Finding people with right talent

Updated: 2013-12-16 01:06

By Joseph Catanzaro and Li Aoxue (China Daily)

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Great opportunity

Last month, a top official in the agency that handles foreign experts affairs indicated that China would for the first time publish a skills shortage list next year to attract the right kind of foreign talent.

The game-changing 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 the country 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 hangs over who and what exactly, China wants.

Frenchman Anthony Garcia, 33, who arrived in China two years ago, wishes he knew. An IT project manager with 10 years of experience, Garcia spent his first 12 months in Beijing studying Mandarin to make himself a more attractive hire.

The past year has been a wearisome succession of applications and interviews. One of the early birds to turn out at the job fair, he says despite his best efforts, he still has not secured employment.

"I feel it is not that easy now," Garcia says. "I think it used to be easier. China is still OK, but I think the economy is not as good as it was."

While China's economy did take a slight hit this year when the growth rate dipped from 7.7 percent in the first quarter to 7.5 percent in the second quarter, National Bureau of Statistics figures show the GDP growth rate rebounded to 7.8 percent in the July to September period. Slower growth isn't cited as a factor affecting the employment market for foreigners in China.

If anything, experts such as Wang believe government reforms to tackle current economic challenges and transform China into an "innovation-driven economy" will actually bolster the case for hiring more foreign workers with valuable skill sets.

Preferred choice

On further reflection, Garcia concedes more competition from both Chinese locals and an influx of qualified foreigners have shifted the goalposts. He needs to adjust his expectations in terms of position and pay.

Ambre Mundula, a senior consultant with JAC Recruitment, which sources talent for multinational firms operating in China, says Chinese returnees are now the preferred hires.

This year, she says JAC only needed to advertise outside this demographic once.

"It's much harder for foreigners now," she says. "There's much more competition from Chinese returnees who have been abroad. They speak English and they are cheaper than foreigners."

Mundula says typically, the entry-level, monthly salary for a foreigner in a wide range of industries starts between 15,000 and 20,000 yuan ($3,290). JAC can source a Chinese returnee with professional experience who is fluent in English and Mandarin for about 10,000 yuan.

At management level, a Chinese returnee generally costs about 30,000 less yuan per month than hiring a foreigner.

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

According to the Ministry of Education, this year alone a record-breaking 6.99 million students graduated from colleges across China, a 2.8 percent increase since 2012. An influx of foreigners fleeing poor job markets in their home countries is another factor that can't be discounted. 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 expatriate 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 that companies in China now want to know why you are leaving home and how long you're 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 expatriate or a foreigner," Lance says.

"We do get a lot of inquiries 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.