowman, you may be worth more dead than alive.

Dec 07, 2012 02:01 Report Abuse



I’m out of sales now, but I did sales for a logistics firm in Shenzhen that got the tax money back for outbound shipments. Yes, it was a lame job. But it forced me to network and helped me land a good salaried position. Of course a few teachers earn a little more than me but theyre outliers and are GENUINELY QUALIFIED TEACHERS, either way real professional expats have such a higher salary ceiling. You can claw and scrap your way to 20K per month teaching, but you’re exhausting yourself for nothing. It’s a service industry job. You can take more shifts but you’ll never get a promotion. That’s why ESL teaching breeds laziness. The students/administration don’t take you seriously so if you take it seriously and bust your ass you’re a chump and if you don’t take it seriously you never develop any responsibility. It’s just cool for white guys that can’t get US girlfriends because even if you’re poor for an American you are still way better educated/cooler than your average Chinese guy but the ESL classroom is no place for anyone with a shred of ambition.

Dec 07, 2012 19:21 Report Abuse



Some make 30,000 with a combination of regular pay,offer independent biz courses to companies, working almost 30hrs a week in all.However they still crave the atmosphere of an office, the satisfaction of using your brains rather than monolithic task of an ordinary middle school or elementary sch teacher.With the favorable attitude bestowed on many whites, the Chinese are appalled that many would result to teaching little kids,pls don't even mention u are doing it for the love of Chinese kids. Regular wages have remained stagnant for English teachers for the past 3years necessitating taking extra classes therefore taking up time for other plans in your career. Lets face it there are genuine Teachers and there are those whom this happens to be the only job they are capable of earning a decent living. For those who have the capability, i strongly urge them to explore other numerous options if their Chinese is good enough to order a meal.Moving to second tier cities to me is like admitting to your inability to excel, where u have an environment close to that of the west.The opportunities are numerous if only native English speakers will try to look beyond the various anomalies of the system and see there is life beyond China bashing.

Dec 22, 2012 20:48 Report Abuse


What did you expect

You work in the finance industry and hired teachers to do the work?
That is like hiring an IT tech to fix your plumbing, or a salesman to educate people.

What did you expect? Dumbass!

Dec 06, 2012 04:07 Report Abuse



Youre right i shouldnt say teachers are trash thats wrong and not fair. But whats true is that employers see you as that. The company didnt hire teachers to do the job. They hired 26 year olds who held degrees in the field who had gotten the wrong impression that a low level of effort was enough. I know being a salesman isnt anything, but people take you more seriously herr if you dont teach esl. Like those guys we hired, theyre not teachers theyre just miscellaneous people doing a job that will hire anybody and that you arent held accountable for performance. Making it in sales is hard and doing it proves something. I met the right people who gave me a shot at doing something special. Im damn lucky still but i put in my time doing shitty hard work not slacking off and pretending life is some kind of cultural hardship vacation.

Dec 06, 2012 05:02 Report Abuse



We running the Job Portal SinoJobs and a big China Focused Recruitment Fair - SinoJobs Career Days in Germany. We clearly see a shift from Expats to Locals at foreign companies. Especially due to increasing cost pressure the companies lower the number of Expats. Expats with Madarin are besides that well seen - without is getting impossible. Except you are an expert for something special. We also see that just Mandarin knowledge for foreigners is not a plus. If foreigner, the please well educated (engineer, marketing, financial etc.) PLUS Mandarin. Most German students having studied Sinology fail to find a Job in Germany and Greater China. Because their only knowledge is Chinese Culture and Mandarin.

Dec 06, 2012 05:26 Report Abuse