Ted Dean spent 15 years in Beijing building up the consultancy BDA focused on investment into China’s most dynamic sectors and markets. Ted’s leadership extended into the international business community, as he spent two terms as Chairman of AmCham China and co-founded the nonprofit Americans Promoting Study Abroad to help deserving high school students come to China on scholarship.
Before leaving Beijing last year, Ted shared his insights about the value of Chinese language skills in the workforce, and how companies approach roles for foreign talent:
TED: The job market has changed a number of times since I arrived in 1997. I think one of the most basic ways to describe the change that the need for talent has grown and diversified.
There are more types of opportunities, more jobs that are open, more industries that are developing. There’s also a much broader spectrum of talents who are competing for those opportunities.
You have Chinese professionals who have developed skills locally in very sophisticated companies. They may also have training overseas, degrees overseas, a range of experiences that make their perspective more international.
On the foreign side, you have a much wider range of expats, a much more diverse group of people who started studying Chinese at a younger age, then came to China to study, to work and to develop experiences. And you have the sort of expats who parachute in who don’t know a whole lot about China, but are there for a couple of years.
I think those are very different types of talent and bring different things to the table. It’s a more competitive market for that growing spread of opportunities.
So as a foreign professional and a hiring manager, would you say the challenge now is more about differentiating the role of the expat employee from the role of the local hire?
Well, it’s still about – what does the individual bring to the table to match a specific skill set that a company needs, that would match a specific opportunity.
In any hiring decision there’s some compromise, so it’s not about finding somebody that’s a perfect match, but as a foreigner coming into that, you have to be more conscious that it’s not enough to just score well on English and being international and score poorly on things about China, because there’s more Chinese talents that will also bring international perspective and also speak English well and also be able to communicate internationally.
An expat has to bring other things to the table, and then also make sure they’re matching the skills they bring to opportunities in the right way. But there are certain roles where in most cases somebody who grew up locally is going to be a better fit, just like you can imagine a job at a company in Chicago where it would be a little odd to hire a transplant from another country who knew nothing about the local market – it wouldn’t make sense, but there are other jobs where the mix of skills would make a lot more sense.
You’ve spoken before about the idea of expat talent being built around instead of built in. You said that companies often don’t know that this demographic of people is out there and therefore they’re not really going to build them into their strategy even if they could add a lot of value.
Right. For most of the time that companies have been growing in China, the most plentiful two types of talent have either been the local talent that they’re filling most of their positions with – or somebody who brings a very specific, technical skill from headquarters and they bring that person over to fill a very specific need that they can’t meet otherwise.
It’s generally not been a pool of either Chinese who have spent time in headquarters or Americans who have the language skills and Chinese cultural sensitivities to work in China. They didn’t stop in their tracks and say, “Well, we don’t have this. Our business in China is going to grind to a halt.” They just found other ways to satisfy their business needs and I think there is value for companies today that have a wider range of people in some of those roles.
I think there’s a cost to over-localization, where it’s a negative to not have people early in their careers working in China so that you don’t end up with executives who have China experience early in their careers.
[Foreign companies] can maybe operate just fine today by cutting out mid- or junior-level expats. But then down the line you don’t have people who’ve worked their way up and early in their career had China experience, who go back to headquarters and bring something to the table, and when they’re on a conference call with Beijing from headquarters know what’s going on and have contacts from Beijing. You may have senior executives today who were in China 10 years ago but you’re not training the next round of people up who will be in that role 10 years later, and there’s a long-term cost to that.
What are some of the most important takeaways that young foreigners should be trying to get from early-career work experience in China?
One thing about the job market, the way the economy moves today and U.S.-China relations move today – let’s say you’re 23 and speak really good Chinese and you’re thinking about what to do next. Basically we have absolutely no idea what the job market will look like 20 years later, or when that person is a mid-career professional in their 40s.
So on the one level, we can sort of put up our hands and say, “We just don’t know where this is headed.” I think you make assumptions though that I think are pretty likely to ring true: U.S.-China is going to be important. The U.S. and China are going to be more closely connected in the future than they are today, and that there will be opportunities between the countries that we haven’t imagined today.
The way I look at it, there is a need for people who can bridge that gap even without knowing what the specific opportunities are going to be 10 years from now – whether it’s increasing opportunities for working for Chinese companies who have invested in the United States, or maybe education-related opportunities that we don’t even know to think of today just because of all the students that are moving back and forth in growing numbers.
There may be a value to having Chinese [language skills] that will actually be applied in a third country because the company has invested all over the world. But the basic assumption is that we’re getting more connected, there are opportunities we haven’t thought of and we need people with the skills to interact with this market and connect with people from China or wherever they can apply these skills in their career. I think it’s a pretty safe assumption.
A China career might not have that predictable of a trajectory, but I think there are opportunities and people need to make sure that they’ve got the skills, the work experience and the industry skills to bring to the table today as well to position themselves for whatever the world looks like in 10 or 20 years.
You’ve been Chairman of AmCham China, as you see it, what is the role of the American business community, if any, in helping this next generation of expats to enter that community and be successful?
It’s a good question. Most companies, unless they’re exclusively training companies, aren’t training companies. Like we were talking about earlier, companies will try to find a workaround if they don’t immediately find the talent they need to help them, even if it sounds brutal. There are some enabling organizations that may be able to help like AmCham which may see this as a long-term investment through the business community.
But for most companies, the person has to come in with the skills that create value today or it doesn’t make sense to the company. So I think that a couple of things that an individual can do to make sure they’re living up to that is putting in the time to build language skills, which really do matter for the purposes of business.
Then some skill-building experience can come through non-obvious opportunities, whether that’s working in a second tier city or working at a Chinese company or whatever it is. Not everybody is going to want to do this, but the people who want to will be in a position to take those skills and then go apply it at Coca-Cola or General Electric.
Get the language skills. Look for the places that will get you real China experience, and then it may be that then translates into a startup opportunity you wanted or a great door opens and you’re able to jump right in, or maybe what you really want to do is work in a big company.
Most of all, it’s important for people to realize that they’re ultimately the stewards to their own career and if they’ve chosen the China route, they are responsible for checking where this leads and where it takes them.
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