By Gil Kerbs (WG ’13) and Alexander Richardson (WG ’13)
It would be an understatement to suggest that China, with a population of 1.34 Billion people, 550 million Internet users and a whopping 8-10% annual GDP growth, is an important destination for multinational companies. Naturally, many non-Chinese Wharton MBAs are thinking about seizing career opportunities in the red giant.
First, a disclaimer: China is too complicated to describe in a short article. This is mainly a foreigner’s perspective on working in China, and should not be taken as a comprehensive overview of the country’s politics, customs or macro-economy.
Career opportunities exist for MBAs in most conventional industries in China, but might be limited to certain geographies (such as Hong Kong for finance) or to nominally lower, “local” compensation packages relative to the US. Some industries are also less welcoming for foreigners than others.
Working in China offers many professional benefits. First and foremost, showing positive results is significantly easier; in many industries, you only have to keep up with the market and you will do just fine. China is also one of the only markets that offers the possibility of a CAGR between 30-100% with strong performance. In most Chinese industries even relatively slower growth projections mean rates will be higher than those in Western countries. Moreover, Wharton MBAs have some advantages over the local workforce, which has not (yet) been exposed to some of the basic, but essential, professional productivity techniques we are exposed to at school and in the Western workplace. That stuff you learned from Professors Fader, Simmons, and Gultekin just might give you the edge over most local professionals. However, this is only temporary: as more of our Chinese classmates return to China with a Wharton MBA, the gap will close soon enough.
In addition to career opportunities, there are significant lifestyle benefits to being an expat MBA in China. Day-to-day living expenses are usually considerably cheaper than in the west, which makes life much easier: eating out every day, dry cleaning all your clothes, and even weekly housekeeping will barely make a dent in the wallet. Having said that, rent and luxury products are quite expensive – so you might want to save the Prada/Armani shopping sprees for your NYC visits.
But living in China also has its challenges. Pollution in the big cities is definitely a considerably big issue and food safety poses some problems as well—both can present health threats to Westerners not taking the proper precautions. Traffic is also terrible, and you will spend an uncomfortable amount of time in the car, especially if you haven’t lived in extremely gridlocked cities such as LA or NYC before (but Chinese public transportation is getting better). If for some reason you are working in China without having to speak Chinese, getting around will be challenging, as most of the population does not speak English, Spanish, or any other major Western language.
Professionally many challenges exist as well. Chinese fluency is becoming more and more important. Although some industries still do not ‘demand’ Mandarin knowledge, not having a working knowledge of the language might eventually cost an MBA his job. Culture and language also create a glass ceiling for international staff; if your co-workers see you as an outsider not making efforts to assimilate, developing meaningful relationships will be difficult; because doing business in China is all about networking (Guanxi in Chinese), this might pose a threat to your career progress in the long run. Furthermore, language barriers play into broader concerns about not being able to understand the local culture and by extension your understanding of the Chinese consumer, which more than anything can cause Chinese employers to question your value-add.
Despite those challenges, working in China still represents a special opportunity. As many industries see emerging markets as their biggest growth engine, taking a front seat is not a bad idea, especially if you can envision a clear path of how your career would progress within the company thereafter.
For many, China has become a “New York East” — if you can make it there, you’ll make it anywhere.
Both writers have lived in China in the past and are currently MBA/MA students in the Chinese track at UPenn’s Lauder Institute