For western expats in Asia, the job market will keep getting tougher

For westerners thinking of coming to Asia to further their careers, the New York Times has a must read article about how the job market in Asia is gradually becoming less welcoming for westerners – and its not due to the financial crisis or any economic slowdown in Asia. After all and even before the financial crisis, newcomers to Asia could not simply walk into a job unless they had particularly sought-after skills.

But now its getting even harder as one international recruitment agency told the New York Times that in mainland China in the 12 months through October 2012, expatriates ended up in just 5% of the jobs filled while one year earlier, the number was 11%. And I would bet that few of those expats were westerners.

So why is the job market for western expats in Asia bound to get even harder? Simply stated and besides the fact that many locals now are more than qualified to fill most positions available, more and more employers want or need Mandarin and/or Cantonese fluency because as the New York Times pointed out, much of developing Asia has shifted from a blue-collar manufacturing base into a destination for consumer goods like cars and industrial equipment. This means employees at all levels will need to interact directly with local customers, suppliers and business partners – many of whom speak Chinese or are based in the Greater China region.

In fact, the New York Times quoted one headhunter in Hong Kong as saying that the percentage of jobs requiring Mandarin or Cantonese there has climbed from 70% a few years ago to more than 80% now – a figure I suspect will continue to rise. Mandarin is also increasingly required for jobs in Singapore as the city and Southeast Asia itself becomes ever more connected to the Greater China region.

I would also add that this is not just a problem for western expats. While mainland Chinese and many overseas Chinese can speak Mandarin, most Chinese professionals probably cannot speak Cantonese which puts them at a disadvantage for finding jobs in Hong Kong or the Guangdong region where much of China’s manufacturing economy is still concentrated.

I would further add that for young westerners, coming to China to spend years learning Mandarin does not necessarily make much sense anymore either given that I have seen so many CVs of young westerners who can speak Mandarin pretty well and should consider themselves lucky to command a salary of $2,000 a month – which may or may not be enough to live comfortably on as an expat in a big Chinese city like Shanghai.

Of course and if you had a choice of getting paid $2,000 a month in a job in China or being unemployed in the West, learning Mandarin in hopes of landing a job in China or elsewhere in Asia probably makes more sense. However and if you are further into your career and have no real connection to Asia, there is probably little if any reason to look for opportunities in this region.

(I should also mention the Wall Street Journal covered this topic in a March 2012 article entitled: Asia’s endangered species: The expat)

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