Jean-Michel Wu
Feb 22, 2011

Helpful hints for coming to work in China

Jean-Michel Wu, regional talent director for WPP Asia, based in Shanghai, offers tips on navigating the often bumpy road into employment in China.

Jean-Michel is the regional talent director for WPP Asia, based in Shanghai.
Jean-Michel is the regional talent director for WPP Asia, based in Shanghai.

As China’s economy continues to grow (the Economist Intelligence Unit forecasts China’s economy will overtake the USA’s by 2025), foreign talent continues to be in demand and as clients move their regional base of operations to the mainland, additional roles will start appearing at the mid levels.

New hires to China broadly come in two forms with a generous mix, including the foreign professional who is hired directly from overseas with a depth of experience and skills, and the local expat, who is here for adventure, experience and opportunity, the trailing spouse or perhaps someone looking for that someone special.

For the adventurer seriously considering it, here are a few helpful hints for that bumpy landing to China.

Bright sparks know that there’s nothing better than gleaning overseas experience to kick-start a global career. However, expectations – in the amount and type of work and compensation – really need to be assessed.

It’s gruelling work to succeed here. It’s important to know that clients can be demanding in different and unique ways, and in charge. It’s hard work, and then some more. This may sound overly harsh, but I think it’s better to be upfront. The payoff is working in an amazing environment, buzzing with excitement and optimism.

Agency turnover can be double the rate back in the West, and as a consequence you’re going to spend more time hiring, interviewing, training and sadly, losing staff to the competition. It’s going to take up at least twice as much time to deal with ‘talent issues’, and unless you have a passion for it, will take up even more. 

In the past, there was a huge gap between local and expatriate salaries. However, the domestic market now boasts some equally compensated talented staff and if you don’t have specific skills, industry experience and a desire to learn the language, the odds on you getting the expatriate role, with all the benefits, are seriously stacked against you. It’s not all bad news. If you have a speciality that is in hot demand, such as in the digital space, social marketing or retail marketing, with some hard work you will swiftly start to make inroads and your worth will rise substantially.

You don’t need to find the ideal role when you first come to China, and you’ll only start to find your feet after the first year. Don’t rule out applying to smaller, independent or local agencies which service international clients and sometimes need the expertise of an expat. ‘Guanxi’, or connections, are very important and it takes time to foster them with the key decision makers.  

Willingness to travel to China and interview is vital, not a ‘nice to have’. No respectable agency is going to hire someone over a Skype call, so prepare to come for at least a week and stack up as many appointments as possible. Unless you’re looking for a very senior position, don’t expect the agencies to pay for your flight and accommodation.

Interviewing, whether in China or elsewhere, is an art and science. There is nothing worse than turning up at an interview with nothing to say, so please come with a plan of action. If possible, ask more about an available position prior to the interview, research on the company, ask friends about the agency, and come prepared with questions. Your references becomes even more important if you’re coming from outside Asia. Make it easier for the key decision makers to contact them, provide numbers and suitable times to call.

Lastly, and even before you make the big step, consider networking with friends and connections who are in similar roles in China. Ask them about their day-to-day commitments and the challenges they face now that they once never considered. 

This article was originally published on

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