China’s Job Market Tightens for Young ForeignersBy esljoblinks I East Asia I 1 comment
BEIJING — Michal Sliwinski decided to buy a one-way ticket to China in 2010 after reading a newspaper article about the Asian giant’s breakneck economic growth. He had just graduated with a political science degree in his native Poland, could not find a job and feared that his prospects at home were not going to improve soon.
“I didn’t give it a second thought,” said Mr. Sliwinski, now 26 and living in Beijing. “I checked into a hostel, and I found a job in like five days and started to teach English.”
Two years later, Mr. Sliwinski says he is tired of teaching English, but is having trouble securing other work. That is how he found himself among the 1,200 expatriates searching through about 60 booths at the Job Fair for Foreigners, which was held in Beijing at the end of October. The fair also has annual events in Shanghai and Guangzhou.
To his disappointment, most of the companies represented were looking for English teachers.
“There are probably some jobs that are really good,” Mr. Sliwinski said. “But there is huge competition among foreigners, and it is not like they will give you a job just because you are white.”
There is a perception among some graduates from economically struggling Western countries that China is the new land of opportunity. But strong economic growth there might not mean good employment prospects for everyone. Foreigners, particularly those who do not have specialized technical skills or Mandarin fluency, may only be able find teaching jobs that pay less than what they might at home.
Even those with quite good qualifications might have a hard time.
“There is this idea that China is up-and-coming so it is the place to go,” said Adam Clark, 23, who is currently in an exchange program at Nankai University in Tianjin as part of a master’s of Chinese studies degree at the University of Edinburgh. His program also covers international business, as well as Chinese politics, culture and media; but that still might not be enough.
“In reality, I think it is a lot more difficult than that,” he said. “Having two degrees — one in Mandarin and another in something else — and then only to be able to teach English is not entirely desirable.”
According to the 2010 national census, there were about a million expatriates living in mainland China, although almost half of those counted were residents from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau who had moved to the mainland. Of the 593,000 “foreigners,” large numbers came from the rest of Asia: 120,000 from South Korea, 66,000 from Japan and almost 40,000 from Myanmar. Westerners made up a smaller portion, with 71,000 from the United States, almost 20,000 from Canada, 15,000 from France, 14,000 from Germany and 13,000 from Australia.
According to George Xu, chief executive of eChinacities.com, a Web site that provides employment and lifestyle tips for expatriates, 65 percent of their job postings were for English-teaching positions. The others were mostly related to information technology, sales and procurement management.
The site has 50,000 résumés from expatriates in a database available to recruiters. Mr. Xu said that the site had 20,000 daily visitors.
“For foreigners to find a job in China, there are still many obstacles,” he said. “If you don’t speak Chinese and want to work in this country, it will be quite difficult.”
For positions that do not involve teaching English, near fluency in Mandarin is no longer an added bonus, but a prerequisite.
A generation or two ago, fluent English and overseas experience were considered special skills. Today, there are more qualified applicants on the market, particularly Chinese students returning with overseas university degrees, multiple languages and an international outlook.
According to the Chinese Education Ministry, more than 70 percent of Chinese students who went overseas to study have returned home. There were 186,200 such returnees last year.
“The competition against local graduates or Chinese with a little bit of work experience is intense,” said Andy Bentote, managing director for China at Michael Page, a recruitment agency. “The entry-level jobs or maybe second-jobber opportunities, there are just not as many of them. If you don’t speak Mandarin and you don’t have any Chinese work experience, it will be very difficult.”
Outside of teaching positions, the jobs at the Beijing fair tended to be highly specialized, requiring specific technical skills and years of experience. A young recent graduate with shaky Mandarin as a second language would have a hard time trying to break out of the so-called English-teaching trap.
“All of the people who came here are very nice,” said Zhu Yujiao, a recruiter with Beijing Wellintech Development, which makes software monitoring systems for manufacturers. “But they are not very suitable for our positions.”
Wellintech, which had openings for international sales representatives and software engineers, hoped to find candidates with at least five years experience and a background in technology.
Beijing Meidan Food was looking for people to help expand its cracker export business to Africa and Southeast Asia. Fluent Mandarin was required, as most of their staff did not speak English, a recruiter said.
Himin Solar, a manufacturer in Shandong Province, had positions for designers and installers of high-end energy-efficient windows and doors.
Brett Edman, who moved to Beijing in February after studying Chinese and engineering in Australia, said he approached Himin and had no luck. “I can understand if they are looking for specific things, but they didn’t seem interested in talking to me anyway,” Mr. Edman, 25, said. “Even my major is directly related to their business, so that was a bit surprising.”
“I was hoping to find some companies that would be like, ‘Oh, you are looking to be here for a while. We can give you experience while you learn about China at the same time,”’ Mr. Edman said. “But those opportunities don’t seem to be there. Maybe I might have to go home and get some work experience for a while and then come back. But that is not ideal.”
Max Scholl, 23, who studied environmental engineering at the University of Vermont, has been in China for 10 months teaching English at a kindergarten. His salary is 10,000 renminbi, or $1,600, a month. Most of that is sent home to pay off student loans, and he is concerned that he cannot find employment in his chosen field. “It is a little frightening, the situation I am in,” he said.
Those who have taken extra time and effort to learn Chinese language and culture seem to have an easier time.
Bart Bucknill arrived in China in 2009 after getting a philosophy and politics degree from the University of Sheffield in England. For two years, he taught English and also studied Chinese at Yanshan University in Hebei Province. Last year, at the Beijing job fair, he found a position as the business development manager for Zhuzhou Times New Material Technology, a manufacturer of engineering products based in Hunan Province.
He was back at the fair this year — as a recruiter himself. Now 26, he says he has a higher position and more responsibility than he would have in his native Britain.
“I guess I impressed them with my Chinese level and also my ability to kind of fit into a Chinese organization,” he said. “Those were my qualifications. They are soft skills, you could say, but they are very important for working in a Chinese company.”
Elisa Conterio, 25, arrived in China a few weeks ago with a bachelor’s degree in Chinese language and culture from a university in Venice and a master’s degree from a university in Lyon. “It is difficult to find a job in Italy, so I decided to come to China,” she said. “I will probably stay here for one or two years and see how things are going.”
While she did not find anything at the fair, she managed to secure an internship at an event-planning company she contacted before arriving in Beijing. “I was pretty surprised,” she said about her reaction to their initial salary offer of 2,500 renminbi a month. (They have since doubled it to 5,000 renminbi.)
“It’s a start,” she added.
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