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China, still a land of opportunity for expats

 Many expats will not have any problems finding work despite the gloom and doom of the forecasted global recession. In fact, if your expertise lies in the pharmaceutical industry or in the field of research and development, you can write your own check. The same can be said for high-tech specialists and engineers.

    While many firms around the world are laying off staff, or about to, recruitment experts say Chinese firms are actually hiring more expats.

    Olly Riches, China manager for Michael Page, an international recruitment agency that hires mostly executive level positions for global companies, says despite difficult times, his company is still seeing a steady number of jobs come through.

    With the exception of harder-hit areas, particularly property and the real estate sectors closely related to the banks, he says companies are still hiring, especially multinationals with Western headquarters.

    Companies have to adapt their hiring strategies in response to the current market situation, he says.

    "The majority of clients are not telling us of a 'recruitment freeze', but they are being more cautious and selective about the candidates they hire because no one can predict what is going on in the world," he says.

    Riches also says companies are dropping "dead wood" as they see fit in order to keep a lid on the company headcount.

    In good economic times, companies would be keen to refill these vacancies, but now, with tighter budgets, "they aren't really interested in replacing them".

    Kelly Qian, executive partner of The Jace-Kelly, a local headhunting firm that primarily recruits executive positions for multinational companies in China, says she is seeing similar hiring behavior.

    "At this time, most of our clients are still hiring, but they are slowing down the process," Qian says, also noting those with low job performance have an increased risk of being laid off.


    So, while the Chinese job market is hardly immune to mounting market pressure these days, expatriates in China are still better off here than returning home, says Jill Malila, Asia market development leader for Mercer China, a global provider of consulting, outsourcing and investment services.

    "Job opportunities on this side of the world are greater than in North America or Europe, so expatriates will have greater opportunities here than in their home country," she says.

    "Most companies still plan to increase or expand the number of expatriates in China [because] there still exists a shortage or imbalance in the demand and supply of key talent," she says.

    "There is an interesting dimension in China, where more companies are bringing expatriates in at the professional level rather than management or senior levels, but for shorter periods of time."

    The professional expatriate is increasingly brought over to accelerate the skills of local staff through knowledge transfer, particularly for companies in the pharmaceutical, research and development, high-tech and engineering industries.

    Malila says the professional expatriate is gaining popularity as multinationals continue to localize costs structures at their China offices.

    But localization coupled with a bad economy means more expatriates have to adjust expectations, according to industry insiders.

    About 50 percent of the C-level hires made by The Jace-Kelly are expatriates, and these days, many are accepting a more localized compensation scheme, Qian says.

    "They are being put on a local plus package. If you are a local plus, the company will probably help you bear some of your tax, or consider giving you some housing allowance," she says.

    "Whereas for real expatriate hiring, they normally help you equalize tax to your hometown, give you housing and take care of your kids' education, and most of the time the whole family will be entitled to international benefits."

    At Michael Page, expatriates are more inclined to accept less, Riches says.

    "People are being less demanding about fringe benefits and salary within reason," he says. "Because expats know about localization and what's going on elsewhere in the world, they are being more flexible."

    And while people are less likely to switch jobs at the moment, expatriates nowadays are more open about considering a bilateral move, in terms of compensation, if they see more long-term potential, says Qian.

    "In a good market, some candidates will probably ask for a good 40 to 50 percent increment, but now they are more reasonable," she says.

    "If the candidate leaves their current company, their major motivation won't be the package increment.

    "Given the whole economy has been quite down at the moment, even if they are willing to stay with their current company, they know it is still possible their current company may want to, or have to reduce some of their current benefits, so the only thing they can compare is which job is more interesting," she says.

    It appears that expatriates in China are recognizing the value of being here at this time, even if it means forgoing the perks they may be used to.

    "Certainly, we have an emerging trend in the number of locally hired foreigners," Malila says.

    "That suggests more individuals are willing to be hired under local terms in order to stay in the China market."

    One American expatriate working for a US financial services company in Shanghai says the credit crisis has jeopardized the long-term security of his job.

    Still, he thinks he's much better off in China than on Wall Street.

    "I think there are still jobs out there for people with advanced degrees and people who are bilingual," the English and Mandarin speaker says.

    "But, if I cannot find jobs that I like, I would consider starting my own business. Returning to America is not yet an option I have considered."

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