Foreigners who got jobs teaching English because they were quick and easy are now looking to move into their rightful fields. Photo: Li Hao/GT
When Ethan Scott, a 35-year-old Canadian, came to Beijing two years ago, he quickly found himself a job as an English teacher at a local English language training school. He felt it was a fast and easy way to make a living in China as a foreign newcomer.
"It took me about a week to find the job, and I could make nearly 20,000 yuan ($2,999) each month, which was enough for me to live pretty comfortably," he said.
As much as Scott enjoyed teaching in China, he had no intention of doing it for a long time.
He had worked in the financial industry in Canada for more than three years before he came to China.
As a financial professional, he hoped to locate himself in the Chinese financial sector and gradually gravitated toward jobs that could help him along his career path.
"I love living in China, and I plan to stay here for a long time," he said.
"I did not want to end up doing a job that I did mostly for financial reasons for the entire time. Instead, I wanted to do a job that was more related to my profession."
Similar to Scott, there are a good number of foreigners who start off teaching English when they arrive in China and would like or have finished a career transition from teaching English to jobs that are more in line with their career and educational background. However, visa and language issues make transitioning a formidable task for many of them.
Scott started thinking of picking up his old profession in Beijing more than half a year ago. He thought that one year would be enough to transition, but he thought wrong.
When he was a financial analyst in Canada, he devoted an enormous amount of time to studying for his chartered financial analyst (CFA) qualifications. He did not take the exam before he came to China, but he thought it would not be too hard for him to pick up where he left off.
However, before long, he noticed that things were more complicated than he expected.
After reading some foreigners' career transition stories in China on the Internet, he realized that it would probably take him closer to two years to finish his transition, and that is if all went well.
He explained that his primary weaknesses in the Chinese job market were that he was not fluent in Chinese and had no qualifications that were related to the financial industry in China.
"Even if I were lucky enough to pass the CFA exams within one year's time, it would be highly unlikely that I would acquire qualifications related to the Chinese market in such a short period," he said, adding that unfamiliarity with Chinese accounting standards also added to his difficulty.
"Moreover, I could not improve my Chinese so fast though I could speak the language," he said.
Scott decided to give himself more time to improve his Chinese and learn more about China's accounting standards.
He kept his job as an English language teacher to make sure he had money every month, but it took a toll on him. He was exhausted.
He worked from 10 am to 9 pm every work day and would study after he got home every night.
"After a busy day of work, I always feel very tired. I really wanted to sit on my sofa and relax with a drink in my hand, but I had to constantly remind myself to hit the books to be done with my career transition as quickly as possible," he said. Scott often did not close the books until 1 or 2 am.
The likelihood of a Chinese company offering him a work visa also worried him. He was unsure of his competitiveness in the market.
His major concern is that although he has the needed knowledge and experience in the field, there are many equally qualified Chinese peers who, compared with him, probably know more about the Chinese market.
"Why would a company choose me instead of a local professional?" he said. "I try so hard to make my way into the Chinese financial industry, but if I end up failing to be issued a work visa, then what is the point?"
Multitalented foreigners who can speak good Chinese may have an edge in the Chinese job market, says insider. Photo: Li Hao/GT
Land of opportunity
Chloe Harris is very interested in China and Chinese culture. So, she came straight to Beijing as soon as she graduated from university in the US last year.
She had some friends who worked in China, and they painted a picture of a land full of opportunities.
Drawn to the "vibrant Chinese market" and hoping for a bright future, Harris looked for a job in business management, her field of study. However, her experience was not what she had expected.
"The Chinese market increasingly favors locals and Chinese speakers," Harris said, explaining why she did not get a job in her field.
Not wanting to leave China as yet, she became an English language teacher at a small language training center after nearly two months of unsuccessful job hunting.
After around six months, she began to feel stuck.
"My major responsibilities were to either talk to students in English or help them with their English reading or writing, which could in no way move me closer to my goal as an expert in the field of business management in the Chinese market," she said.
Harris also realized that as a foreigner teaching English, she could be easily replaced because a lot of other foreigners also spoke and wrote good English.
Although eager to get herself out of the classroom, she was unsure of what to do to achieve her goal.
She spent a lot of time searching for jobs related to business management but did not find many opportunities open to foreigners.
She recalled reading on the Internet that some foreigners in China got jobs in e-commerce with the help of their Chinese friends.
"I would also like an opportunity [like that], but I do not know a lot of people here in China," she said.
"Maybe I need to work on my networking skills. Who knows, it may bring me more opportunities."
James Shaw from the UK was an English teacher at a training center in Beijing two years ago. He recently transitioned into finance.
He met his current boss when he was working at the training center. His academic background in both finance and engineering helped him land a job for a couple of days. That was the opportunity he needed; his boss was so impressed with his performance and expertise that he hired him full time.
"There might be a time when it was easy to move around in China, but now is definitely not that time," Shaw said.
He explained that with strict visa policies and a huge pool of well-qualified Chinese who know more about the local market and would do the job for a lower salary, the career options for foreigners are very limited.
"As a foreigner, you are only highly likely to win in the job market if you have skills [that are] in short supply," said Shaw.
He suggested that foreigners cultivate skills in more than one specialty to be more competitive in the Chinese market.
"The strengths of mastering multiple skills compensate for lingual and cultural weaknesses," he said.