When I first traveled to China over a decade ago I knew that a career focused on Chinese business was my ideal path. After I graduated college, I was fortunate to receive a Fulbright Fellowship that took me to Taiwan followed by a top Mandarin training program at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Over the years, conversations with friends and family shifted from “Why would you study Chinese?” to “Wow, you speak Chinese, you’ll get any job you want.” Unfortunately, like many recent graduates who study the language I faced a rude awakening when I found that companies didn’t care about how well I spoke Chinese when I entered the job market. They wanted employees with marketable skills like engineering, software design, and sales – if a candidate possessed these skills AND spoke Chinese, then they had some great opportunities.
I spent the next few years acquiring these practical skills. I started by working with local Chinese internet entrepreneurs to help them understand best practices developed by their peers in Silicon Valley. Then, I took a job at a management consulting firm as an intermediary between a team of European consultants and a local team of Chinese managers working for government-owned companies. I eventually made my way down to Singapore where I helped establish the Asia Pacific headquarters of my current firm Frontier Strategy Group, where I shifted focus to work with American executives seeking to enter various markets in Asia. Ultimately, starting my career in Asia was the right decision, but if I were in the job market today I would advise young job seekers to take a different path.
The market for Chinese-speaking Americans in China has become extremely competitive. There is a tremendous push for students to learn Chinese from organizations such as the 100K Strong Foundation. The natural outcome of these programs is an increased number of entry-level Chinese speakers who are all looking for the same types of job opportunities. And don’t forget about the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who graduate from top-tier international academic institutions each year. These individuals not only speak English, but they also have a better understanding of Chinese culture than any China expert ever could.
This does not mean American college graduates should give up on their dreams of pursuing a China-focused career. When China Goes West – specifically when Chinese firms enter the United States and other advanced economies there will be many opportunities for American graduates to work for a Chinese company and never even have to leave their home country. In fact, a growing number of Chinese companies are already operating in the U.S. today.
Tencent, Haier, Goldwind, Sany, Wanxiang – these are companies that you may never have heard of operating in various states across the country. Chinese firms from diverse industries from energy to consumer electronics to entertainment are all setting up shop in the US. One of their key motivations for doing so is to gain access to top global talent – employees who understand the Chinese side, but also have a deep understanding of how to do business in the US. At the macro level, Chinese investment in the US has increased dramatically in recent years doubling from 2012 to 2013 to reach $14 billion last year. At the micro level, young Americans are already working for these firms in the US. Take the story of my friend James who studied with me in Beijing. After returning to the US James took a job in the internet industry to build a set of practical business development and marketing skills. A few years later, he went to work for one of China’s largest internet companies that opened a new American subsidiary in Silicon Valley.
We are at the early stage of the phenomenon of Chinese companies expanding into the US. As a result, there are and will be tremendous employment opportunities for ambitious, internationally minded Americans who can bring a marketable skill to the table. Don’t let the countless hours you spent writing Chinese characters until your hand cramps up go to waste. The opportunity to apply a China-focused skillset in the US will be great for your career. In order to do so, you’ll need to understand what areas Chinese firms need the most.
Reading my book China Goes West: Everything You Need to Know About Chinese Companies Going Global (available on Amazon today) will help you do just that.