In a world of anemic economic growth and complete transparency over the professional specs of your LinkedIn contacts, young people are in desperate search for a secret weapon to show on their resume and to cut through the noise. This is especially the case for foreign job seekers in China; where standard career paths are less well-defined and the local job market is undergoing constant change.
As a first-time job applicant in 2014, I was obsessed with figuring this question out. What professional skills did I need to get to the front of the line? What were employers looking for in a new hire? How could I fast-track my career in China?
Three years on and I think I finally have the answer. In the following post, I share my answer and general tips on how to stand out in China’s dynamic job scene.
Like most young people before they get their first job, I was nervous, and frantically looking for clues on where to find my first break. That insecurity I had in 2013 was amplified by the extra risk I was taking in attempting to start my career in a foreign country with a student visa that was about to meet its end date.
At the time there was little information on the Internet on how to launch a career in China, so I had to do my own research. I asked the same question to everyone I met who had a job – that wasn’t an English teacher.
“What do you reckon is the key to building a career in China?”
Virtually everyone came back with the same answers:
“Good attitude and work ethic.” (Sure, this is pretty universal)
“Ability to learn on the job.” (Okay, this is something I’m pretty good at but so are a lot of people)
“Solid cross-cultural skills.” (Another obvious one. Not sure my tolerance for Chinese dining etiquette is going to push me to the front of the CV stack)
“Interesting hobbies.” (Seriously? I’ve invested all this time learning Chinese and sacrificed my summer holidays to do internships and you’re going to pick someone who spends their weekend scuba diving and recording their own mixtape? This can’t possibly be true. I will ignore that they just said this. Only later would I realize how true this actually is.)
“And, for sure, Chinese language skills.” (Oh hello! Something tangible! Okay this will be my secret weapon.)
After 2-3 semesters of learning Chinese full-time in China, you start to run out of class levels. You are in A1, Advanced class, or whatever your Institute calls it, but you still aren’t satisfied with your overall proficiency. You can nail small talk and read advanced texts, but you still struggle expressing exactly what you want to say on more advanced topics.
However, having come this far you don’t want to stop learning Chinese now. This is going to be your secret weapon for getting whatever job you want in the future and, perhaps, even working for the foreign service.
You look around for options to continue learning Chinese. You decide to take the most trodden path amongst your peers and enroll in a postgraduate program in China. The program is completely free too, courtesy of a Chinese government scholarship. Cha-ching.
Not only will you come out of this program 2-3 years later with wicked Chinese but you will have a postgraduate degree and niche knowledge on public policy, economics, or law within the context of China. Hey, how many people have that on their resume?
After two or so years of graduate school and a thesis that took far too long to write in your second language, you’re now ready to hit the local job scene. The only problem is that the thesis took so long to write that you hardly started applying for jobs until well after submission day.
You start applying for jobs online but get very little response. That’s odd. Maybe there were foreign applicants who studied at Peking University, and you only studied at Nanjing University. Oh well, I’ll keep applying, you say to yourself.
Three weeks later and there’s still not too much progress in finding employment opportunities online. There are a few small education agencies who want to sign you up, but you start to get suspicious when they note that the Marketing position you applied for may involve occasional demo English classes for prospective students.
With the online approach attracting meager results, you switch tactics and lean on your friends for introductions to companies and start attending professional networking events. Employers that you then meet react positively when you explain what you’ve been doing over the last few years and all of a sudden you’re flooded with internship and job interviews.
The interviews go well and you quickly have a few options from which to choose from. You select a position with a company that stands out with strong potential for professional growth and which sounds the most impressive on paper. The funny thing, though, is that when you look at the various jobs you applied for and were offered, very few have any relationship to what you studied at university.
This is a common case for foreigners in China and when you think about it, it makes sense. If you studied law in China, there are no graduate programs to hire foreign lawyers like there are in your home country (where of course you don’t qualify as a foreigner). Moreover, foreigners are not able to litigate in China. Instead, they typically play an advisory and consulting role for Chinese clients examining investment and expansion opportunities overseas.
