I received news this week that a very good friend of mine had resigned from her job in Shanghai and was planning to return to her home country with her boyfriend, also a very good friend of mine.
The reason given was that living in Shanghai was just too hard, and the lifestyle sacrifices they had to make to remain didn’t justify the daily hassles.
What strikes me the most about their decision is that it comes as top multinationals in China are scaling back expat packages in the midst of an intense localization campaign. It also comes hot on the heels of a survey showing that China is one of the easiest places to atttract expat executives, but one of the most difficult places to make that posting successful.
My friend was certainly on an expat package, but it was very much on the lower end of the scale, putting her overall package on a par with the salary she earned at home (and her partner was struggling to find a job in China that satisfied him and didn’t completely derail the career that he had fashioned successfuly before following her to the so-called Paris of the Orient).
With them gone, pretty much the only foreigners I know working in China – bar english teachers (of course) and journalists – that are not either married to a local or have had a long-standing attraction to China are on lucrative expat packages.
The word from human resources professionals in China is that the localization drive is losing its appeal as recruiters struggle to turn up the talent required from the local labor pool (before I get skewered for this let me make it clear that I am convinced this is simply an accident of history, education, training and, I believe most importantly, the absence of mentoring for junior staff – as a simple test of this, go to a bar, order an obscure cocktail from the most junior bartender, and watch as the supervisor makes a great show of making the bartender feel stupid – not some entrenched cultural or genetic defect).
Until time has a chance to heal, this means expats are still going to be required, and in ever greater numbers, as China continues on its still fast but increasingly complex growth trajectory. But MNCs in China must face the reality that aside from people who come for love (for their partners, the country, the language, or simply the KTV girls) the rest of us come for money (although it can be argued that journalists come to record other people making money or the government executing people for their organs – not me though boss, I am in it for the moola, so lets talk).
It is way too soon to start talking about the end of the expat package. Those in charge of hiring are fond of saying "hardship, what hardship?". They are the ones on the lucrative expat packages who don’t have to deal with getting: robbed by their landlords; cut off by their phone company for not paying the bill for a wireless internet connection that only works within one metre of the wireless hub – for christ sake, just give me a %^&*ing cord; and have a driver so they never have to experience trying to catch a taxi in the rain, or trying to get off a crowded subway train in the face of %&%$&%$& trying to crowd on without letting those already on get off – hello people, aiyaiyai – and the list goes on.
Next time it comes to contract negotiations, if the words "hardship, what hardship?" are uttered, simply reply "what hardship?, hardship" or, better yet "what hardship, aiyaiyai!!!!". If your boss doesn’t understand, ask about their package, and tell him or her to match it.
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