Chinese students who study abroad and return to China are called returnees in English, but haigui, or sea turtles in Mandarin. Why? Because turtles travel overseas to distant lands every year to lay eggs—and they always return home!
The latest reports show that over 409,100 overseas Chinese students returned after graduating university in 2015, a 17% increase from 2013. The Ministry of Human Resources has admitted that it has become increasingly difficult for returnees to find employment in China due to the sheer number of them. In fact, the total number of haigui currently living in China is now 2.21 million. To address the unemployment issue of returnees (and prove China still welcomes them), the government has had a multi-ministerial meeting system in place since 2003, and has continuously improved public services and launched employment projects, such as the Thousand Talents recruitment program.
Other than high competition due to the large number of returnees in China, what are some of the other reasons Chinese haigui struggle to fill the gap between graduation and full time employment?
The Chinese recruitment period begins in the late autumn, with its first peak starting after the October holidays. Interviews are held from October to December, and decisions are often made before Chinese New Year for contracts to be signed just before, or right after, the holidays.
Overseas students tend to follow the schedule of either the country they’re at, or the university’s calendar. Masters students would often graduate after the Christmas holidays, at which point they might think they have an advantage over any Spring/Summer grads in the job search, but in reality they have already missed the boat. Even if grads were to begin their job search earlier, it is unlikely for them to land a position without an in-person interview, scheduled on short notice, and in line with the company’s schedule—as anyone who has ever job hunted in China can tell you.
Studying overseas is a lot more expensive than studying in China, with higher tuition costs, living costs, and flight tickets. Any student who’s made a significant investment in their education will expect to earn back their investment through a high paying position at, for example, a foreign or multinational company. Thus, the competition for such positions is fierce among applicants, pushing down the starting compensation rates.
In addition, returnees often come from affluent backgrounds and expect to maintain a certain standard of living, which requires a certain living wage, which may be more in line with what they are accustomed to in the country they were studying at. China’s average salary is still relatively low, with the highest being in Beijing at about RMB 6,000-7,000 a month (roughly USD 1,000).
Lacking work experience
Over 60% of returnees complete a graduate program abroad before returning, and about 6% obtain a doctorate degree—but how many of them took a gap year? How many returnees were employed full time while studying (they usually can’t because of visa limitations)? How many returnees worked between degrees? How many returnees have internships outside of their university program requirement?
Compared to foreign applicants, returnees have distinct advantages in culture and language, but if leveraged by a seasoned foreign applicant who’s studied and lived in China and has obtained HSK 4 certification or higher, then the returnee will pale in work experience comparison.
Resultant of these challenges, returnees will often face an employment gap, basically a period of time when they’re unemployed and seeking work, after graduation. Let’s try calculating how long that gap could be:
That’s almost as long as a gap year! Essentially, unless your family or network is of assistance, returnees are faced with a gap year upon return to China. Now that we’ve outlined the dismal situation for haigui returning without a plan or an offer (only 5% of returnees have employment prior to graduation), let’s review possible solutions:
Start your job search earlier
To combat timing issues, returnees should begin their China job search earlier, prior to graduation. Interviews can be conducted via Skype or other video conferencing, but if you have a number of interviews in a certain city, making a trip to that city during a Western holiday (e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas) might be worthwhile.
Set reasonable expectations
Let’s face it, if you graduated from an ivy league with excellent results, you could find a position in a foreign company outside of China—no problem! However, if you’re packing your bags and returning home, then perhaps your job prospects in the country you were studying at weren’t the best. China is no longer what it was, and you can’t expect to be a “big fish in a small pool” anymore, and a foreign degree isn’t enough to set you apart. Stay humble and judge an offer based on suitability and future opportunities rather than the bottom line annual salary or bonuses.
Complete an internship
Whether you’ll take on an internship prior to returning to China or intern during your job hunt—the experience will be worth it! Filling the time gaps in your resume with an internship proves to potential employers that you are not entitled, but ambitious and hard-working! Nowadays, even domestic companies do not hire purely based on certifications and background, but place more value on your individual ability and personal virtues. An internship signals to employers you are trainable, have existing practical skills, and are not limited to academics.
Finding a job in China doesn’t have to be a struggle if you prepare well ahead of time follow our advice!
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