How 'sea turtles' turned out to be 'seaweeds'?
Foreign-educated Chinese, referred to as sea turtles, today find they are not as much sought after in their country as they were some years ago. Raymond Zhou tries to find out why; and how they could integrate better with the booming economy.
How does a sea turtle turn into seaweed?
The answer: when supply exceeds demand.
This is not a test question in marine biology but a snapshot of one specific segment of the human resources market in China -- those who have returned from overseas with advanced education.
In Chinese, they are called "hai gui'' which means "returnees from overseas". But the acronym sounds exactly like "sea turtles" and the humorous idiom has caught on.
In the job market, there is a term for those who are unsuccessfully searching for employment. It's called "dai ye qing nian"," or "job-waiting youth". When someone who has come back from a foreign country, diploma in hand, fails to land a job on the home turf, he or she becomes a "job-waiting returnee", or "hai dai" for short. This term, unlike "hai gui", has not become standard usage yet, but as a homonym of "seaweed", it elicits even more hilarity.
Change in value
The change in value of these returnees is illustrated in a story widely publicized in the media late last year. A software firm in Zhongguancun, Beijing's equivalent of Silicon Valley, had an opening. When the applicants were whittled down to the final three, they had one thing in common: they all held master's degrees from overseas. But the position paid only 2,500 yuan (US$300) a month, not a princely sum for the high-tech profession.
Joining China's millions-strong army of new college graduates each year is a small but conspicuous contingent: Their foreign-educated cousins whose services were once eagerly sought in their homeland and who commanded premium salaries. True, they were ridiculed as speaking a hybrid of Chinese and English, wearing clothes often out of fashion and holding their purse-strings tight. They enjoyed enviable social status nonetheless.
How times have changed. "If you shout 'I'm a sea turtle' on a Zhongguancun street, the lack of response or even animosity that will be hurled your way will be overwhelming. You'll be seen as a fool for holding fast to an outdated concept,'' goes a popular story.
Riding on waves
Statistics show that the number of Chinese who went abroad for education in the reform and opening-up era add up to about 600,000. Of these, about 160,000 have returned to the homeland. And the pace of home-bound journeys are gathering speed. Last year, the number of returnees grew at an annual 13 per cent.
People call it "sea turtles riding waves ashore". The splashiest wave occurred in the Internet boom years when returnees created or assumed executive responsibilities at startup companies. As a matter of fact, many overseas investors insisted on hiring those whose resumes included overseas schooling and job experiences.
And they were paid handsomely as well, often in the hundreds of thousands in annual salaries.
The "depreciation" of "sea turtles" has been caused by a combination of factors: the rise in the number of returnees as the home-based economy becomes a growing magnet, the lacklustre performance of some of the earlier batches, the growth of home-bred talent and the unreasonably high expectations of some potential or new returnees.
If you were a Chinese student in the United States, the standard choice after graduation used to be the pursuit of the so-called "American Dream" -- getting a job, settling down, buying a home. Unless you were bound by visa restrictions, working back home in China was often considered the second-best option.
Not anymore. While developed countries like the United States still offer a much higher living standard than China, the opportunities created by China's galloping economy have dramatically altered the rules of the game. Returnees like Charles Zhang and Ying Wu, chief executives of the high-flying Sohu and UTStarcom respectively, are high-profile success stories.
However, not everyone delivered the kind of performance as Zhang or Wu. Many employers are chagrined to find out that some of those put on a pedestal turned out to be high on rhetoric and low on performance. This is coupled by a new wave of students who basically gilded their resumes by attending less-than-reputable overseas schools or easy-to-get certificate programmes. They have been blamed for the sudden drop of quality of sea turtles.
While those who did short stints may not have the overseas skills coveted by employers, those who obtained multiple degrees and had extended stays may have a hard time adapting to the environment in China, which has changed dramatically since their departure. Ways of doing things in China are different, says Liu Xiuru, director of career placement at Tianjin-based Nankai University. For example, managing government relations is crucial, and hiding in a lab will not solve all problems.
On the supply side, China is moving at a feverish pace to train home-grown talent. Degree holders have increased by millions. Overseas training programmes are quickly replicated or imitated. All of this has leveled the playing field considerably.
"As China's education catches up with the West, sea turtle replacements have been growing at a rapid rate," says Bai Chunli, deputy director of China Association of Alumnae from Europe and America. "Domestic employers are taking a more rational attitude towards sea turtles. They're not blindly chasing foreign diplomas any more. They want real, solid experience."
