May 03, 2011 By Paul Bacon ,

On vacation over the summer, I sat having 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 the UK? Or, was I in China for good? I assured them that I planned to return home at some point, I just wasn't sure when. My friend then asked whether I thought my time in China would help me find a good job when I finally got back to England. For many expats, this is the $64,000 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 simply as a long holiday and time wasted? Will it grab a HR department's attention with enough vigor to secure an interview at a top company?

Does working in china help or hurt your career
Photo: thebadastronomer

At this point, my friend's boss chimed in, "As a manager, if I saw a stint in China on someone's resume, my curiosity would certainly be piqued. Maybe this would be enough to convince me to offer them an interview. But, I don't think it is quite as simple as spending time overseas being either positive or negative. It's just isn't that black and white." The more I pondered the issue, the more I could not help but agree with him. There are so many expats doing so many different jobs that looking at things in such simple terms would be foolish. Therefore, I will break the issue down into different areas. I will start with one that I have touched on in previous articles, young graduates.

Recent graduates
Currently, in both the UK and US, graduates leaving university face grim job prospects. In both countries, the unemployment rate for those fresh out of the gates of academia is pushing 10%. This makes finding good jobs particularly difficult. Graduates now need something to distinguish themselves from the mass of their peers. In this way, as my friend's boss suggested, time in China can help – it can “pique an employer's curiosity”. However, there are limits and exceptions. For example, 6 months or a year can work well in this regard, but as this stretches to two years and more, things begin to change. Spending too long out of their home country can have a two-fold effect on young graduates, (a) The sense of dynamism and adventure is replaced by one of wasted time and drift, and (b) The longer they spend away from home, the more graduates enter the market and competition for jobs becomes even more fierce.

For most students fresh out of university, their clear option will be teaching. This is an option that is fine, in the short-term. However, if the graduate wants to avoid the problems mentioned above and intends to make their time in China a success that will have long-term benefits for his or her career, then moving away from teaching may well be a sound option – unless the graduate hopes to one day become a teacher! This is why we have also seen the growth of internships that look to offer young expats vital practical experience that they can use when they return home.

Older expats
For slightly older expats, with some professional experience, the value of their time in China depends most on how they use it. For many, China offers opportunities that would be far harder to find in their home countries. In many major companies and major markets, the competition for management and high-level technical positions is intense. One way to circumvent this competition is to be prepared to move to China – even now many Western employees still find China as a “hardship” posting and are wary of such a challenging move. This means that whilst a management position in Europe or the US will be hard to secure, in China it may be considerably easier. Moves like this most commonly begin in the expat's home country. It is rare to see large companies hiring for managerial or technical talent within China's expat market, at least certainly not on a wide scale.

I have met several European managers who, at home, were competing with hundreds of others for a handful of managerial positions. However, because they were prepared to move to China, and others preferred to stay at home, they got the opportunity to take relatively high positions at a surprisingly young age and to accrue vital managerial experience. When they return to their home countries there is a good chance that this will help them leapfrog many of their competitors in the race for top jobs. I even met one expat who was in the process of applying for jobs at home and was finding that employers almost did not believe the experience he had managed to acquire here in China by the age of 30.

There is, sadly, also a flip-side to this equation. If the time is not used wisely, it can cause a once promising career to stutter and to stagnate. For example, for those professionals taking a career break and heading to China to teach, the risks can be high. It may allow them to take time out, to recharge batteries and to experience another culture, but at the same time it can cause a successful career to embark on a downward spiral. For example, I have met two or three professionals from scientific fields – these were well qualified men in their thirties with almost a decade of experience – who had come to China for a taste of life outside the lab. The problem with this decision was that with each month outside their industry at home they began to fall behind others in their industry and to see a black hole appearing on their resume. This has impacted upon their employability at home and has, ultimately, damaged their careers.

Related Links
Finding and Keeping Jobs in China
Leaving China and the Challenges of Returning “Home”
China Beyond the Blackboard: Finding Jobs Besides Teaching

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Keywords: Working in China

43 Comments Add your comment



Interesting article, candidates must think well if they go to China for teaching and break from their own careers is good option or not for future. Thing for young people one or two years is good to learn other culture, other language.

Nov 28, 2009 03:23 Report Abuse



i totally agree with the comment no body should come to china for teaching jobs but rather learn a culture which will give self esteem to many to succeed in their future careers

May 20, 2010 03:17 Report Abuse



I don't remeber seeing any such comment in the article. If you say this I suggest you reread the article more carefully. There is a shortage of teachers as it is without telling people they should not come. People come to China for many reasons, not all of them are looking for career advancement.

