Laowai Life: Shifting Landscapes of the Expat Job Market

Laowai Life is a new article series from Baopals where we tackle difficult topics that are important and relevant to foreigners living abroad in China.

It’s getting harder and harder to succeed as an expat in China these days. No longer is being foreign or even bilingual a significant advantage, nor is working in China as an expat as lucrative as some might think. We surveyed and interviewed some expats working in China and discovered that the prospects for the expat workforce are rapidly shifting. Here’s why.

Most expats used to work in China on comfortable expat packages from an international company. Yet the niche for expats to work in China is quickly shrinking as the local workforce becomes more and more qualified. Chris G., an Australian expat who has lived throughout China for nearly 10 years, tells us, “Management jobs, which during the country’s fast growth were given to foreigners, are now being given to locals. It could be due to the slowing economy having an impact on the profitability of businesses—by reducing the number of expats, companies can save huge money on salaries. But it could also be due to Chinese companies believing they don’t need foreign expertise to manage effectively.”

Ashley*, an American expat who has been in Shanghai for 5 years, agrees: “The domestic workforce is getting more competitive and many of them are studying abroad and bringing skills from the West back to China. Also, as more middle class Chinese are entering the market, companies need more marketing staff that are tuned into the local culture, needs, and language, which puts expats at a disadvantage.”

Traditionally assigned expats are gradually being replaced by so-called “flexpats”—foreign employees who are hired by local Chinese companies without expat perks. “If we want to compete and work [in China], we no longer necessarily have the cachet we used to and should accept lower salaries than we have in the past,” says Ashley.

One upside of being a “flexpat” is that it doesn’t require as much work experience or higher education as a traditional expat would. According to our survey of a group of expats, 75% of respondents had a bachelor’s degree or less, as compared to 25% with a master’s degree, and none with doctoral degrees. Hence the word “flex”—to succeed in a fast-developing China, it is more important to be flexible, rather than experienced. Chris is an example of a flexpat whose decision to come to China wasn’t about his career. “I decided to come to China to learn Chinese out of pure interest rather than economic benefit," he says." After being here for several years, opportunities for work organically presented themselves."

More and more expats are being drawn to China because there isn't as much of a language barrier anymore. “There will always be communication issues between English and Chinese, but with improvements in technology, it has never been easier for non-Chinese speaking expats to live in China,” says Tyler A., an American expat who has lived in China for 8 years without speaking Chinese. Ashley, meanwhile, disagrees about the importance of speaking Mandarin as an expat. "You’re going to struggle to find something meaningful unless you have a very specific/technical skill if you don’t speak Mandarin,” Ashley says.

Because learning English is so valued in today’s China, teaching it is one of the most common jobs for expats. Tyler, who has taught English in Shanghai for 8 years, says, “The students’ English level has definitely increased over the years, as has the quality and accessibility of English programs.” English teachers are more and more common in China now. Education was the most common field our survey respondents worked in, with 31% of our respondents working in that field. The next most common field was business and management, with 25% of our respondents. All other career fields had less than 20% of our respondents working in them.

Regardless, many of the expats that do have steady jobs in China still don’t plan on staying long into the future. Chris doesn’t see it as a feasible plan, despite having been here for almost a decade. "Several things may make staying in China more and more difficult: fewer jobs available to foreigners, the increasing cost of living in cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, the difficulties associated with raising a family here, the cost of decent education and healthcare and environmental concerns such as pollution levels."

For foreigners, staying in China is not just about finding a career—it is also about fitting in culturally. "As a foreigner, I will always be considered an outsider," Chris tells us. "Some may say we are considered ‘special’ when discussing benefits such as higher salaries, hardship stipends, or generally being hired into management positions. However, foreigners will always be 'not Chinese' and are often faced with cultural issues, such as having perfectly reasonable questions answered with 'you are not Chinese so will never understand'."

So why are more and more expats drawn to China despite the increasing difficulty of finding a job here as a foreigner? China is a key global player, but most expats are also attracted by the vibrant, fast-paced life that being here promises. “China is such a dynamic place to live and work,” says Ashley. “You feel like part of the startup scene just by living here.”

*name has been changed upon request