If you study public policy in China, you can’t start working for a Chinese think tank or expect to get recruited straight into your local Embassy or Consulate. Chinese think tanks don’t hire young foreign I.R buffs who think they can answer China’s geopolitical problems, and diplomats are usually hired in their home country and then posted to China after 1-3 years.
Likewise, there are very few jobs in China for foreigners that demand a degree in Economics or China Studies. Even jobs that require more technical skills such as computer science and engineering are bound to go to local Chinese graduates because salaries are lower, they are less likely to leave China, and there’s no need for the company to sponsor an employment visa.
It, therefore, comes as no surprise that foreign graduates in China gravitate to jobs where their skills are needed most but against the grain of their academic qualifications. International and Chinese companies operating in China employ foreign technical writers, journalists, marketing managers, relationship managers, digital marketers, TV hosts, copywriters, and, of course, English teachers. The common denominator under each of these hot job positions is excellent communication skills in one’s native tongue; whether that be reading the news on TV, writing press releases, crafting Facebook ads or speaking to international clients. English communication skills are most in demand but so too are other languages, including Portuguese, Spanish, Russian, Korean, and German.
It is also no coincidence that these are the job titles that the local workforce cannot fill. Foreign companies have figured out that they can save money by hiring local managers, salespeople, and technical experts and, in fact, obtain better results. However, it can be commercially dangerous to hire a local to proofread a media release or a contract in English that is about to go out to an international audience.
You would be forgiven for assuming that my hypothesis for cracking the China job market is excellent communication skills in your mother tongue. This, though, would be too simple a conclusion.
The Real Silver Bullet
Make no mistake about it, Chinese language skills are important for getting hired in China. For my two roles in China so far, Chinese language skills have been a factor in getting me over the line. However, Chinese was in no way a silver bullet.
The fact that I was a native English speaker was ultimately more important. But again, this was not the main reason I got the job and nor could I call it a silver bullet. There are thousands of native English speakers in China and this is not a skillset that I can rely on in getting me to the front of the pack.
The real secret weapon to cracking the China job market is having a portfolio of work that aligns with the job at hand. Degrees are important but as mentioned, a high number of jobs in China don’t align with the academic experience of foreign applicants. Instead, what companies look for most is a proven track record relevant to the job at hand.
In the case of my first job as a Relationships Manager, I didn’t have any real full-time experience managing relationships. But through a three-month internship, I proved to the boss I could manage talking to senior business people from Australia and China (without revealing how little I actually knew about business).
However, when I applied for my current job with a large Chinese tech company, my previous work experience was virtually discounted. If anything, my experience in sales and relationship management with a foreign NGO appeared to be a disadvantage. The fact that the Beijing government still won’t offer me a visa to work in Beijing because I don’t have two years relevant work experience paired to my current role – despite working for full-time for two years in my previous role – reinforces this dilemma.
Chinese language skills helped me to a certain extent in the application process but what ultimately pushed me to the front of 100 other applicants was Asia Options. My current employer was looking for a foreign hire who knew their way around websites, user experience design, and how to grow an online audience. Unfortunately, none of these, I could prove based on my experience of working with a business Chamber. Unexpectedly, my experience with Asia Options turned out to be a secret weapon.
The downside was that my experience with Asia Options wasn’t full-time or formal employment. It is, therefore, less well recognised in China. Otherwise, I could have argued for a more senior position.
The other nice byproduct of having relevant work experience is that you can ask for more money! Employers in China realise that they can easily find a foreign hire but they know it’s hard to find a foreigner with domain expertise. When a foreign applicant does come along and can prove they have domain expertise and experience, employers are happy to pay more to get them. This is perhaps no different to the West – in regards to compensating employees based on their experience – but in China, it’s harder to find quality talent because the labor pool is smaller. This can, therefore, offer you extra bargaining power.
