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'Sea turtles' losing the job race
(China Daily)
Updated: 2004-06-25 08:39

Since her childhood, Zhang Qian has been eager to excel. After graduating from university in July 1996, she got a job in the finance department of a five-star hotel in Beijing, with a monthly salary of 4,000 yuan (US$483).

Returned overseas Chinese students with doctoral degrees attend a job fair in Nanjing, capital city of East China's Jiangsu Province, in 2002. Official statistics show that over the past 20 years, more than 600,000 mainland Chinese have studied abroad and 160,000 of them have returned to work in the Chinese mainland so far. [newsphoto/file]

After working there for two years, she quit when a joint venture offered her a boost in pay to 6,000 yuan (US$725) a month.

Zhang Qian's new manager at the joint venture was a young "sea turtle" - a Chinese pun on hai gui, which pronounced the same but written in different characters means "returned from overseas (studies)," - who got her MBA degree in Britain.

In the eyes of Zhang and many of her colleagues, the boastful manager's only "talent" was pushing other people around. Yet this female "sea turtle" took home a healthy 12,000 yuan (US$1,451) every month.

Zhang Qian was upset about the salary gap and decided to go to Australia to further her own studies.

In 2000, she, herself, returned to Beijing as a "sea turtle." She sent out a dozen professionally prepared resumes and was soon summoned for personal interviews with human resources (HR) personnel of one company after another.

When she was asked her salary expectations, Zhang quoted her bottom line - 12,000 yuan (US$1,451) a month, feeling that she was more qualified and competent than her former manager.

None of the companies called her after the initial interviews. Six months later, she reduced her salary expectation to 8,000 yuan (US$967). Some companies asked her to further reduce it, but she refused. After searching for a job unsuccessfully for a year, Zhang left China to return to Australia to face an even more uncertain future.

Zhang Qian is only one of tens of thousands of "sea turtles" who have been caught in the great changes that have occurred in China's labour market.

In a recent recruitment fair in Beijing, many "sea turtles" competed for a post offered by a software company that paid a monthly salary of only 2,500 yuan (US$302).

The roughly 7,000 "sea turtles" in Shanghai, China's economic centre, have acquire a new name - "sea weeds," a pun on hai dai, which is a shortened form of hai gui dai ye, or "returned from overseas and waiting for a job.".

Experts here attribute the decreasing salary level for "sea turtles" to the fact that, with domestic education gradually adapting to international practices, students trained in China have become more competitive in the job market.

Falling salaries

On top of this, with the return of an increasing number of overseas students, businesses have many more candidates to choose from, including those domestically trained as well as those returning from abroad.

Official statistics show that over the past 20 years, more than 600,000 mainland Chinese have studied abroad and 160,000 of them have so far returned to work in the mainland.

Moreover, the number of students returning from overseas has been increasing at an annual rate of over 40 per cent over the past two years.

"Shanghai is hungry for high-calibre talented people," says Ye Shangzhi, a former senior official with the Shanghai municipal government.

The professor attributed the unpopularity of "sea weeds" to several major factors: too many students concentrated in too few academic areas, such as IT and MBA programmes; lack of work experience; and high salary expectations.

A large proportion of China's "sea turtles" are those who went abroad directly from junior and senior middle schools. Without any work experience and a limited and immature understanding of Chinese society, they actually do not have much in the way of competitive advantages when compared with their homegrown counterparts, except that they are more fluent in the languages of the countries where they have studied and have more up-to-date educational backgrounds.

"Even if some of them have work experience, they still need a period of time before they can adapt themselves to China's realities," Ye said.

A HR department director surnamed Wang of a foreign trade company in Shanghai, elaborated further.

On the labour market in Shanghai, businesses can find very competent undergraduates who ask monthly salaries of no more than 3,500-4,000 yuan (US$423-483), while a mediocre "sea turtle" usually asks for 7,000-8,000 yuan (US$846-967) a month, or even more, Wang said.

"It's not surprising that 'sea turtles' lose their attractiveness when cost is taken into account," she said.

Xu Xiaoping, deputy president of Beijing New Oriental School, regards the debate on whether or not "sea turtles" are more competent than homegrown scholars as something quite irrelevant.

"China needs genuinely competent people regardless of their educational background."

Xu spoke highly of Li Shufu, one of China's richest men, who founded the Geely Group, which produces cars bearing independent brand names.

Foreign degrees aren't everything

The farmer-turned-entrepreneur has not studied abroad but seems to be quite well informed about international rules and employs many "sea turtles."

Liu Haoyuan, a 29-year-old overseas Chinese, has some convincing personal evidence as to what the country's companies need. Together with his parents the young entrepreneur emigrated to the United States in 1994, after he had finished senior middle school in China. He set up his own company while attending university in the United States and earned an MBA degree there as well. He returned to China in 2002 to create his own business. It has taken him only two years to establish his reputation in the country, by offering a highly effective ATM protection system for China's banks.

The manager of his own business, Liu makes it very clear that he is prepared to pay high salaries to competent employees, and does not attach that much importance to their academic backgrounds.

"It's good to study abroad, but the crux of the matter is whether or not you can perform competently and become a valuable asset to the business." he said.

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