Coming to China to work is an amazing, character-building challenge.
In addition to simply doing your job, there are concerns like adapting to a new work culture, working in a market expanding at a still-pretty-ridiculous rate, your first Chinese business dinner, and sitting in on meetings held entirely in Chinese (I’ll tell you one thing: it certainly makes them more interesting).
That said, the job market for foreign nationals here in China is different and more competitive than it was even 8 or 10 years ago; China’s economy has further opened and matured, and hundreds of thousands of new foreigners have flooded in.
Let’s take a look at a few of the top jobs available to foreigners in China and what it takes to get them.
If you’ve read about the preposterous number of engineers China pumps out of its universities every year, it may seem kind of strange that foreign engineers are in high demand here.
The fact is, however, that Chinese universities and companies are having a hard time training engineers in newer or highly-specialized fields like clean energy, automotive, oil and gas and general heavy industry.
Chinese-designed infrastructure projects have something of a mixed track record, so skilled foreign engineers are in high demand (in part) for the reason all foreigners are highly-valued here: they lend projects and companies an air of prestige.
More specifically, however, they generally have a higher level of hands-on experience with globe-spanning projects.
If you’re an engineer from a top US or European university, you can expect pretty excellent compensation and benefits here in China!
Those of you who have been to China have experienced how the Chinese and the global Internet are like totally different worlds - Chinese websites and platforms operate on different standards and design principles, often via homegrown browsers, and foreign sites can be difficult to access from the Mainland.
A running joke among foreign IT professionals in China, in fact, is that the Chinese Internet is actually really just a gigantic intranet, since it has little in common with the global Internet.
This gulf, however, has led to strong demand for foreign-born and trained IT professionals, as more big Chinese websites and companies seek to create an international presence.
Alibaba (often called the Chinese Yahoo/Amazon/eBay), for instance, has hired a huge team of foreign IT, design and marketing specialists to improve its global presence.
One big factor here is that English is the global lingua franca of Computer Science, making skilled Western foreign IT masters a hot commodity in China, though Japanese and Korean IT specialists are also in demand.
Sales jobs in China suffer from high turnover and sometimes-shady management practices, but opportunities abound.
Some are expat-focused, meaning that sales reps tap into the lucrative market of expats in China’s larger cities, many of which have a good deal of disposable income.
For more experienced sales professionals, though, there is the enormous and still-growing Chinese domestic market to target, and with a limited financial system, many Chinese are on the hunt for solid investment opportunities.
So, if you’re in real estate or finance and have strong sales and management skills, China can present fantastic opportunities, but having a nuanced and strong understanding of Chinese culture and language is a must if you don’t want to end up pitching to the same 30,000 expats over and over again.
Certainly the most stereotyped job category in China, English teachers are found far and wide, from humongo mega-cities to small villages.
The demand for native-level, in-person English instruction in China is enormous and still growing, and for a surprisingly large percentage of Western foreigners in China, teaching English is their first job here; a friend of mine refers to it as “paying your dues,” though I think that casts professional teachers in an unfair light.
While there are the commonly-derided training center teachers, China is also a fertile market for professional teachers, especially those with advanced degrees.
International schools here pay some of the best salaries you’ll find anywhere, and universities are always looking for qualified teachers to lead math, science or history courses in English-medium programs.
An increasing number of graduate schools, in fact, are running entire programs in English, so if you have a specialized degree and some teaching experience, there are loads of opportunities to be found for Westerners.
Marketing/Creative Field Jobs
Marketing and other creative fields in China, namely design and content-related e-commerce, are growing fast and there is strong demand for experienced foreign nationals with relevant skills.
A lot of this has to do with different concepts of marketing in China and the West, a difference that really boils down to the fact that the free market is still a very new concept in China.
Anyway, there are two types of companies hiring in this field: Chinese companies looking to improve their global image and presence, and foreign companies looking for experienced China hands to help them enter and adapt to the local market.
This is a great field if you have strong critical thinking skills and genuine curiosity and experience with China, because working in marketing or other creative fields in China essentially entails acting as a cultural and business bridge between two cultures. Well-developed language skills are extremely helpful, as well.
High-Level Management Jobs
As mentioned, the market economy is a relatively new concept in Mainland China, so there aren’t a whole lot of management personnel with the length of experience required for high-level positions.
As such, experienced foreign managers are much sought-after, not surprising in a country that idolizes people like Steve Jobs and Warren Buffet (as well as business-focused academics like Michael Sandel) even more than Americans do.
However, as the Chinese market matures and as more Chinese managers return to the country armed with advanced US or European degrees and overseas experience, jobs for high-level foreign management professionals are becoming more scarce, and “there’s no doubt the need for English-speaking generalists is quickly receding,” according to a BBC analysis.
The fact remains, however, that if you’re a foreign-born manager in China, life is pretty good: companies still offer very generous expat packages, including housing and expensive international schooling for the kids.
If you already live in China, I'd love to know what you do. Or, if you don't, let me know in the comments below what kind of job you'd want while living there.