May 20, 2010 16:55 Report Abuse



I came back from china after teaching, and back in no jobs England, no company will touch me, because my main reference is in China, and as everyone knows in england, you need references to go from one job to the next. After applying to well over a thousand jobs, I've found out from 2 different friends working in HR, one at the NHS, and one at my local council offices, that they will never contact any job reference in china. China has killed my career. I bitterly regret ever going there

May 03, 2011 13:46 Report Abuse



So your career was planned only to be in England? I am sure there are companies which do trading with China who would prefer someone with experience in China than someone without

May 03, 2011 17:34 Report Abuse



Keep learning,keep moving on.

May 14, 2011 00:41 Report Abuse


brookie kan

this really depend what field of work u work in. i been in HK/CHINA for twenty years. i was on holiday i love the place so much i quit my job in UK and came back a months later. the company work for until now was only small trading company but now it in top ten in hk / top20 in china of company .
i been to UK / US also been to a lot euro countries for business 70% of client i meet have ask me if i jump ship to their company bigger offer but also so small offer as well . even when come to HK / CHINA on business with other company they still visit me and there alway a place me in there company .
i had lot friend who go back to UK /US and come back within 1 week to 1 month they alway say reason for coming back is because money they pay is too low, too much competition from young people who can do the job for 20-30% less money

Jul 07, 2011 01:25 Report Abuse



There is nothing that kills your carrier like teaching in China. I wasted five years teaching Chinese students while my colleagues were developing their carrier in different professions. On returning back home after five years, no employer want to employee me because my skills were centered on teaching ESL. It is my candid advice to young Universities graduate to think twice before ‘sacrificing ‘ before accepting teaching offer in china.

May 03, 2011 17:18 Report Abuse



Raul , I pity your students as you have shown in your comment that you cannot even spell words correctly .

May 04, 2011 22:41 Report Abuse



Quit derailing, grammar nazi.

May 04, 2011 23:29 Report Abuse



i dont think westerners(english speakers) come to china when they have jobs in their home country.. they come here because they have nothing to do there(apart from working in restaurants)..
anyways,no. of of foreign english teachers is substantially high now , so if some of them should stay back home(working in reataurants )

May 03, 2011 18:23 Report Abuse



Your statement is not true of everyone. Yes, many Westerners (especially younger people) have come here because the economies in their home countries are in bad shape and they feel they might have more job opportunities and a hgher standard of living here. However, it's not true for everyone. It's certainly not true for me.

I had a good, steady job at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the US. I quit my job, got my TEFL and came to teach English in Shanghai in August 2009. I was 43 years old at the time and just turned 45. I had always wanted an overseas work experience and this was the only way I was able to get it, as PwC's Global Mobility program did not offer positions for what I did. I taught for several months before finding a better job as support staff in an international school.

Will this be good for my career? Maybe, maybe not. Was it good for my life? Absolutely.

Even though there have been many challenges and frustrations here, I don't regret coming. I've learned a lot about myself, met some great people from all over the world, and developed some additional skills I didn't have before coming. I'm making less money than I would be in the US, even when it's weighted, but I didn't come here to make money, I came here for a different experience.

So I think it's what you make of it. You can always spin your China experience into a positive. No, my Chinese language skills aren't strong enough to be helpful in the US, as there are so many native Chinese speakers fluent in English there. However, it does make me a more worldly person, which might look attractive to a potential employer. But even if it doesn't, just having this experience has added to my character, which I believe can only be a good thing, both professionally and personally.

May 26, 2011 02:59 Report Abuse



I have some Chinese work mates that saying most of Americans that came to China to teach is nothing in thier country...They are here to look for better future is this right? and most of them are not tottaly teachers.

May 03, 2011 18:57 Report Abuse



Yes i think many Americans have nothing and come try something here. Why would they work here for less if they can do so much better in the US? The worst is, after a couple of months here, they moan and bitch about housing, pay and almost everything, cause now he feels China owes him something (maybe a red carpet?). The complains never end but goning back also never happen.. I am expat here and NEVER asociate with others , unless they Chinese cause, i am so tired of the complains they have..

May 03, 2011 20:45 Report Abuse


China Brian

I feel your pain, I'm also an Ex-pat and usually avoid foreigners if I can help it for same reasons you listed. I've been in China for a while now and I love the people and my job, so why leave?

May 04, 2011 04:09 Report Abuse



I feel you. I'm an American mal 36 years old and can tell you the job market is horrible right now in the states. I was doing OK, netting about $3,500/mo after taxes and decided to quit my job there to come here and teach english making $1,500/mo. Just needed a change and always wanted to work in a foreign country. No complaints! No reservations! No regrets! I'm saving almost $1,000/mo here which would have been impossible in california and my standard of living is about the same. I too avoid the other laowai as they annoy me excessively and things tend to be more expensive where they congregate. Love it in China

Jul 28, 2011 04:39 Report Abuse



Typical teacher BS! You guys feel you can't compete with pro expats so you avoid us. Content to be fawned over by the locals. That's not healthy behavior.

