Peter Hill - "The Career Doctor"As we ring in 2013 here at LCB, many of us are thinking about how we can advance our China-focused careers in the coming 12 months – after the effects of New Year’s Eve festivities have worn off, of course. We caught up with Peter Hill, “The Career Doctor,” to shed some light on the Chinese foreign job market.

Hill founded a career consulting service, P.H.I. Consulting, in Honolulu in 1999, and has been helping expats get ahead in Shanghai since 2007. He’s also a full-time professor of Professional Career Development at the Hult International Business School in Shanghai, as well as a Certified Five O’Clock Club Career Coach and Certified Master Résumé Writer.

In the our interview below, edited for clarity, Hill told us about the extraordinarily competitive war for talent in Shanghai, the challenges it presents and the opportunities it offers job seekers. He also explained why he still loves working in China, even after two decades of living in East Asia.

Interview by Tom Nunlist.

Tell me about your career and the founding of P.H.I. Consulting.

I have a background in adult education, hospitality and commercial aviation. I launched P.H.I. Consultingas a career coaching business about 15 years ago writing resumes for individuals. Clients began to ask for more services beyond just writing a resumes, things such as interview skills, salary negotiation, career path counseling, self-assessment and things like that, and so I began those services as well. To make a long story short, for the past 15 years I have been doing one-on-one coaching under the banner of P.H.I. Consulting – it is a consumer service, not a corporate service.

Employment in China is changing. Not that long ago there was a pretty big advantage in simply being a foreigner, but that no longer seems to be the case. What has changed, and how has that changed your consulting practice?

It is true that expat packages are few and far between these days, but the advice I give to people has not changed. Let me clarify, when I give advice to people it is not directive advice, such as “I think you should stay in china,” or “I think you should go back to your home country.” What I do is I facilitate the job seeker’s efforts, whatever they decide their targets are going to be.

Now with regard to the job market, I can share with you some of the things that are happening here, and how that affects my clients’ decision making. So, it is true that expat packages are disappearing – this is a very competitive market. There’s a huge talent pool of locals who are very good at what they do, and they understand the complexities of doing business in China better than any foreigner ever will.  So the local Chinese have a huge competitive advantage over the foreigners these days, particularly if they have just come back from getting their MBA abroad. As a result, I’m seeing the job searches taper because of the competitive nature of the marketplace. The job search is taking longer, and expatriates need to be more strategic about their job searches and really spin their unique value to employers.

For example, if an expatriate is selling himself to employers as a marketing specialist, employers here are not going to take a second look, unless this expatriate also speaks Chinese, and unless this expatriate has on-the-ground successes as a marketer in China. Otherwise, if he doesn’t have those two things, employers are going to look at local employees first.

If somebody doesn’t have the language, doesn’t have the on-the-ground experience in marketing, then what they have to do is sell themselves as having something unique about marketing. For example, if an expat is an expert in online marketing, in a way that a Chinese person is not. Or if the expat is an expert in cross-border marketing in a way that a local employee is not. If the expat has that unique kind of marketing expertise, versus generic, blanket marketing expertise, then they will have a competitive advantage over the locals.

I get the impression that job seekers are going to work almost exclusively for multinationals and western companies, and not for Chinese companies. Is that true, and what does it mean?

Generally speaking, yes, I think you’re right. An expat is more likely to work for say, a Fortune 500 company, because the environment is usually English, as opposed to a local company where the working environment is Chinese. That said, there’s always the western employee who lands a job with a local company who is either internationalized, or trying to internationalize. In those cases the employee is usually a Mandarin speaker.

To give you one example, I know a woman originally from Mexico, so she speaks Spanish and elementary Portuguese, and she speaks Mandarin fluently. She received an offer from a local company who wanted to export products to Brazil. They hired her because she speaks Mandarin, Spanish and Portuguese, enough Portuguese to do business. I think she was literally the only foreign employee in the company, and she was always on the plane flying to and from Brazil because that was the sole reason for the hire. But working for a purely local company conducting business in Chinese for a Chinese market, I think foreign employees are few and far between.

Looking at a Chinese company delivering products and services for a local market only, your Chinese has to be really solid. You can’t sit in meetings and require your colleagues to explain things for you – you have to be spot on. The type of foreigner that speaks Mandarin that well is rare, at least in my experience.

In a panel on iTV-Asia you mentioned that career tenure for foreign executive in China is about half that of the U.S., two years vs. four years. Why is that?

It is actually true for white collar workers in general, not just executives. But why? The war for talent is probably the main reason. China’s a very competitive marketplace for job seekers, and there is a shortage of really god talent, and so what we see is white collar employees switching jobs more frequently because they are being cherry picked or head hunted from other companies.

Let’s say somebody is in men’s sports apparel, just as an example. Let’s say they land a marketing management job with Adidas. If they are doing a halfway decent job, it is a pretty safe bet that within a year, or a year and a half, Nike will give them a call and say, “Hey, we need someone just like you,” and Nike throws a 20% raise at them. The reason why Nike needs them is that the person who was in the position before them was poached by some other company. There’s not a lot of people who are world-class, best-in-show type talent, and so companies are trying to grab what they can and have them make a difference in their company. That’s the long version of the answer.

Do you think it’s likely to remain that way for some time?

