BACK in the days when cushy jobs for foreigners were plentiful in Asia, Western expats used to get called FILTH—”failed in London, trying Hong Kong”. Now, though, they may end up as FISHTAILS—”failed in Shanghai, trying again in London”. This is because employers in Asia, despite strong demand for managers and professionals, increasingly choose to hire locals, not outsiders.
Overall, the jobs outlook is brighter the farther east you go: a recent survey by an employment consultancy found that companies in India, China and Taiwan expect to hire more than firms in other countries during the first half of 2011. Western companies in all sorts of industries are continuing to push into Asia’s high-growth economies. This week, for example, Tesco, Britain’s largest retailer, announced a big expansion in China.
However, Joe Expat may not get much of a look-in. Graduates are flooding on to Asia’s job market from local universities, and Asians with degrees from Western ones are returning home. Since 2003 roughly 325,000 Chinese have returned after studying overseas—more than three times as many as in the entire two decades before—according to David Zweig of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, who is writing a book on the subject. The number of Chinese studying abroad and expected to return home afterwards continues to rise. Even Westerners with top-class MBAs are finding it tough. Andrew Stephen of the Singapore campus of INSEAD, a prestigious French business school, says he has seen good candidates being passed over by multinationals because they were not Asian.
Since there is no longer so much need for foreign workers, Asian governments are tightening their visa rules. In 2008 Singapore granted 156,900 work visas to foreigners and less than half that number of jobs went to residents. Now the numbers are roughly equal. “There isn’t an overwhelming need to import young and enthusiastic people any more,” says Declan O’Sullivan, a director of Singapore-based Kerry Consulting.
It is not just a question of supply and demand, though. Big employers in Asia, especially those that have got burned in their past dealings with local governments, are putting a premium on local knowledge, language and connections. Recruiters say candidates with a demonstrable long-term commitment to a country, and ready-made guanxi (business and political relationships), get preference. The locals-first attitude to hiring extends up all the way to the most senior executive levels. Just as experience in Asia is coming to be seen as an essential career step in Western multinationals, the opportunities for recent graduates to gain such experience seem to be shrinking.