If You’re Going To Go East, Young Man, Don’t Wait for Someone to Buy Your Ticket

Hutong Bound
2011 hrs.

It seems like every week or so I get an e-mail from a young person who is interested in finding work in China, and sends me a resume asking for my help. Nearly all of them are well-mannered, articulate, and well-informed about the region. I’m always happy to help.

But what I have discovered is that a large percentage of the class of 2005/2006 are not willing to actually come out here to seek their fortune. They would rather wait for the offer. I once thought that way, and it was the biggest mistake of my career. I’ve discovered since that the right thing to do would have been to get my ass on a plane and come out here – it would have saved me at least two years of scraping by, living in the guest room of a friend’s house, and working in jobs with limited prospects.

I want to help others avoid that, so this is the advice I gave today to one recent correspondent:

Not sure if I ever told you this, but between 1993 and 1995 I spent nearly two years trying to find a job in China from my home in California. I sent out 500 resumes, shook the guanxi tree, even published a quarterly China business newsletter. When I finally got a bite (from a newsletter subscriber), it was enough to get me over to China, but not the ideal job. Once here, however, I’ve never been unemployed for more than 60 days.

The primary reason for this is that most hiring decisions for China and Asia positions – even for multinational companies (PR, advertising, and others) – are made on the ground here in the region. If anything, this is more the case now than it was a decade ago, as most firms have so expanded their operations in the region that the Asia HR function is managed separately.

Because there are a decent number of applicants in the region, companies will only pay your airfare and expenses to come out for interviews under exceptional circumstances. Doing so is an expensive, high-risk proposition, and most companies choose not to take it. What this tends to mean is that if a company has to decide between two candidates, one in the US and one close by, the one already in the region gets picked, even if the one here is slightly less qualified.

On the other hand, executives and HR directors give high regard to someone who has come to Asia under his own steam. They tend to think that it demonstrates a commitment to the region and a high degree of personal initiative. The importance of initiative should be pretty self-evident. The importance of commitment cannot be understated. I can’t tell you the number of young people who get hired, come out to Asia, spend 24 years here, then decide “you know, I want to go back to the US and go to graduate school,” or “Asia is just not for me,” or “I’m afraid of being pigeon-holed as a China or Asia person, and the effect that might have on my career.” While understandable (except for the pigeon-hole case), such issues are frustrating for companies who invest heavily into the training and development of a young executive, only to see that individual pack it in and head back to the U.S. at just about the time they are starting to deliver a return on this investment. Commitment, therefore, is increasingly critical.

Trust me, I understand how difficult it can be to leave behind a secure home and 3 squares a day to do something like this. But even if you just manage to line up a couple of weeks of meetings and interviews, the price of a round-trip ticket on Air China or Northwest and a few nights hotel is well-invested. One young lady I now was finishing up at the University of Washington two years ago, and had been working as a waitress and a trainer at a national casual dining chain. She got a couple of weeks off of her job during the vacation, about a month before which she sent out a bunch of resumes, following up to line up meetings. By the time she got here, she had a full card of interviews. We didn’t quite hire her on the spot, but close. She came back, did an internship for 3 months, and we hired her. She was promoted within 18 months, and now heads the research department at B-M China.

Again, my goal is not to lecture, but to help set your expectations and to provide you with how I think you might best go about landing a job here. You may well be successful getting hired from where you sit, but I can say that the percentage of young, non-Chinese entry-level managers who get hired from the U.S. is small compared to those who are hired from here.

I’m not sure how he’ll take that, but I’m hopeful. Because I get a call or email every ten days or so from a friend or acquaintance who is looking to hire people like this.


About David Wolf

An adviser to corporations and organizations on strategy, communications, and public affairs, David Wolf has been working and living in Beijing since 1995, and now divides his time between China and California. He also serves as a policy and industry analyst focused on innovative and creative industries, a futurist, and an amateur historian.
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