Does Working in China Help or Hurt Your Career?

Does Working in China Help or Hurt Your Career?
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


All comments are subject to moderation by staff. Because we wish to encourage healthy and productive dialogue we ask that all comments remain polite, free of profanity or name calling, and relevant to the original post and subsequent discussion. Comments will not be deleted because of the viewpoints they express, only if the mode of expression itself is inappropriate.



China is no longer considered a hardship post.

Dec 27, 2017 23:06 Report Abuse



bye bye career

Apr 06, 2015 10:02 Report Abuse



Ok, ok, we get it.

Dec 27, 2017 23:09 Report Abuse



I like China. But for me, I am finding very difficult to get the job. From last 1 year I am hunting a job but still no luck :-( As most of the employers are looking for Native Speaker and I am an Indian passport holder. According to me Nationality doesn't make any difference, it is depend on all your experience and degree you are holding. It depends how aggressive, how much passion do you have for your work / career.

May 12, 2011 22:03 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


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



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



Quit derailing, grammar nazi.

May 04, 2011 23:29 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