Aug 25, 2011 23:21 Report Abuse



Typical teacher BS! You guys feel you can't compete with pro expats so you avoid us. Content to be fawned over by the locals. That's not healthy behavior.

Aug 25, 2011 23:21 Report Abuse



I respect what you're saying, but every expat, regardless of social or age status, has their own reasons for doing what they do. If they want to compete or mingle with the more senior, professional expats, that's fine. If the teachers want nothing to do with the senior or porfessional expats, then that's fine too. It's interesting to note that I know a few acquaintances that have "above-entry" level business/coporate jobs there in Shanghai. I'd really like to know what kind of networking they had. One girl I knew even had her own car (Mercedes) to go to her internship every day.

Wow! How lucky! Some people are just simply "dealt with a better stack of cards".
But there is always hope, I suppose...?

Aug 21, 2012 23:45 Report Abuse



If you use your opportunity in China to develop other skills, teaching can be a great entry, and set you down a wonderful new path in life. If you don't want to be a career teacher, it can still be a good way to spice up a resume, if you only do it for a year or two. But, if you spend 5 years teaching, naturally employers will view you as someone primarily with ESL skills, unless you find a way to highlight your other talents.

I first started teaching in china in 2002, and worked hard on my Chinese in my spare time. Three years later I returned to the US, the worked on an MA in Chinese language in literature. Since then, I have been steadily employed due to my language skills and my passion and interest in technology, and making far more than I made as an English teacher. It's not going to make me rich, but I have the kind of creative international career that I always hoped for when I first arrived.

I think using a graduate degree to rebrand yourself can be key. 5 years teaching experience in China, with an MBA, JD, or an MA could be a great combination. I felt the same way this poster did when I first went back to the US. I knew I had learned a lot in China, but I had no way to prove it to anyone. Having the combination of real-life China experience, and a graduate degree seems to have made all the difference. Be creative and forge a path for yourself!

May 04, 2011 00:18 Report Abuse



Life is what you make it.
if you choose to be led by the nose , then other people control your future
if you choose your own path the you get to control your future.
so know where you want to go and have a plan that you can adjust when needed to get where you want to go and take resposability for your own life

May 04, 2011 00:59 Report Abuse


Mr. Martel

If you are young (let's say between 21 - 27 or so), then I think even teaching ESL in China can look good on your resume back home.

If you are older, then I think you have to tie-in your experience in China within the larger context of your career. Teaching ESL, if it has no relevance to your occupation back home, obviously won't go over well with employers. Conversley, if you are working in business with a mulitnational, the experience would look great.

If you are teaching a subject other than English (at a British/American/Canadian/Australian school) and you are also a certified teacher back home - then I think your experience can have relevance for schools back home. Same might be said if you are a professor (though university jobs are certainly difficult to get back home anyway).

May 04, 2011 07:08 Report Abuse



I have worked in education all my life. So, for me, China is actually a very good thing. In the state of Oregon where I worked for the past five years, educational spending is so erratic that working in education here is like speculating in the stock market. Teachers get laid off all the time, only to be re-employed a few months later. At least China is a steady job. I guess I am a minority, but China has worked out for me quite well.

May 04, 2011 15:11 Report Abuse


Mr. Martel

Same as where I am from. There are few jobs in my teaching field back home. In China, I make a great salary, which allows me to have a fun lifestyle whilst saving a lot each year. And because I am working at a campus that is part of a larger institution back home, that's experience I can use on my resume and that is transferable if I move back permanently.

Contrasting that to the dreadful job market for my field back home, where I might not even have a job, I definitely feel very thankful for the opportunities China has provided me. 我爱中国. :)

May 05, 2011 05:30 Report Abuse



A pretty rounded article, with some good points.

If I could add a few more based on my personal experience, I would say it's key not to stay in china more than 1 year or so teaching, unless you see your future career in this field.

I spent 2 years in china and although i learnt so much and loved my time in China, I am now 2 years behind my peers in terms of western job experience. This sounds obvious now, but at the time i thought my time in China would add to my CV not detract from it.

Essentially, what I have experienced is that my job experience in China (publishing/teaching) is worth much less outside China to employers back home, than similar work experience acquired in the west.

Furthermore, the longer you are out of your home job market the tougher it will be (you're be competing with another 2 years worth of grads and those with postgrad qualifications), not just job-wise, but also generally adjusting back to western life.

As the article rightly points out, proper western expat jobs are pretty much not available to those in China (unless you have previous experience in the west) as these types of jobs tend to go to those already working for an firm in the west and those with significant work experience.

May 05, 2011 13:21 Report Abuse