Why Recruit Returnees?

Asia’s Brain Gain at the West’s Expense

Over the past few decades, many Asian economies have prospered to the point where even middle class families can afford to send their children to study abroad with popular destinations being universities in Australia, New Zealand, the European Union (EU), the UK and the USA. Likewise, many local Asian professionals have taken up job postings abroad – either elsewhere in the region (such as in regional hubs of Singapore or Hong Kong or in emerging markets like Vietnam or Myanmar where there are severe shortages of appropriate local talent) or in Western countries.

Unfortunately, many Asians who study abroad must return home after they complete their studies due to increasingly restrictive immigration policies in many Western countries that make it difficult or expensive for even well educated and highly skilled professionals to immigrate. Moreover, the global financial crisis and the European debt crisis means there are fewer job options or opportunities for promotion in mature Western markets for professionals not born in these countries. This means that many Asians studying or working in Western countries, especially those who have not or cannot obtain citizenship or permanent residency, are forced to return home when their work permit expires or if they loose their work permit specific job. In other words, the West’s loss is fast becoming Asia’s brain gain.

Finally and not be completely overlooked or dismissed, there is a dwindling pool of Western expatriates or so-called “old Asia hands” who have extensive work experience in the Asia region. And while the perceived stereotype of an expatriate or “old Asia hand” might be that of an overpaid middle-aged White gentleman who spends much of his free time socializing only with other Western expatriates at particular pubs or social clubs, the reality can be much different. In fact, “old Asia hands” or “Western” expatriates can be of any nationality or ethnicity (e.g. someone of Asian descent born in the West), they may be able to speak an Asian language and they may even be better attuned to the local culture than a returnee who has spent most of his career or life outside the Asia region.

However and just as the 2008 financial crisis and economic downturn has been hard on Asian professionals working or studying in the West, many “old Asia hands” or Western expatriates have found themselves either out of work or forced to return to their home countries where their Asia work experience is far less valued or relevant. In effect, those who have left and then decide or want to return to Asia are themselves also “Asian” returnees.

What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Hiring Asian Returnees?

Generally speaking, Asian returnees are bilingual, bi-cultural and often Western educated professionals who have built up significant work or professional experience outside of their home countries or the Asia region. Hence, the benefits of hiring Asian returnees are obvious:

  • They have a thorough understanding of Western business practices, norms, ethics and expectations along with Asian business practices and culture.
  • They will likely have much more advanced professional, technical or other skills from receiving specialized training abroad.
  • They will nearly always be less expensive to hire than Western expatriates as they won’t require translators to do business in their home countries or extra assistance getting settled down.
  • They are more willing to work outside of major cosmopolitan areas, especially if they have the chance to work back home in their home town or in the region where they are originally from.
  • They will likely have and appreciate having more career opportunities and chances for advancement in their home countries or within the Asia region than in the mature economies of the West where employment opportunities are increasingly limited – especially for foreigners or immigrants.
  • They prefer to work for Western (or perhaps Asian) MNCs rather than local companies when they return home.
  • They can be closer to family members (e.g. aging parents) when working in their home country or at least in the same region or time zone as their home country.
  • They may actually be able to have a much higher standard of living in Asia than in the West. For example: Middle or upper middle class Asian households will tend to have live-in domestic helpers – something that would be unheard of in Western countries.

On the other hand, recruiting and hiring Asian returnees will have some pitfalls. A couple of pitfalls worth noting by Asian returnees and employers alike include:

