“Now, even an understanding of the local context and issues does not seem to be enough. Practically everyone wants Mandarin.”
Lamia Mahjoub, left, who is from Paris, was hired as a business development manager at an art leasing company in Hong Kong after a long job search. Above, Ms. Mahjoub and a colleague in the Lan Kwai Fong area of Hong Kong.
HONG KONG — Julia Przetakiewicz has an enviable résumé: She has a master’s degree from a prestigious British university, has more than a decade of work experience, has lived in five countries and speaks four languages.
Unfortunately, her Mandarin is limited — and because of that, she has struggled to find a new job in Hong Kong, a city that once welcomed her with open arms.
Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore — trading and financial hubs within one of the fastest-growing regions of the world — have long attracted Europeans and Americans in search of adventure and jobs. Their modern infrastructures, good education and health systems, and a general openness to English-speaking workers have long made them special favorites with expatriates.
The global financial crisis only intensified that magnetism as Westerners, disenchanted with the turmoil in their home countries and lured by rapid economic growth, moved east in ever greater numbers.
Ten, or even five, years ago, experienced expatriates who were prepared to take the plunge stood a pretty good chance of finding a white-collar job in Hong Kong, Singapore or even Shanghai. But many are now finding it much tougher to find work, thanks to cost pressures, a larger pool of qualified local hires and a shift in the role that Asia plays within the global economy.
“When I came to Hong Kong in 2009, it still seemed pretty easy,” said Ms. Przetakiewicz, who at the time found a role as a manager for a business leaders forum that promotes corporate social responsibility. “Now, even an understanding of the local context and issues does not seem to be enough. Practically everyone wants Mandarin.”
Early this year, she decided to look for a new job. But after several job interviews, Ms. Przetakiewicz, who holds Polish and Canadian citizenship, recently decided to leave Hong Kong and take her skills elsewhere.
Ms. Przetakiewicz is not alone in finding that despite low unemployment and solid hiring across many sectors, the job market in Asia is gradually becoming less welcoming for Westerners.
Even before the global financial crisis, newcomers to Asia could not expect to walk into a job in the region unless they had particularly sought-after skills.
About 60 percent of job specs processed by the recruitment firm Hudson in Singapore, for example, now require Mandarin, said Andrew Tomich, the company’s executive general manager in Singapore. Five years ago, he said, the percentage was half that.
“Even in the last 12 months, there’s been a steady increase in Singapore for Mandarin-speaking candidates,” he said. “We can feel it with every breath we take.”
In Hong Kong, which is a stepping stone to mainland China, the percentage of jobs requiring Mandarin or Cantonese has climbed to more than 80 percent, according to Aruna Alimchandani, director of the commerce and industrial unit at Hudson in Hong Kong. That is up from about 70 percent just a few years ago.
In mainland China in the 12 months through October 2012, expatriates ended up in just 5 percent of the jobs filled by Hays, a recruitment agency that specializes in white-collar jobs. One year earlier, the number was 11 percent, said Christine Wright, who heads Hays’s operations in Asia.
It is not that companies do not want to add employees. A recent survey by Hudsonshowed that the vast majority of companies in mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore planned to increase their numbers of employees or keep staffing levels steady this quarter. Many, in fact, have to work hard to attract and retain workers.
But, job market experts say, employers are more eager than ever to ensure that the employees they do hire match their expectations.
On the cost front, that means avoiding the extra expenses that can come with hiring foreigners — relocation costs, for example, or school fees for children. Many have also become more eager to fill positions with people who are unlikely to leave again soon.
“Companies want people who commit to the region long-term — who don’t just come on a two-year contract,” said Ms. Wright of Hays.
Moreover, she said, the pool of locals who have the necessary training and experience for jobs that were once dominated by expatriates has grown, so there is less need for employers to look outside.
“Lots of young Asians who went abroad to work or study are now coming back. They are eager, multilingual and have overseas experience and education — they fit many employers’ bills perfectly,” she said.
At the same time, the transformation of Asia’s developing economies means companies need different employees than they once did. (The change is less perceptible in highly developed Japan, whose mature and slow-growing economy has already undergone many of the shifts that are now happening elsewhere in Asia.)
Over the past two decades, much of developing Asia has evolved from a blue-collar manufacturing base into a destination for consumer goods like cars and industrial equipment. That shift has created a greater need to interact directly with local customers, suppliers and business partners.
Over that same time period, Asia’s trade has become more intra-regional, often involving China, rather than the West.
Those shifts have inflated demand for employees with local language skills and cultural backgrounds, headhunters and business executives explain.
A decade ago, Ms. Wright said, it was possible, and fairly common, for international companies to deploy foreigners to Asia-based jobs, giving them translators to help out with the communications on the ground. That arrangement, she said, is now less feasible.
Finally, Asia’s growing importance within the global economy has changed the way multinationals organize themselves across the region. Whereas many firms had run the region as a single management unit — often from Hong Kong and Singapore — companies are increasingly starting to break up their Asia-Pacific management units into smaller, more manageable blocks, the Economist Corporate Network wrote in a recent report.
For many companies, China “has reached a critical mass where it needs an independent management team that is separate from managing the rest of Asia,” the report said.
This structural evolution has affected hiring, by increasing the number of positions focused on smaller parts of Asia, or single countries, making an understanding of local cultures and languages more important.
The exact hiring requirements, of course, vary by sector and job. Similarly, not all positions and employers require language skills or years of Asia background.
Still, Mr. Tomich of the Hudson office in Singapore, said the shift in recruitment requirements could be felt “right through the role types.”
Nowadays, he said, an engineer based in Singapore might, for example, have to be able to deal directly with suppliers in China — something that would not have been the case 10 years ago.
“Pretty much all the jobs I see advertised say ‘Mandarin required,’ sometimes Cantonese, too,” said one Frenchman who moved to Hong Kong last October after being laid off from his position as a trader at a French bank in Paris.
His wife, who works in the luxury retail sector, has had similar experiences: Many job applications, several interviews, but — because she lacks the Mandarin that is needed to interact with Chinese shoppers — no job offer so far.
“We came here because we thought the market would be easier here than in Europe,” said the Frenchman, who declined to be identified because, like many foreigners, he is in Hong Kong on a tourist visa that does not officially allow him to look for a job in the city. “There are jobs around; it’s just that they all want Chinese,” he said.
Still, said Ms. Alimchandani of Hudson in Hong Kong, “it’s not all doom and gloom. There are jobs to be had — it’s just that you might have to be flexible with the industry and position, and on the income front.”
Lamia Mahjoub, a 28-year-old former personnel officer from Paris, found herself in precisely that position. A lengthy job search finally paid off for her in April, when she began working as a business development manager at an art leasing company in Hong Kong.
“It’s been a difficult job hunt,” Ms. Mahjoub said, “but in the end I got lucky.”