In this post we talk about launching a career in China and how the Wright brothers’ story might have a few tips to help you on your own journey.
The Wright brothers never made it to China—though, you can find official replicas of their aircraft in Chengdu.
As the first team to pilot a fully-fledged flying machine, the story of the Wright brothers has captured the imagination of plane enthusiasts and armchair historians the world over. But the sibling duo from Dayton Ohio wasn’t alone in their quest – they were racing against others with more engineering experience, credentials, and funding, including even the Secretary of the Smithsonian Museum.
The Wright brothers, meanwhile, ran a small bicycle shop and had no outside funding. Their experience with ground vehicles, though, proved influential and inspired many of their convictions and theories on human flight.
The Wright brothers reasoned that an unstable vehicle (i.e. flying machine) could be designed, controlled and balanced through practice. Thus, rather than dive into the minutia of every single aspect of man-made flight on paper and developing a grandiose design, they focused on getting “air time” as soon as possible using scrap materials as part of their implementation. This meant relentless testing and failed attempts at flight, but this fast-tracked their progress over their rivals. Like controlling a bicycle, they later hypothesized that an initial burst of power was key to gaining momentum and stabilizing the balance of the flying machine once it was in the air.
Just like a flying machine
In many ways, the story of the Wright brothers holds true with starting a career in China. You don’t need to be the most credentialed candidate, but you do need to launch early and innovate along the way to break away from the pack.
As we’ve talked about previously, if there’s a special weapon for cracking the China job market, it’s developing a portfolio of work that aligns with the job at hand. Degrees, HSK exam results, and other accolades all have their place, but what companies look for most in a candidate is a proven and relevant track record. And whether it’s a stretched out internship or a full-time job, the only way to gain work experience is to start as soon as you can.
Where can you go without?
A big problem for young foreign graduates is making that initial sacrifice. The sacrifice is usually financial but sometimes status-based too. Setting aside three months to start a low paid/non-paid internship in a city like Beijing or Shanghai comes at a sizeable financial cost.
At the same time, there aren’t high-status graduate programs for foreign graduates like those offered to local employees by the big four consulting companies, law firms, government agencies, and other highly-desired employers in China. Foreign faces at international companies are also becoming few and far between as these companies continue to localize their operations, including even positions like CEO and General Manager.
Chinese companies offer more hope. Huawei, Alibaba, Tencent, Hainan Airlines (HNA), and Bytedance are aggressively expanding their ranks of young foreign hires, but they generally take foreign candidates with 2-3 years of work experience (with the exception of HNA).
The first flight
Getting your first break in China can be hard. Unlike your peers back home, you can’t sit at home and fire off applications through the online portals of major grad programs. China is not that easy.
Firstly, you need to figure out which organisations in China hire foreign passport holders. This generally means getting out there and attending networking events at chambers of commerce, cold messages on Linkedin, checking China job boards, asking people you know, and hustling to join career-focused WeChat groups.
Most of the time, young foreign graduates in China find jobs with NGO’s (I.E. chambers of commerce, the Carnegie Institute, the Brookings Institute), small digital marketing and PR firms (I.E. North Face, China Skinny, Walk the Chat, Networking Matters), startups, expat websites (I.E. Timeout Beijing, Shanghaist), and small to mid-tier consultancies (I.E. Dezan Shira and China Policy).
While the pay is modest (8,000 – 15,000 RMB per month and varies by city), the experience that can be gained from working in these organisations is immensely valuable. Whether it’s working for a business chamber in a first-tier city, work experience with an NGO in Yunnan, or pretending-you’re-more-senior-than-you-are on telecon calls from a highrise office in Shenzhen, there’s a vast amount of knowledge that you can gain by finding that first employer.
This is particularly important for grads who aren’t sure where to take their career in the future; there’s no better time to try industries outside your study background and to take a risk. Like the Wright brothers, you can iterate and fiddle with your trajectory later through experience.
For me, I initially hoped to work in government in diplomacy or international trade. As there was nothing available for me despite attempts to land an internship in that space, I turned to what seemed like the next best thing. At AustCham Beijing, I got to take a valuable peek at Australian companies from all industries and find out more about the Australian government and state governments working on the ground in China. Very quickly, I realised that working in government wasn’t for me, major Australian companies weren’t really hiring Australians (in Beijing at least), and that Chinese tech companies seemed like the next wave of jobs for foreigners in China.
Some turbulence expected – ride it out or switch carrier
It’s worth noting that China is unpredictable and companies can collapse in the space of a few months. Your job role might also change overnight – and your office location for that matter too. Moreover, you might not enjoy your first extended internship or full-time job. Sometimes it might be worth riding it out and angling for a different role inside the company. The other option is to jump ship.
Unlike Japan and South Korea, where loyalty to the company is ingrained into the local work culture, there’s an opposite phenomenon in Mainland China. It’s perfectly normal to switch jobs. As long as you provide four weeks notice, there’s little taboo in China over leaving for another employer without doing your full 1-2 years at the organisation.
Just keep in mind that you’ll need your next employer to take over as the sponsor of your work visa and the former employer will need to officially release your employment contract with the local authorities. Thus, it helps to always be respectful of your manager and HR department before and after you decide to make the big announcement.
Whether your first full-time job lasts six months or 18 months, it will ultimately get you one step closer to finding that job you really want, and of course, earning more money.
Choosing your carrier
Another important lesson from the Wright brothers is there’s no value in waiting around for a high-paid gig or a high-status backer in the very beginning. Instead, you need to roll up your sleeves (explosive launch), jump into the workforce (get airtime) and then work it out as you go (correct course).
While you still want to exercise caution before you sign your first contract and do some due diligence by talking to other foreigners employed by the organisation, you can’t afford to be fussy. This means you can’t insist on finding an employer that a) pays well, b) has a prestigious name, c) and offers the line of work you want to pursue. If you can seize the third criteria (c) with your first job, then the other two conditions will eventually take care of themselves. (We’ll talk about pay and how to earn more over time in a future post).
Where you get your initial “air time” doesn’t matter too much as long you leverage that opportunity to move to the next step in your career. Alternatively, if you see those three mentioned requirements as non-negotiable, then your home country (such as Australia or the U.S.) is probably a more viable option than China given their access to good grad programs.
China is an unpredictable place to start and build a career but with a little bit of pioneering spirit and lots of resilience you can find rewarding opportunities and a unique adventure along the way.
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