I’m not sure. That depends a lot on the economy, doesn’t it? I can’t really say because I’m not an economist, but the projections I’m seeing are that this economic growth will probably continue. There are people who are saying that it will continue just at a reduced rate compared to the recent past, there are also people predicting an imminent crash. Which one will happen? I don’t know. But for sure if there’s a crash there will be a mix-up in the market in terms of talent. In that case it will become even more competitive because there will be more talent in the job seeker pool.

From being in journalism, I know that employee turnover is a problem for foreign news bureaus. Reporters commonly work for 3-5 years, about the time it takes to build stable relationships with sources, and then they leave. Generally speaking, people don’t come to China to stay forever, unlike the U.S. Do you see this in your practice?

Yes, I do see that. I can’t give a specific time frame, but 3-5 years sounds like a reasonable estimate based on my anecdotal evidence here. I guess, if I were to categorize the revolving door, so to speak, I would say there are slow, medium and fast turnover rates. And then there’s one where the door is locked – haha.

Fast is when you have someone that was sent here who thinks they are going to be fine, and then in six months they realize the China isn’t the place for them and then they leave. Maybe they tell the company they want to go home, or else they just quit the company and go do something else. The medium ones are 3-5 years. And then there’s the slow revolving door, roughly 10-15 years. The ones who have been here 10-15 years, they’re well-established in their particular industries, they are well respected, they speak amazing Chinese. Many of them are married to Chinese, too, and they’ve developed roots here, whether its families or business roots, and they just don’t want to leave. And of course, there are people who come and stay here forever, but those are extremely few and far between.

Three to five years is about the average revolving door speed, I would say.

Do you think that range, I don’t want to say “hurts companies”, but would it be better if people stayed longer?

Is 3-5 enough? I don’t know. But is longer better? I would say absolutely. One of the most common problems I hear from my individual job-seeker clients is, “Peter, my company back home doesn’t understand how long it takes to develop relationships here, and they don’t understand the importance of developing relationships here.” And so, “they don’t give me resources, or they want to pull me back to my home country before I had a chance to really get those relationships going.” Or, “Peter I’ve got relationships going, but now they’re pulling me back home and not giving me any time to introduce the successes that I’ve had.” Those are very common comments.

So is 3-5 years enough to get trusting relationships going? It’s probably a good start. Longer is better without a doubt. Unless companies really understand what it takes to do business in China, they are more likely to not communicate clearly with the employees here, and they are not likely to listen to what employees are telling them when they ask for more time and more resources to develop relationships.

What can you get out of working in China? What do clients think they can get when they come to you?

Usually my clients are already working in China, and are looking to switch jobs or repatriate. However, I can speculate based on the people I’ve met and talked with.

When I meet somebody new here, number one, they say the economy back home is in the doldrums. And then I ask what else, and I hear them say, you know I hear China is an interesting place, China is the new Japan, China is going to be the new economic superpower in 2012, 2020 whatever that number is, and so I want to be part of it. That’s a better answer than the first one. The economy back home is bad, that’s an economic reason. But, “I want to be part of China,” that to me is a more compelling answer. Those are the two common answers I get from newbies here.

For the expats that are here, whether they are staying or leaving, I ask what they learned here. They say things such as, they’ve been able to fine tune their business skills because doing business in China really tests your business faculties. Whether it is negotiations, or contracts or relationships, those are skills that are honed in China.

The second is that, in China, at least in Shanghai where I live, every day is different. Everybody I talk to, I ask them about their daily routine, I ask them if they do the same thing every day. They say, “Oh, most days I go to bed at night having a plan for the next day, and then the next day by 9 am in the morning my entire plan was turned upside down.” You have to just change everything on the fly constantly, and that’s how things happen in China.

Things unfold here in very unpredictable ways. I do set my agenda every day, but it is a rare day where my agenda unfolds the way I planned it. Now, I think that can be said globally, business is business. But I personally have never seen it so pronounced as it is here in Shanghai. That’s part of the excitement. That’s one of the reasons why people like staying here.

When people do decide to leave, does this sharpening make them more attractive back home, or in any new place?

Absolutely. But there’s a catch-22.

If the question is, “Does that give them some marketable skills to take out of China?” a very developed tool kit, then my answer is yes. But whether companies and markets outside China see that as valuable, well, that’s debatable. The challenge for job seekers that leave China is, how do you communicate this value to employers outside China? I think it is a common assumption, and I think it is an unfortunately wrong assumption that people think, ok I’m going to go to China and work there for 3-5 years, and then when I go back to Europe, or go back to the U.S. then, woo-hoo, companies are going to see me as so desirable just because I worked there. China is the headline of every newspaper these days, so just because I worked there I’m going to be desirable – that’s not the case. Companies don’t find you attractive just because you’ve worked here. However, if you can communicate to the employer just what you’ve learned, and how your fine-tuned tool kit will benefit the company, then of course they will be more inclined to talk with you. But you can’t just say, hey I used to work in China, and you should find me desirable. It just doesn’t work that way

China is widely seen to be entering a new phase of economic development; one based less on infrastructure investment and exports, and more on domestic spending. Assuming this change does happen in the next decade or so, how do you think that will affect the market for foreign employees?

Hmmm…. I don’t know – that’s my answer. That’s a crystal ball question.