SmartIntern China Career Case Studies are designed to provide students, interns and young professionals with first-hand knowledge and actionable advice on how to build a career in Shanghai and other cities in China.
Jacob Parker’s career in China is impressive- he went from working as Director of Operations of the the USA Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010 to Philips Healthcare, and he now holds a position with the US-China Business Council, an organization of American companies trading and investing in China. Jacob has a wealth of experience and offers concrete, practical advice for those looking to further their career in China. In the following interview between SmartIntern and Jake, we provide you with tips and advice directly from someone who has successfully built a killer career in China!
SmartIntern: Why China?
Jake Parker: Growing up in Japan I appreciated the opportunities afforded to executives that spent time abroad in their careers. I knew that I was interested in a business career and thought that learning an Asian language would be valuable in that pursuit. However, I also realized that studying Japanese might limit my growth opportunities and tether me to one specific market. In researching other areas, China was a clear winner so I went off to college to study Chinese.
How did you get your start working in China?
I was fortunate to have strong support from my school, The Ohio State University. When I was nearing the end of my graduate studies I was based in Qingdao and able to tap into the developed alumni network in Shanghai. My first role was fairly short lived, but it gave me a foundation to begin looking for a better fit.
How important is it to speak Mandarin if you want to secure a job in China?
Absolutely critical, depending on career stage. There was a time, five years ago or so, when promising foreign graduates could land a decent job in Shanghai or Beijing without major language skills. Those days are clearly over. That is not to say, however, that a senior executive with years of experience and a highly sought after skill (supply chain management, portfolio management, etc.) would not be able to find a job. But for most starting their career or in the early stages Mandarin is needed.
What industries would you recommend a young expat in China look into?
One thing I tell people when they ask me this question is that the industry is not nearly as important as knowing what industry you want to go into. Far too many young graduates come to Shanghai and say something along the lines of “I want to do business.” That’s not all that helpful when you’re speaking to an HR executive or a search firm. They want you to have a developed expertise in a specific functional area. Know what you want to do before you get here and then target the best companies in your industry.
All that being said, some of the growth industries in China now are corporate real estate (investment, industrial, or tenant representative), software development (especially mobile), and healthcare. Again, these are just industries. Knowing what you want to do in these industries is critical. Are you interested in sales/marketing/supply chain? Know what those functions do in their respective industries and aim for companies who have that open role.
What industries do you not recommend for foreigners? Why wouldn't you recommend them?
I realize above that I mention healthcare as a great industry, however, some functions are largely relegated to Chinese nationals. Even for a candidate with advanced language abilities, working in healthcare can be challenging. As many readers will know, the majority of hospitals in China are owned by the government so in essence all medical device and pharmaceutical sales are made directly to government officials. This can result in unexpected challenges, especially for someone new to the industry.
What Tier 2 cities would you recommend a foreigner check out?
It largely depends on what a person wants to do. One area that has seen rapid development over the past several years is Changsha, Hunan. It’s sort of the commercial wild west of China these days. Other emerging cities are Chengdu, Qingdao, and Xian.
What are there differences you discovered in Chinese vs. Western office culture, and how can a young American or foreigner prepare for this?
The two cultures are enormously different and difficult to describe. People talk about office politics in the United States; China brings them to a whole new complexity level. In my personal experience, organizations in China are extremely segregated with little interaction among groups. Additionally, bosses and co-workers may say one thing and mean another. This is common in Chinese business culture but can be challenging/impossible for a foreigner to pick up. Lastly, decision-making power is largely in the hands of a few senior managers who may not be interested in outside input.
The best way for a foreigner to understand Chinese office culture is to engage in it firsthand. Find yourself a Chinese mentor who will take you under their wing and teach you the nuances of acting in a Chinese cultural context.
What is a skill you developed in China that couldn’t be easily obtained back home?
I have been fortunate to be exposed to complex projects at a comparatively young age. Seems to me if you’re an ambitious young foreigner working in China you will be given opportunities to prove yourself. I’ve learned to manage multiple operational components of complex international projects while also operating within the confines of set budgets.
I’ve also learned to manage relationships with various stakeholders in my network. This is an evolving skill which everyone who lives in China has an opportunity to practice.
Why is it important for young foreigners to gain job experience in China?
Gaining job experience in China, or other places outside of the United States, shows a perspective employer that a candidate can succeed in a complex international environment. Business is increasingly international, whether it be complex supply chains, government relations, commodity prices, all contribute to a company’s bottom line. It doesn’t matter if that bottom line is ultimately tabulated in the US, everywhere they operate will influence the company’s success.
What are two or three major things you’ve learned in China that others can use to start or further their career?
- Network effectively – there is a big difference between knowing a lot of people and knowing someone who will go to bat for you when you need them. The latter takes time and a healthy amount of effort. Every prospective contact can be developed into someone who can help you later. But a candidate should stress quality over quantity.
- Check your ambition – many young people come to China and expect to start making six figures in short order. This is unrealistic. Additionally, staying in one role for an extended period of time can be challenging, but will look better to a prospective employer and allow a person to develop a perceived specialty. Job hoping for more money or an increased title can be tempting, just try to remember that there are always things to learn wherever you are. You would be surprised how much more you learn at a place for three years as opposed to one.
- Know what you want to do – as I mention above, its critical to know what you want to do before you start looking. Choose an industry, choose a function, then start your job search intelligently.
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