THE RIGHT TALENT
Specialized skills can help foreign professionals power ahead in China’s tough employment market,
China-specific skills vital for job seekers
They filled the second floor of the Swissotel in Beijing with forced smiles, pressed shirts and smart skirts, a flood of hopeful foreigners clutching at resumes and business cards, drawn by the siren song of good money and career opportunities in the world’s second-largest economy.
From behind foldout desks at the annual Job Fair for Foreigners in Beijing, wouldbe employers surveyed the smorgasbord of imported talent on offer with a discerning eye.
As recently as five years ago, those in the know say most of these hopefuls would have been almost immediately snapped up.
Now, the success or failure of foreigners seeking employment in China is — like the evolving, fragmenting topography of the jobs market itself — much more complex and difficult to map.
Quite a few of those staking their faith in the promise of boom-time China do leave the job fair with interviews arranged, like the 29- yearold Italian international sales manager who gives the alias Caesar because he already has a good job in Guangzhou and doesn’t want to alert his boss to the fact he has just received two better offers.
Other hopefuls get the polite palm off, a glossy pamphlet for their troubles and a mumbled nicety to send them on their way.
The subtext of this cocktail of success and rejection stacks up with what employers, academics and recruiters tell China Business Weekly — China is in a state of change and the jobs market is changing with it.
Despite being frequently characterized as boom or bust, those taking a bigger-picture view say the employment market in China can’t easily be quantified in absolutes. Some sectors are booming; others are on the wane.
One point of consensus is that it is now generally harder for foreigners to get their foot in the door, outside of the everin-demand roles for English language teachers.
China still wants you, but only if you’re at the top of your game in a select number of professions — and only if you’ve put in the effort to make sure you have some China-specific skills that employers now require.
Time- wasters, including anyone who would struggle to get a comparable position in the West, need not apply.
It’s one of the main messages foreign job seekers are receiving in e-mail exchanges with prospective employers, in meeting rooms during interviews and in conversations with recruitment agencies.
The other is that if you have the rare luck or foresight to possess a skill set that is currently in demand in certain growing industries — and if your personal background and experience ticks all the boxes — you can almost name your price in terms of wages.
Last month, a top official in the agency that handles foreign experts affairs indicated that China would for the first time publish a skills shortage list next year to attract the right kind of foreign talent.
The game- changi ng announcement from Liu Yanguo, deputy director of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, came as leading think tank the Center for China and Globalization warned the country is experiencing a critical shortage of “global talent”.
The organization’s director, Wang Huiyao, says China will need an additional 75,000 executive managers with global experience in the next five to 10 years.
That there is great opportunity in China is not in dispute. But in the often confusing and contradictory storm of information that will continue to rage until the official skills list is published, the question many foreigners face hangs over who and what exactly, China wants.
Frenchman Anthony Garcia, 33, who arrived in China two years ago, wishes he knew. An IT project manager with 10 years of experience, Garcia spent his first 12 months in Beijing studying Mandarin to make himself a more attractive hire.
The past year has been a wearisome succession of applications and interviews. One of the early birds to turn out at the job fair, he says despite his best efforts, he still has not secured employment.
“I feel it is not that easy now,” Garcia says. “I think it used to be easier. China is still OK, but I think the economy is not as good as it was.”
While China’s economy did take a slight hit this year when the growth rate dipped from 7.7 percent in the first quarter to 7.5 percent in the second quarter, National Bureau of Statistics figures show the GDP growth rate rebounded to 7.8 percent in the July to September period. Slower growth isn’t cited as a factor affecting the employment market for foreigners in China.
If anything, experts such as Wang believe government reforms to tackle current economic challenges and transform China into an “innovationdriven economy” will actually bolster the case for hiring more foreign workers with valuable skill sets.
On further reflection, Garcia concedes more competition from both Chinese locals and an influx of qualified foreigners have shifted the goalposts. He needs to adjust his expectations in terms of position and pay.
Ambre Mundula, a senior consultant with JAC Recruitment, which sources talent for multinational firms operating in China, says Chinese returnees are now the preferred hires.
This year, she says JAC only needed to advertise outside this demographic once.
“It’s much harder for foreigners now,” she says. “There’s much more competition from Chinese returnees who have been abroad. They speak English and they are cheaper than foreigners.”
Mundula says typically, the entry- level, monthly salary for a foreigner in a wide range of industries starts between 15,000 and 20,000 yuan ($ 3,290). JAC can source a Chinese returnee with professional experience who is fluent in English and Mandarin for about 10,000 yuan.
At management level, a Chinese returnee generally costs about 30,000 less yuan per month than hiring a foreigner.