Experience in Your Own Country
This is something else I’ve only realised recently; having academic and professional experience in your home country sometimes trumps the doing the equivalent in China. Lawyers are a great example. While the prospects of working as a foreign law graduate in China are meek, as graduate programs and clerkships are exclusively for locals, there remains robust demand for lawyers with overseas experience. Foreign law firms operating in China are not allowed to litigate in China unless they have formed a joint venture, but China is where they generate valuable leads for advising Chinese companies investing overseas. Naturally, they don’t need a foreign lawyer to explain China’s domestic laws to Chinese companies. Instead, they need lawyers who can explain the regulatory and investment landscape in countries overseas like Australia, Russia, and Pakistan. Thus, having a degree in law and work experience in your home country is going to come in far more handy than a law diploma from Peking University.
The same rule applies to foreigners working in real estate, corporate consulting, and finance. Understanding the local Chinese landscape in your given sector does help, but ultimately your paycheck is anchored to how well you know the overseas market and filling the knowledge gap of local Chinese clients.
Outbound is the prevailing flavor of business and job opportunities in China. Inbound investment and expansion from foreign companies coming into China were the dominant trends for several decades past. But now there are fewer large foreign enterprises coming into China and those that are here are more likely than ever to be downsizing, losing money, and localising job positions.
Instead, it is Chinese companies expanding overseas that are making waves and hiring more foreigners locally in the process. Alibaba Group and HNA Group are leading the way with flagship graduate programs to hire young foreign talent in China. How many foreign companies in China offer an equivalent program on the same scale? I can’t think of any… And for sure, other Chinese companies are looking at what Alibaba and Hainan Airlines are doing and will wish to create their own programs.
Huawei, JD.COM, CTrip, and Tencent are other Chinese companies that I’ve observed to be expanding their ranks of foreign employees. Huawei, for example, put out a call last year for 50 English-speaking technical writers.
I acknowledge that Chinese companies value foreign talent with Chinese language skills and experience living in China, However, given that these companies want to reach international consumers and investment opportunities, having niche expertise and experience outside of China where these countries what to do business is going to be looked at favorably.
If you enjoy studying Chinese, the best time to learn is when you’re young and before you start working full-time. Learning Chinese takes a massive amount of effort and anyone working a full-time job will attest to the difficulty of learning Chinese as a side-project. Chinese language skills will also boost your employability in China but there can be a diminishing rate of return. Having a HSK 4 versus a HSK 6 on your CV is not going to make a huge difference when it comes to applying for a job.
Moreover, a postgraduate degree from a Chinese university and wicked Chinese skills are unlikely to produce what you will call a silver bullet. Sure, a postgraduate degree will fast-track a career in academia and wicked Chinese will get you a job on Chinese TV in the mold of DaShan. But outside of that, you’re going to have to fight alongside other job applicants with inferior Chinese and potentially a wider skill set.
The most important item to persuading an employer and earning more money is showing that you have demonstrated experience in the role offered and you can prove that with a portfolio of work. That portfolio of work could entail previous internship and part-time work experience, running Facebook ads for your older brother’s business, publishing content on Medium.com or in the newspaper, creating a content platform like Asia Options, volunteering for an NGO like the Australia China Youth Association or growing your own YouTube channel.
Then for certain job openings, having overseas experience should by no means be thought of as a disadvantage but embraced as a potential silver bullet. For example, if China Airlines need a marketing strategist to run a social media marketing campaign and you have experience running Facebook ads with an agency overseas for other airlines companies, the only question is how much China Airlines is willing to pay you!
If you are already halfway through a postgrad program in China, then perhaps start looking for supplementary opportunities to build a portfolio of work experience and find job descriptions that interest you and brainstorm how you can nail the criteria in 12-18 months time.
Check out more China content
- Australia China Youth Association- Get Involved
- How to find internships and non-teaching jobs in China
- How to prepare your resume and interview to work in China
- What’s the minimum level of fluency for finding work in China?
- How to sell your China experience
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