The ex-pat, no longer the Golden Child?
Eighteen months ago my husband and I embarked on an exciting journey to become ‘ex-pats’ in Hong Kong. We were newly married so moving overseas before children seemed a great opportunity to broaden our personal and professional horizons. Fortunately for us, my husband (who works in professional services) was offered a secondment with his company, providing us with the opportunity we sought. As a child, my perception of ex-pats was that they earned the big bucks, lived in gated communities in exotic locations and had live-in maids. In past years the ex-pat’s role was to bring experience and a Western mentality to the table. For this you received a significant ‘ex-pat package’ with the perks, club memberships and handsome relocation packages which were the norm in emerging markets.
In the past, places such as Hong Kong have faced a significant shortage of skilled local professionals. The difficulty in finding local professional talent was not due to a shortage of numbers, but more due to the suitability of local candidates to work in foreign companies. Schools and universities in Asia traditionally have a rote-learning method of teaching compared to their western neighbours, one which focuses more on theory than practical experience. This has led some companies to think that local graduates are unsuitable for certain roles as they sometimes lack critical thinking ability and experience of working in teams or on projects. Another hurdle is the culture where ‘saving- face’ is paramount and means subordinates are reluctant to challenge the status quo in the fear it would be frowned upon or undermine their superiors. Together these challenges created a skill gap which was further exacerbated as more and more European and American companies sought to establish a presence in Hong Kong to capitalise on the ever-growing Chinese market. Until recently, this skill shortage was most commonly bridged by foreign companies relocating proven talent from their head office to become ex-pats (colloquially referred to as a “Gweilo”). The newly relocated ex-pat would be the face of the business and bring problem solving skills to the company – an ability to do business in the Western way. And for this they were very well remunerated. However, times are changing and the ex-pat role is not what it once was. No longer the Golden Child… but why?
As world economies have slowed, China continues to grow during these turbulent times. Hong Kong is the gateway to China and often where western companies seek to base themselves in order to access China. As a result, an ability to build relationships with the Chinese and communicate in Mandarin has become key. The language barrier has always been present but never more so than now as more and more of the work in Hong Kong has a Chinese component, thus the ability to read and write Chinese, speak both Mandarin and Cantonese has become increasingly vital in many sectors. This presents a huge hurdle for the ex-pat. At VMA Group, approximately 60% of the roles we recruit for require Cantonese and Chinese language skills, ideally a grasp of the Chinese economy, regional Asian experience and an understanding of the culture that can often underpin business here. The fact is the modern ex-pat (in some fields more than others) does not fit the bill and is not as relevant as he/she once was. It is widely known that English is the official business language, however, unless you are bi- or tri-lingual, it is a much tougher challenge to compete in this job market. Moreover, the local skilled talent pool is growing at a rapid pace. This means the HK job market is becoming increasingly competitive as the quantity of skilled locals is on a steady rise. Many locals are studying overseas at American, British, Canadian and Australian universities; refining their English language skills and also gaining an understanding the ‘western style’ of business. Additionally, the ‘Admission Scheme for Mainland China Talents and Professionals’ was implemented by the HK government in 2003. The objective of this scheme is to attract qualified Mainland talent and professionals to work in Hong Kong in order to meet local manpower needs and enhance Hong Kong’s competitiveness in the globalised market. As at the end of 2011, 49,021 Mainland talents and professionals had been admitted under the scheme.
At VMA Group we are contacted by many potential ex-pats about working opportunities in Hong Kong. Asia is certainly appealing for employment: rapid economic growth, low taxes and a culturally rich landscape offering personal and professional opportunity. So why would an organisation still employ an ex-pat for a role a local candidate could do competently? By no means will the ex-pat become extinct in Hong Kong or the rest of Asia; however, the reliance on them and their relevance within a vastly changing market have diminished. The job market has become much more competitive and it is harder for an ex-pat to get the same cut-through that they once had. No longer are ex-pats competing purely with other like-minded and skilled ex-pats; there is a strong contingent of local skilled workers who are suddenly on a par with them. Encouragingly, there is still a role for the ex-pat and opportunities do certainly exist. However, it takes a different attitude and approach to what it means to be an ‘ex-pat’. This starts with a realistic outlook, respect for the local culture and changing market and a good dose of patience and flexibility. The majority of the VMA Group team in HK are ex-pats so we are living proof there are employment opportunities out there, but it’s not without some challenges at the outset!
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