Secret of success
Whether one is a potential sea turtle or is already in the job market at home, one should weigh the pros and cons of one's overseas experience and measure them against the backdrop of market demand.
Sea turtles are valued for their "international outlook" and "wide range of knowledge"," says Xu Xiaoping, president of Xindongfang School, which prepares students for overseas education. A degree from a prestigious school is a good start, but it is not complete if not supplemented by relevant job experience, preferably from an internationally-renowned company.
Chen Shengjun, chairman of Sino Powerstar Electronic Technology Co, says he hires many returnees, but rarely does he consider someone fresh out of school and with no prior background in the industry. "We want the experience. The talent will come through in time if there's any."
In recent years, overseas students are increasingly being wooed by local governments that dangle special incentives to encourage them to return, such as tax breaks, subsidized rent or residency permits. These sea turtles are expected to bring back not only technology, but also capital. Their entrepreneurship should yield concrete results down the road in the form of jobs created and tax bills paid.
Management experience is also highly valued. At the Guangzhou Symposium of Returnees, held in late December, the Guangzhou Economic Commission was recruiting for 200 of its member firms. "We want middle managers or senior executives," said an officer with the agency. "Most of the domestic talent can do the jobs fairly well, but since we've made the extra effort, we would want those who are familiar with the Western way of doing things and have done the jobs themselves."
In Shanghai, sea turtles are numbered at 50,000, of which 2,600 have started their own businesses, with a total investment of US$400 million. Another 10,000 hold senior-level management or technical positions in foreign-invested firms. Overall, 90 per cent of all returnees have PhD or master's degrees, and 30 per cent have at least middle-level overseas management experience.
The days of hiring sea turtles mainly for cosmetic purposes are over, said another exhibitor at the fair. They are expected to deliver solid performances and yield concrete results.
Li Jing has recently graduated from a top university in Los Angeles. He is desperately searching for a local job that can use his knowledge in electrical engineering and, for the time being, is reluctant to return to China. His reason is much more practical: He has to earn enough money to pay back his student loans. And the depreciation of sea turtle jobs has made the prospect of finding a job in China almost impossible.
Lack of communications is another hurdle that may prevent a sea turtle from finding the one who needs a special mix of skills most. In Western countries, trade associations perform a lot of these functions, says Chu Junwei, director of a Beijing-based organization for returnees, referring not only to job hunting, but also to returnee-created business ventures. In China, this role is played mostly by the government, which is not a specialist in this area. That has sharply raised the cost of networking.
Then, there is the old-fashioned bureaucracy that many don't have the patience with. Xie Shaoming, a Japan-educated PhD, had to make 20 trips to various government agencies in Guangzhou in order to get his residency permit (hu kou). "Why is it so hard to do something so simple?" he sighs.
Others have encountered similar stumbling blocks. For example, when a returnee's business is in one district of the city, he cannot send his kids to a public school in another district unless he pays a premium.
But more and more cities are making policies to make life easier for sea turtles. Yet difficulties remain. "In China, nothing is easy, but everything is possible," said a medical-school PhD, who recounted her road home from abroad to successful entrepreneurship.
China's need of talent, including those with overseas education, has not subsided, says Zhou Guangzhao, former president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. "If you have got real talent, there is no crisis of oversupply."
And Zhou puts it the best when he says: "I believe most of the Chinese students overseas are hard working and have learned useful skills. As long as they are willing to come back, there will be jobs fit for them. But the scenario of a fresh graduate being chased indiscriminately by job recruiters will happen less and less frequently."
Eight tips from employers to sea turtles:
1.Get rid of the sense of superiority and be prepared to compete on an equal footing;
2.Don't limit the choice of your job location to the few metropolises.
3.Don't calculate your salary request by the cost of your overseas education, but by the market rate of the position you're seeking.
4.Don't assume that the area of specialty that you majored in is still in high demand when you graduate.
5.Fluency in foreign languages alone does not usually constitute a full slate of job skills. One needs hands-on experience in a specific field.
6.Be ready to adapt your Western way of thinking to the Chinese way of making things to happen.
7.Knowing the market is not just window dressing. It is essential. Developing what you're best at regardless of market needs may land you in a dead end.
8.Be prepared to make a leap of confidence and settle down in China. Managing a business by "remote control" from abroad is not practical.