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Standing apart from the crowd

Updated: 2014-01-03 12:49
By Joseph Catanzaro and Li Aoxue ( China Daily Africa)

Employment prospects still good for trained african talent in China's tough job market

They filled the second floor of the Swissotel in Beijing with forced smiles, pressed shirts and smart skirts, a flood of hopeful foreigners clutching resumes and business cards, drawn by the lure of good money and career opportunities in the world's second-largest economy.

From behind foldout desks at the annual China jobs fair in Beijing, would-be employers surveyed the array of imported talent on offer with a discerning eye.

Five years ago, those in the know say most of these hopefuls would have been immediately snapped up.

Now, the success or failure of foreigners seeking employment in China is like the jobs market itself, much more complex and difficult to map.

Many of those placing their faith in boom-time China, however, do leave the jobs fair with some prospects. Among the hopeful is Bildad "Bill" Mwenda, 22, an African chemistry student now into his fourth and final year of study in Beijing. He walks away tentatively optimistic after an in-depth chat with representatives from high-tech lighting producer Shineon.

"For chemical engineers, it's not that hard to get a job," he says. "Language is the problem for most, but I speak three languages (including Chinese and English) and I think that's my advantage. My only problem is I don't have work experience."

Other job seekers get a polite rejection, a glossy pamphlet for their troubles, and a mumbled nicety to send them on their way.

The subtext of this cocktail of success and rejection stacks up with what employers, academics and recruiters tell China Daily. China's economy is in a state of change, and the jobs market is changing with it.

Despite being frequently characterized as boom or bust, those taking a bigger-picture view says the employment market can't be quantified in absolutes. Some sectors are booming, others are on the wane.

One point of consensus is that, apart from English language teachers, it is now harder for foreigners to get their foot in the door.

China still wants you, but only if you are at the top of your game in a select number of professions, and only if you have put in the effort to make sure you have some China-specific skills that employers now require.

Anyone who would struggle to get a comparable position in the West or in their countries, need not apply.

This is one of the main messages foreign job seekers are receiving in e-mail exchanges with prospective employers, in interviews, and in conversations with recruitment agencies.

The other is that if you possess a skills set that is in demand in certain growing industries, and if your personal background and experience ticks all the boxes, you can almost name your price in terms of wages.

In November, a senior official who handles foreign experts' affairs revealed that this year China would for the first time publish a skills shortage list to attract the right kind of foreign talent.

The announcement from Liu Yanguo, deputy director of the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs, came as leading think tank The Center for China and Globalization warned that the Chinese economy is experiencing a critical shortage of "global talent".

The organization's director, Wang Huiyao, says China will need an additional 75,000 executive managers with global experience in the next five to 10 years.

That there is great opportunity in China is not in dispute.

But in the often confusing and contradictory storm of information that will continue to rage until the official skills list is published, the question many foreigners face is who, and what exactly, China wants.

Global exposure

Nigerian-born banker Adebayo O. Olarewaju, who works for one of Africa's biggest financial institutions in its Beijing branch, says after a year in China he has a pretty fair idea.

"Your international exposure is key," he says. "People are beginning to look at African talents. What you need to do to make the most of that opportunity is get your skill set right."

In Adebayo's opinion this means job seekers need to have a sound understanding of both their home market and of China. With Chinese companies increasingly looking to bring onboard local expertise as they delve into new markets internationally, it is a strategy Adebayo says is paying off for many of his friends and associates in Beijing.

"There are so many Nigerians here in China teaching English," he says. "There are Africans in finance. I have friends who work in oil and gas here, in mining and construction.

"They came to China for school. They learned the language. They got an employer who has an interest in Africa. A lot of opportunities abound." But Adebayo warns Africans looking to work in China that competition for positions is at an all-time high.

"We are talking about a country with the biggest population in the world, the largest number of graduates in the world," he says. "People are looking for the same opportunities as you. It's fiercely competitive."

Simon Lance, regional director in China for recruitment company Hays, says he agrees the job market is becoming much more competitive for foreigners, and the rise of local talent in certain sectors is one of the reasons why.

Standing apart from the crowd

According to the Ministry of Education, in 2013 alone a record-breaking 6.99 million students graduated from colleges across China, a 2.8 percent increase on 2012.

An influx of foreigners fleeing poor jobs markets in their home countries is another factor. The most recent figures from the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs puts the number of foreigners currently working in China at about 550,000.

What it all boils down to, Lance says, is that Chinese employers can now afford to be more discerning.

"The days of being an expat and being guaranteed a job in China are well and truly over," Lance says. "I think employers are raising the level of expectation they have if they are going to hire an international candidate."

Lance is adamant that one of the big changes in the Chinese job market compared with five years ago is that it is increasingly difficult to get a foot in the door without some Mandarin. He says the better your language skills, the better your chances. He also warns companies in China now want to know why you are leaving home, and how long you are prepared to stay.

"A lot of Chinese employers now are looking for specialized skill sets and they are not interested in hiring someone just because they are an expat or a foreigner," he says.

"We do get a lot of enquires from people who don't have a strong reason to come to China, other than facing tougher economic conditions in the UK or Europe. They are assuming they will be attractive to Chinese employers, whereas the reality now is you really need to be able to show that strong connection to China or Asia, that you are committed for a reasonable amount of time. Employers are interested in why you are coming to China. If it's just because things are tough at home, that's not really enough anymore to get Chinese companies interested."

Lance says two years is about the minimum commitment employers are now looking for. Senior hires are generally expected to stay longer.

Graduate jobs for foreigners are becoming increasingly difficult to get. Lance says many young people now come to China and take up internships, hoping it will lead to employment.

For Ethiopian Lina Ayenew, 26, it was a gamble that paid off.

Educated in the US, where she obtained her masters in public health, two and a half years ago she took up an opportunity to teach in Changsha, the capital of Hunan province.

After a crash course in Mandarin and further private tuition in Changsha and in Beijing, in 2012 she landed a paid internship with PR firm Burson-Marsteller China.

"I started as an intern with a PR company," she says. "I already had a masters in public health, and they had some healthcare clients. It was a good fit for me. I got hired full time and continued on here."

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