A growing number of young Australians are relocating to China to explore the Middle Kingdom’s diverse melting pot of culture and cuisine, to learn Mandarin and to check off the increasingly popular China box on their resume.
Trade with China is soaring and Mandarin is uncontested as the premier language to learn to for those with an eye on an international career. Short-term study or internship programs in China are an excellent opportunity to improve your understanding of Australia’s largest trading partner and to develop cross-cultural skills in an international environment.
But in some cases, extended China experience can prove to be a double-edged sword and especially for graduates who bypass the local job market to live in China. Despite the strong trade links between China and Australia, extended China experience for many Australian employers remains under-valued, and in some cases, time in China can actually count against you.
One to two years experience in China is unlikely to affect your job prospects in Australia and if anything it should be an advantage. However, this may not necessarily be the case for those who spend 2+ years living in the Middle Kingdom. There does appear be a dramatic point of diminishing return from staying in China after two years. This is often due to the lack of career progression for young expats in China, lack of investment in training and skill development within companies in China, and a sometimes challenging working environment. Those with five years experience in China fall into the trap of being disconnected with the realities of working in Australia.
A number of Australians I know who have returned home to Australia after an extended period in China have been shocked to find that their China experience and skills do not automatically transfer to the Australian job market. What’s more, they fierce strong competition from those who took the more traditional career path by building up 1-3 years of relevant work experience at home, gaining a well-recognised MBA from an Australian university and developing a local network of professional contacts.
The above scenario is a comparison many China hands may well wish to avoid. The Australian tertiary system is better recognised than higher education in China and a local network of professional contacts offers more direct opportunities and value for companies. Learning Mandarin at a Chinese university is also a significant time commitment that foregoes the opportunity cost of gaining important work experience, and actually adds negligible value to your job prospects in Australia.
Australia companies can already choose from a smorgasbord of affordable and professional translation services and bilingual Chinese international students. Mandarin is also the second most spoken language in Australia households.
For non-native speakers, Mandarin skills are still a strong asset in building relationships with Chinese clients. The remainder of this article will outline strategies to help you flip the table and leverage your China experience to significantly improve your employment prospects.
1) Spell out your China experience
Avoid referring to your China experience without systematically outlining the specific skills you developed while in China. ‘China experience’ is too vague to impress employers, as it could entail anything from class-time to teaching toddlers English and terrorising the local bar strip. Not only should you define what skills you have developed through your China experience but also outline how these skills bring value to the hiring company. These attributes could be:
- Well-developed cross-cultural skills
- An ability to adapt quickly to challenging circumstances
- An established network of professional contacts in China (technically not a skill but useful to add)
- Customer service experience with Chinese customers or a strong understanding of a particular industry in China. Even if you only taught English in China, you could still potentially frame this experience as: excellent knowledge of the current international education market in China; including contemporary trends in consumer demand, growth opportunities and contacts.
The next important step is to match only relevant skills from your China experience to your job application. Cross-cultural skills would be an important competency working for a bank in a suburb in Melbourne, Sydney or Brisbane where is a strong user base of Chinese clients. However these skills are less applicable for the same job in a less culturally diverse area of regional Australia. Wasting two or three lines in your cover letter about Mandarin proficiency for a job with no relevance to China is unnecessary and only emphasises the irrelevance of your previous experience.
3) Define how Mandarin language can add value
In the case of non-native Mandarin speakers, language proficiency is normally of limited interest to Australian employers. Very few second-language speakers of Mandarin can directly add value to a company unless they have passed a NAATI certification in translation or are sufficiently fluent to negotiate with Chinese customers. However, Mandarin capabilities are still be a useful professional skill if properly defined and tailored to a particular job position. If for example you are applying for a research position with the Lowy Institute of International Affairs, it would be wise to cite:
A well-developed ability to comprehend Chinese academic papers on trade and policy and translate these documents into an English summary.
Rather than simply mentioning ‘advanced fluency in Mandarin’ as a key attribute. Selling Chinese proficiency as Conversational fluency in Mandarin highly suitable to meeting basic customer service demands would also be valuable to tourism operators, certain banks and segments of the hospitality industry in Australia.
4) Do your homework
Undertake preliminary research and target companies who already conduct business or cooperation with China and Chinese customers. China experience will obviously carry more weight with an organisation regularly dealing with Chinese clients or expanding their operations into China. You can then underline your suitability to the job by aligning your China experience to the organisation’s China strategy. Many organisations, including Tourism Victoria and the Melbourne Football Club publicly release details about their China strategy, and a basic search of the web should provide clues to help your application. For example, if the organisation you are applying to has identified south-west China as a primary growth market then it would be important to underline study or professional experience in that region. In this case it would also be useful to outline any preexisting and relevant relationships with organisations and individuals in that given region or city. Another recent trend for a number of Australian organisations, including Tourism Victoria and Sovereign Hill, is a new emphasis on connecting with China’s enormous pool of active netizens through a Chinese social media strategy.
5) Chinese social media
I am slightly dubious about the return on investment that Chinese social media can add to western companies without popular endorsements (ie Chinese celebrities) and a well-prepared social media strategy, but more and more Australian companies are signing up to Weibo and WeChat and posting the odd snippet and post. Universities in particular are useing WeChat as a platform to keep in contact with alumni students. Weibo has limited functionality in English and so Chinese language skills as well as a basic understanding of Chinese social issues and humour could be an extra competency to add to your job application. Once again its very important that you do your research. If the given organisation is already active on social media, then you should plug your ability to expand their preexisting Chinese social media fan base, or alternatively, assert that you have the relevant know-how to establish a Weibo or WeChat presence and implement a Chinese social media strategy. Baidu SEO skills and digital analytics experience in China would also be a big selling point as a wide range of Australian companies, including universities, real estate companies and travel companies currently target Chinese customers online but with mixed results. While there is no shortage of SEO specialists in Australia, China SEO and digital specialists who know how to drive traffic behind the Great Firewall offer an attractive value proposition for Australian companies.
These five tips are by no means complicated and ultimately the key is developing your arm marketing skills to self-sell your experience. China experience will rise in value in the coming years but it is also important to understand that extended time in China does not offer the same advantage in the Australian job market as an MBA or IVY league degree despite the recent hype about China.
In the future I hope to see China experience become more well-recognised in Australia but in the meantime it is important to clearly spell out to potential employers how they can directly benefit from your China experience.
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