Simon Lance, regional director in China for Hays Recruitment says he agrees the job market is becoming much more competitive for foreigners. The rise of local talent in certain sectors is one of the reasons why.
According to the Ministry of Education, this year alone a record-breaking 6.99 million students graduated from colleges across China, a 2.8 percent increase since 2012. An influx of foreigners fleeing poor job markets in their home countries is another factor that can’t be discounted. The most recent figures from the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs puts the number of foreigners currently working in China at about 550,000.
What it all boils down to, Lance says, is that Chinese employers can now afford to be more discerning.
“The days of being an expatriate and being guaranteed a job in China are well and truly over,” Lance says. “I think employers are raising the level of expectation they have if they are going to hire an international candidate.”
Lance is adamant that one of the big changes in the Chinese job market compared with five years ago is that it is increasingly difficult to get a foot in the door without some Mandarin. He says the better your language skills, the better your chances. He also warns that companies in China now want to know why you are leaving home and how long you’re prepared to stay.
“A lot of Chinese employers now are looking for specialized skill sets and they are not interested in hiring someone just because they are an expatriate or a foreigner,” Lance says.
“We do get a lot of inquiries from people who don’t have a strong reason to come to China, other than facing tougher economic conditions in the UK or Europe. They are assuming they will be attractive to Chinese employers, whereas the reality now is you really need to be able to show that strong connection to China or Asia, that you are committed for a reasonable amount of time. Employers are interested in why you are coming to China. If it’s just because things are tough at home, that’s not really enough anymore to get Chinese companies interested.”
Lance says two years is about the minimum commitment employers are now looking for. Senior hires are generally expected to stay longer.
In particular, graduate jobs for foreigners are becoming increasingly difficult to get. Lance says many young people now come to China on internships hoping it will lead to employment. For Garcia, who did an internship with Lenovo, the gamble did not pay off.
But despite this tighter, tougher jobs market, Hays and other recruitment agencies have standing vacancies for a range of jobs.
So, what sorts of skills and professions are actually in demand?
“I think if you went back five years, the traditional manufacturing and engineering disciplines were the biggest areas of demand for foreign talent in China,” he says. “I think that’s shifting more to the service industries, such as banking or finance. The demand will definitely grow in the next five years. The pharmaceutical industry is booming at the moment. I think that will continue. Some of the really technical disciplines, such as IT, I see a lot of growth in.
“There are lots of vacancies and not enough candidates to fill them.”
He urges job seekers to do their research before coming to China and find out whether their skills and experience are actually in demand.
Russian- born Alex Farfurnik, chief technical officer for Xiabo Network Technology, says his company has plenty of jobs going.
Down at the Beijing jobs fair, he speaks with plenty of job seekers. It’s not finding people that presents a challenge, he says, it’s finding the right people.
“It’s hard to get good technology people anywhere in the world,” he says. “I want as many as I can get.”
In Shanghai, Yang Xiong, director of the Youth Research Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, says there is currently a massive skills shortage in the finance sector.
“We have done a survey on the current number of qualified people in finance. We found the reserve (surplus to requirements) in this field is less than 1 percent, which is really a problem for us,” Yang says.
Lance at Hays puts the talent shortage down to China facing stiff competition with other Asian financial and innovation hubs such as Singapore.
That current talent tussle has perks for the job seeker.
“If you find a senior biologist with pharmaceutical experience, there are probably five or six companies that would immediately be interested in interviewing or hiring that person,” Lance says. “If you were looking at an industry that is growing or expanding and the competition at the top is really tough, then you do have the flexibility to sort of name your price.
“If you’re looking at general manager or vice-president or even up to CEO, packages of 3 million, 4 million, 5 million yuan and above (per annum) are possible. If you’re looking at the middle ranks where you maybe have a technical background and management function, anywhere from 1 million yuan to 2.5 million yuan a year is pretty achievable.”
Former California- based professor Jeff Jolly, 42, says it is possible for foreigners to arrive in China and gradually work their way into lucrative positions.
In 2010, his first year as a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai, Jolly says he was paid about 72,000 yuan a year.
He now has a second job as a consultant for a company that helps Chinese students prepare applications for American universities. He now earns up to 1 million yuan a year.
“If someone comes here and they can bear with the first year of having a small salary, I think it pays off,” he says. “I make somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million yuan a year. That’s not uncommon. Some of the younger teachers at the other universities have snagged similar (consultancy) gigs as well. They are on about 400,000 to 800,000 yuan per year. It really takes staying here for a year, getting to know people, making connections. The Chinese call it guanxi. It’s not who you are, it’s who you know.”
The Job Fair for Foreigners was held in Beijing on Nov 16. Official statistics show there are about 550,000 foreigners working in China.