Come East, Young Man, but Buy Your Own Ticket

Victims of the Global Recession Can Find Opportunities in China, If They Handle the Job Search Correctly

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David Wolf
David Wolf
It is no secret that the economy-class sections of trans-Eurasian and trans-Pacific flights are increasingly filled with refugees from the global financial crisis, people intent on finding new lives and careers in the Wild East.

As a result, it seems like every week or so I get an e-mail and a resume from someone who is interested in finding work in China, and who wants to know what advice I might have for them in this quest.

But what I have discovered is that few of the people who contact me are willing to come to China to conduct their search. They would rather stay in the U.S. or Europe and wait for the offer before packing a suitcase.

I once thought that way, and it was the biggest mistake of my career.

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.

Of course, the smart thing to do would have been to get my posterior on a plane and come out to China on my own -- 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.

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 15 years 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 qualified 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 means is that if a company has to decide between two candidates, one in the U.S. and one close by, the one already in the region gets picked, even if he or she is slightly less qualified than the U.S. candidate.

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 two to four years here, then decide "You know, I want to go back to the U.S. and go to graduate school," or "Asia is just not for me," or "I'm afraid of being pigeonholed as a China or Asia person, and the effect that might have on my career."

While understandable (except for the pigeonhole case), such issues are frustrating for companies that 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 three 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 and a few nights in a hotel is money well-invested.

Here's one example of many. A young lady I know was finishing up at the University of Washington a few years ago, and had been working as a waitress and a trainer at a national casual dining chain. About a month before her two-week annual vacation, she sent out a bunch of resumes to companies here in China, following up by phone and e-mail to line up meetings. By the time she arrived in China for her "vacation," she had a full schedule of interviews. We didn't quite hire her on the spot, but close. She came back, did an internship for three months, and we hired her. She was promoted within 18 months, and today she is a rising executive in China with a global advertising agency.

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.

And make no mistake, there are jobs to be had: I get a call or e-mail every 10 days or so from a friend or acquaintance who is looking to hire people like this. They just lack the budget and patience to hire someone from 6,000 miles away.

One last word: before you make your reservations, you need to understand -- and be able to articulate -- the value you will offer to your perspective employers in a country filled with people who would gladly take the same job for about half of what you would. Their need for global talent in China rises to match China's importance to the world of business and its own global ambitions. But if you haven't got lots to offer that cannot be had for less money, do not even bother getting on the plane.

David Wolf manages Wolf Group Asia, a Beijing-based management advisory firm that specializes in technology, media, telecommunications, and entertainment.

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