Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) is overwhelmingly the career choice of expats who move to China for work. And while certain employers have opportunities for career development, a long-term career in teaching is not for everybody. This article aims to offer some tips on changing careers in China, drawing from my own experience of moving from TEFL to copywriting.
I was near the end of my one-year contract at a middle school in Zhuhai, Guangdong province. As I entered my late 20s, I found myself increasingly looking for a real career path. The school in Zhuhai offered many things; flexible hours, life on a tropical island and free accommodation. But opportunities for promotion were not one of them.
At this point I had the option of either changing careers in China or continuing with teaching but progressing into another area of expertise. The latter option is available through training centres i.e. private educational institutions.
I had previously worked at one of the biggest educational companies in China where there were plenty of opportunities for teachers to develop themselves. Above the junior teacher rank, employees could become senior teachers, a director of studies or even move to the head office in Shanghai to work in recruitment, training or curriculum design.
Another way to develop as a teacher in China is to complete a teaching qualification in your home country (for me this would have been a PGCE in the United Kingdom). This enables you to not only teach TEFL in China, but other subjects at international schools too.
In the end I decided against pursuing a career in teaching. For me, the right decision was changing to a different career altogether. In April 2018, I informed my school I would not sign a new contract. After that, I began browsing recruitment websites and sending copies of my CV to various employers.
I came across several common career choices for expats in China. Recruitment, overseas sales and IT, among others. Finally, I found one that seemed right for me: copywriting.
Changing jobs in China was a daunting prospect for a number of reasons, not least because I had little experience in roles other than teaching. Once I made the decision to leave teaching, however, I found ways to gain the skills sought by other employers.
First, I took a HSK examination. HSK, or hànyǔ shuǐpíng kǎoshī, is the standardised examination in mainland China to assess non-native speakers’ level of Mandarin. The listening, reading and writing tests range from beginner level 1 to advanced level 6.
There’s also an exam which focuses on business Chinese and an exam which requires only spoken Mandarin. In this respect, there’s an exam to suit most people’s needs and abilities.
Having a HSK certificate as proof of your Mandarin Chinese ability is more than useful when changing jobs in China. Even though many expat jobs do not require Mandarin, some employers state that Mandarin speakers will be prioritised, as was the case with my current employer.
I also took on part-time writing work for various websites and blogs as a way of broadening my skill base. I learnt about search engine optimisation (SEO), which is very important for e-commerce and digital media companies. By blogging regularly, I also got into the habit of writing concise and well structured pieces, which proved very valuable in my current copywriting job.
I was able to do all this because my job at the middle school in Zhuhai had few teaching hours and plenty of free time. Not every job in China will allow employees so much flexibility to enhance their skill base, but you can always find some time in the evenings or on weekends if you’re really serious about changing careers. You get out what you put in, at the end of the day.
I found my WeChat account to be very effective for networking during my search for jobs in China. I posted my CV and contact details on recruitment websites and either applied for jobs directly or received invitations to apply for jobs. After only a couple of weeks, I found I had a whole load of contacts from various HR and recruitment departments.
The company that I currently work for originally rejected my application. They later accepted me when I simply asked a HR employee on WeChat if they had any positions available. The message here is simple; put your CV on recruitment websites, and don’t be afraid to approach employers directly.
This is probably the part of changing jobs in China that is the most frustrating and time-consuming. If you’re transferring to a new job in the same industry, you must supply the original or copies of your notarized university certificate and criminal background check, as well as reference letters from previous employers, among other things.
The process of changing career in China is more difficult, as the Chinese government likes to box foreigners in to one industry forever, it seems. In my experience of transitioning from TEFL to copywriting, the woman responsible for applying for my work visa told me she had to directly discuss my case with the body responsible. She said something along the lines of this: “I told them that as you have worked as an English teacher before, this relates to writing copy in English.” I’m sure it wasn’t that easy.
Read this for more detailed information on how to transfer your visa to a new employer.
In all the confusion and complexities of visas, two things are clear. You should expect to wait a while for your new work visa when changing careers in China, especially if you don’t have much experience in your desired field. You should also expect to be asked for more and more documents at different times throughout the process. In addition to the documents mentioned above, you may also be asked for things like copies of your previous visas and residence permits.
Changing careers in China can be a lengthy and daunting process, but by doing things like broadening your skill base and networking, it’s possible. Once you have that job, however, you’re probably not going to want to change again for some time. So make sure you pick a career path and role you’re going to be happy with for a least a few years.
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Keywords: changing careers in China
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