Expats face pressure to stand out and land a job in China’s increasingly aggressive marketplace

By Yang Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2016/6/30 19:18:00

Foreigners face more pressure to impress during their job interviews. Photo: IC

Jimmy Cheong, 24, one of the numerous international students in China, just landed a six-month internship after finishing a language program in Beijing. He feels very lucky; for foreigners, the language barrier makes applying for jobs quite an uphill task, worse if you don't have much work experience.

Cheong landed an internship after many rejection letters. He said that foreigners have to be willing to put themselves out there if they want to stand out among the slew of applicants. They also have to follow up on their application as well.

"I called the company I sent my resume to a month later and recommended myself," said Cheong, who was born in Macao but grew up in London.

His elevator pitch impressed the company so much that they called him for an interview later that day.

"My current boss interviewed me in person and tested my professional knowledge; I talked about my background," said Cheong.

Cheong's experience is very similar to that of many foreigners currently looking for jobs in China, whereas previously their international status would put them at the top of the list of potential employees, nowadays resting on country of origin gets them nowhere.

In fact, according to a 2014 BBC report, Chinese employers are now focusing on foreigners' Chinese language proficiency, their understanding of Chinese culture and the overall cost of employing them over a local.

Chinese language proficiency is now a prerequisite in the increasingly competitive marketplace. Photo: IC

Chinese competition

Ben Brown, a 42-year-old American, has been living in China for nine years. He is fluent in Chinese and English, and regularly travels between the US and China.

According to Brown, over the last two decades, it has become harder for foreigners to get interviews and land jobs. He said in the 90s, fluent English and work experience in a Western country could help foreigners get jobs in China easily. But now, foreigners in the Chinese marketplace are not only competing with other foreigners but also with Chinese who returned home after studying abroad.

"The advantages of Chinese students studying abroad are having overseas university degrees, multiple language abilities, and a diverse cultural outlook," said Brown. "They can connect and communicate with the locals as well as understand Western business."

Another problem is that qualified job seekers often miss recruitment activities because they do not know where to look, Brown continued.

"Some of my friends have experienced this situation," he said. "There are some qualified expats in the Chinese job market, but they either don't know many people are in the marketplace or don't know where to find recruitment information, [and end up] missing some good job opportunities."

The payment package for foreigners and returning Chinese also differs, which gives the Chinese a competitive edge.

Janine Leung, a human resource manager in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, who works in the media industry, explained in a 2014 BBC report that "most of the hires for middle-management positions are from Asia because they cost less."

She said when hiring English speakers, her clients mainly want people from Asian regions like Hong Kong and Singapore because their English language skills are high, and they are "cheaper than Westerners, whose salaries are at least 50 percent higher."

Language skills a boon

Chinese language proficiency is increasingly important in the job market, to the extent that it could be the difference between landing a job and being passed over for a somewhat less qualified, Chinese language proficient applicant.

According to Brown, there are three types of foreigners in the job market. Those that have over 20 years of work experience and connections, which makes it easy for them to find jobs even though they speak little to no Chinese; those who have a good educational background, some work experience and good Chinese; and those who have a good education, work experience but speak no Chinese. It is the last group, those who cannot speak Chinese, that are most affected by the tightening market, Brown said.

After finding jobs with ease in the 1990s, Brown returned to China from the US in 2012 to find his situation significantly altered. Although he could speak some Chinese, it took him nine months to find a new job. In the end, it was his Chinese ability that landed him the job.

"The company wanted to hire my friend who had good work experience in finance and the stock market, but he couldn't speak Chinese at all. Therefore, in the end, the company hired me," he said.

Realizing how much of an asset Chinese language fluency is, Brown said he studied up on his Chinese.

He recalled an instance where his language proficiency impressed. "[Once,] I attended an interview, and there were four interviewers. The foreign interviewers could only understand English, and the Chinese interviewers could only understand Chinese, so I had to answer questions in two languages," he said.

Cheong had a similar experience. "In my latest interview, the interviewer wanted to test my Chinese, so he asked me some questions, such as how to say some technical terms in Chinese," he said.

Cheong is the only foreigner on his team. His ability to speak both English and Chinese is an advantage. In fact, when his company's Chinese customers need help with English, he is the one that is usually called in to help.

Learning Chinese also helps foreigners to adapt to the Chinese office culture. Now, Brown, who works as a project assistant and translator for a consulting company in Chongqing, insists on speaking Chinese with his Chinese coworkers because he thinks it's easier and better to fit in and know more about the Chinese work culture.

In his mind, it is not enough to pass the HSK (Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, or Chinese Proficiency Test) and still not be able to communicate well with others.

"Speaking is different from communicating," he said. "When you communicate with others, you need to know more than Chinese. You need to know Chinese culture as well."

To illustrate his point, Brown shared an experience where, while dining with colleagues, he earned the ire of a government official because he was not aware of cultural mores.

"The government official wanted to toast to the other three young guys at the table, and I stood up and jokingly asked why he didn't toast to me," he said.

"I could feel the official was a little bit angry. Later, I found out that he was offended because I interrupted him and was joking when he was serious."

How to stand out?

"Having a good educational background, work experience, and knowing Chinese culture very well can make expats more competitive," Eric Liu, a consultant at Foreign HR, a recruitment firm for foreigners in China, told Metropolitan.

Liu said that before the interview, employers would have already looked through each candidate's resume, so how they behave is crucial to nailing an interview.

Brown suggested that foreigners mention their HSK level during the interview, which, he said, could be more convincing.

"Besides language ability, having work experience in the West or China could improve their competitiveness as well," Brown said.

He also said he would tell his potential employer how his previous work experience can bolster the job he is applying for.

For foreigners who lack work experience, Cheong suggests practicing how to present themselves in the best light during the interview.

"Showing your confidence is important in job interviews. You have to let the employers see your potential, such as your communication skills, technical skills, and your learning ability. You have to show them what you can do and how much you can do," he said.

With two months left before his internship finishes, Cheong is already applying jobs in Beijing. He wants to work at least two more years in China.

"I believe that two more years' work in China can definitely improve my Chinese and let me know more about Chinese culture."

Newspaper headline: Stiff competition

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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