Expats face shrinking job market

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When expectations are high, disappointment can be deep. This is true for both employers and job seekers in China's expatriate employment market.

A recent job fair for expatriates held by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs (SAFEA) revealed a growing discrepancy between the two parties, as China becomes a sought after market for international talents.

The job fair, an annual event organized by SAFEA every April in Beijing since 2005, attracted about the same size crowd as it did last year - about 70 employers and 1,200 expatriate job seekers, said Li Hai, project manager of the Information Research Center of International Talent at SAFEA.

Nearly half of the jobs offered were teaching positions in universities or English schools. Other positions included those in sales, marketing, copywriting, hospitality, IT and human resources, Li said.

Compared with last year, there has been a decrease in the number of positions and variety, besides English teaching.

Liu Linna, an official from the Human Resources Department at Beijing-based Tsinghua University, one of China's leading universities and research institutes, said they received about the same number of applicants for positions, mostly equivalent to that of professors.

While the global downturn last year turned up a bumper crop of qualified applicants, this year there have been fewer.

"We haven't found anyone suitable so far," Liu said. "That's quite a different story to last year when within a few hours, we had found so many qualified candidates."

For job seekers, finding a match doesn't seem easier.

Alex Hatheway, a history major from the United States who has been learning Chinese over the past three years, thought he could land a job besides being an English teacher.

However, long gone is the day when Mandarin skills were enough to land a foreigner a job at a China-based company, who would then provide professional training. With strong competition from a growing number of Chinese with excellent English skills, especially recent overseas returnees, viable candidates now need both before applying.

Nita Chryssanti Indratjaja, a new college graduate with a bachelor's degree in business administration under her belt and a Philippine-Chinese who speaks Chinese and understands Chinese culture, showed interest in a position offered by the Shougang Group, a Beijing-based steel company, but the requirement of "at least eight years' working experience" kept her from even asking.

Colin Friedman, managing director at China Expert International, said the job market for foreigners is shrinking in China.

"It is becoming harder for international people to find suitable jobs in China, because there are more Chinese people with excellent English skills," he said.

The large pool of highly qualified international talents available at a relatively lower price last year has also driven up Chinese employers' expectations, Friedman said.

"I plan on going to graduate school if I cannot find anything good for the next year," Hatheway said.

According to the latest report from the National Bureau of Statistics, around 217,000 foreigners held work permits in China at the end of 2008, an increase of 7,000 on the previous year.

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