  • Unrealistic Salary Expectations. Some Asians returnees returning home or to the region after studying abroad will have unrealistic salary expectations (just like many Western expatriates) or expect a compensation package that “justifies” and pays for the cost of their education abroad. In fact, this is a common problem for Vietnamese who study abroad and then must return home for visa reasons only to find that they are pricing themselves out of the local job market when they state their salary expectations.
  • Unwilling to Risk a Move. An Asian returnee who has spent considerable time in the West who is not being forced to return home and who has already started a family there may not want to return home unless they are assured of a package to guarantee them a certain standard of living that they and their families have become accustomed to and to justify the risks of returning home. Moreover, the social safety nets or social programs will tend to be much more comprehensive in Western countries than in many (especially emerging) Asian countries where saving for retirement and for medical care largely rests on the family’s shoulders.
  • Knowledge Gaps. In some fast growing Asian countries (like Vietnam), the market and the economy in recent years has tended to change extremely fast. This means that someone who has spent just two years studying abroad may return home to find things completely different with their lack of current market knowledge being a distinct disadvantage in some types of positions (e.g. sales jobs).
  • Reverse Culture Shock. Many Asian countries or cultures tend to be on the conservative side where children live at home with their parents until they can afford to marry and then set up their own households. Hence, younger and single Asian returnees who have experienced the freedom of being on their own studying or working abroad in exciting and much more liberal cities like Sydney, London or New York will inevitably experience reverse culture shock when they return home. In fact, it’s not uncommon for younger Asian returnees to long to or try to “go back out” again – even if it’s difficult to get a visa or work permit to allow them to do so.

However, these issues or pitfalls can easily be addressed and on the whole, there are far more benefits to hiring Asian returnees than those who have never lived, worked or studied abroad or to bring in Western expatriates with little to no experience living or working in Asia.

What Are the Benefits and Drawbacks of Hiring Western Expatriates?

While opportunities for Western expatriates and even old Asia hands in most parts of Asia has dwindled (see Asia’s Endangered Species: The Expat from the Wall Street Journal), there are still some places in the region where having a so-called “white face” in a key position will open more doors than they will close – especially if that “white face” is well attuned to the local culture, is well trusted locally and can speak the local language. Hence, the best old Asia hands or Western expatriates will tend to have the following characteristics:

  • Has spent significant time living, working and/or studying in the Asia region.
  • Can speak one or more Asian languages or the dialects of these languages.
  • Is married to a local spouse or has a local partner.
  • May have even been born in or grew up in Asia.

It’s also worth mentioning that many young and well educated Westerners have come to Asia and to China in particular to learn Chinese. In fact and somewhat ironically, these Chinese speaking Westerners command salaries and compensation packages that are often less than what older or not even bilingual expatriates will command.

On the other hand, there are drawbacks or pitfalls with hiring Western expatriates, even those who are old Asia hands. The major pitfalls will include:

  • Hidden Costs. Hiring a Western expatriate, even one commanding or willing to work on a “local salary,” comes with hidden costs (both monetary and non-monetary) for the employer and the employee. For example: A western expatriate who does not have a local spouse and who has children will need to send their children to expensive international schools. Moreover and while many Asian expatriates are willing to live separately from their families and their children when on an expatriate assignment (e.g. Singaporean expatriates with older children tend to prefer that their children remain in Singapore so as not to disrupt their education), this is usually not the case with Western expatriates and their families. In fact, family problems are one of the primary causes of failure for expatriates in expatriate assignments.
  • Unrealistic Compensation Expectations. Many Western expatriates remember a time when an expatriate position in Asia meant receiving a full-blown expatriate package complete with a house or an apartment in an upscale residential district, a full household staff, a car with a driver, schooling at an international school for any children, memberships at exclusive clubs, round-trip airfare for the whole family to make periodic trips “home” and similar benefits. Today, the reality is that Western expatriates are competing with local Asian expatriates (often from India or the Philippines) who have much more realistic compensation expectations and often have better experience or more know how when it comes to doing business in the region. Hence, any Western expatriate with unrealistic compensation expectations who are not willing to work or unable to work on “local terms” is effectively priced out of today’s job market in Asia.

In addition, there are special situations where the benefits or drawbacks of hiring Western expatriates or old Asia hands are unclear. Case in point: “Western” expatriates who are actually ethnically Asian (e.g. American-born Chinese or so-called “ABCs,” Overseas Koreans, Brazilians of Japanese descent, “British-Indians” etc.) but who were born in Western countries and whose families may have been settled in these countries for generations, may be perceived as being neither a “Westerner” nor “Asian enough” when they return to Asia (or to the specific country where their families originated) – even if they have already worked in the region. In fact and depending on the qualifications and the background of the individual along with the type of job and the location of that job, a Western expatriate who is an old Asia hand but not ethnically Asian may turn out to be a better match for the job.

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