Image: Reasbeck
Ng Han Guan  /  AP
American Mikala Reasbeck works at a recruiting office in Beijing, China. In China, she said, "the jobs are so easy to find. And there are so many."
updated 9/20/2009 2:22:23 PM ET 2009-09-20T18:22:23

When the best job Mikala Reasbeck could find after college in Boston was counting pills part-time in a drugstore for $7 an hour, she took the drastic step of jumping on a plane to Beijing in February to look for work.

A week after she started looking, the 23-year-old from Wheeling, West Virginia, had a full-time job teaching English.

"I applied for jobs all over the U.S. There just weren't any," said Reasbeck, who speaks no Chinese but had volunteered at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. In China, she said, "the jobs are so easy to find. And there are so many."

Young foreigners like Reasbeck are coming to China to look for work in its unfamiliar but less bleak economy, driven by the worst job markets in decades in the United States, Europe and some Asian countries.

Many do basic work such as teaching English, a service in demand from Chinese businesspeople and students. But a growing number are arriving with skills and experience in computers, finance and other fields.

"China is really the land of opportunity now, compared to their home countries," said Chris Watkins, manager for China and Hong Kong of MRI China Group, a headhunting firm. "This includes college graduates as well as maybe more established businesspeople, entrepreneurs and executives from companies around the world."

Watkins said the number of resumes his company receives from abroad has tripled over the past 18 months.

China's job market has been propped up by Beijing's 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus, which helped to boost growth to 7.9 percent from a year earlier in the quarter that ended June 30, up from 6.1 percent the previous quarter. The government says millions of jobs will be created this year, though as many as 12 million job-seekers still will be unable to find work.

Andrew Carr, a 23-year-old Cornell University graduate, saw China as a safer alternative after classmates' offers of Wall Street jobs were withdrawn due to the economic turmoil.

Passing up opportunities in New York, San Francisco and Boston, Carr started work in August at bangyibang.com, a Web site in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen that lets the public or companies advertise and pay for help in carrying out business research, getting into schools, finding people and other tasks.

"I noticed the turn the economy was taking, and decided it would be best to go directly to China," said Carr, who studied Chinese for eight years.

Most of his classmates stayed in the United States and have taken some unusual jobs — one as a fishing guide in Alaska.

China can be more accessible to job hunters than economies where getting work permits is harder, such as Russia and some European Union countries.

Employers need government permission to hire foreigners, but authorities promise an answer within 15 working days, compared with a wait of months or longer that might be required in some other countries. An employer has to explain why it needs to hire a foreigner instead of a Chinese national, but the government says it gives special consideration to people with technical or management skills.

Rules were tightened ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, apparently to keep out possible protesters. That forced some foreign workers to leave as their visas expired.

Some 217,000 foreigners held work permits at the end of 2008, up from 210,000 a year earlier, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Thousands more use temporary business visas and go abroad regularly to renew them.

Reasbeck said it took her two months to find the drugstore job after she graduated from Boston's Emerson College with a degree in writing, literature and publishing. She said she applied to as many as 50 employers nationwide.

Today, on top of her teaching job, she works part-time recruiting other native English-speaking teachers. She makes 14,000 to 16,000 yuan ($2,000 to $2,300) a month.

"I could have a pretty comfortable life here on not a very high salary. English teachers are in high demand," she said.

Reasbeck said most of her college classmates are in part-time jobs or unemployed.

"People are sleeping on their mom's couches, as far as I know," she said.

While many jobs require at least a smattering of Chinese, some employers that need other skills are hiring people who do not speak the language.

Bangyibang.com's founder and CEO, Grant Yu, has five foreign employees in his 35-member work force. Yu plans to add more and said he might hire applicants who cannot speak Chinese if they have other skills.

"I don't believe language is the biggest obstacle in communication, as long as he or she has a strong learning ability," Yu said.

Feng Li, a partner in a Chinese-Canadian private fund in Beijing that invests in the mining industry, said he needs native speakers of foreign languages to read legal documents and communicate with clients abroad. He plans to recruit up to six foreign employees.

"We don't need Chinese guys who speak English like me," Feng said.

Some foreigners see China not just as a refuge but as a source of opportunities they might not get at home.

"Having one or two years on your resume of China experiences is only going to help you back at headquarters in the United States or if you apply for business schools," said Shaun Rein, managing director of China Market Research Group in Shanghai.

A 28-year-old former London banker took a job a year ago with a Chinese private equity firm after the crisis devastated his industry at home. He said that even though he spoke no Chinese, his experience and contacts made him a sought-after asset in China, a market that he said offers "a much faster route to a top-level position."

"I actually earn more out here," said the banker, who asked not to be identified by name at his Chinese employer's request. "And the hours are much shorter."

Konstantin Schamber, a 27-year-old German, passed up possible jobs at home to become business manager for a Beijing law firm, where he is the only foreign employee.

"I believe China is the same place as the United States used to be in the 1930s that attracts a lot of people who'd like to have either money or career opportunities," Schamber said.

Job hunters from other Asian countries also are looking to China.

An Kwang-jin, a 30-year-old South Korean photographer, has worked as a freelancer for a year in the eastern city of Qingdao. He said China offered more opportunities as South Korea struggles with a sluggish economy.

Still, foreigners will face more competition from a rising number of educated, English-speaking young Chinese, some of them returning from the West with work experience, Rein said.

"You have a lot of Chinese from top universities who are making $500-$600 a month," Rein said. "Making a case that you are much better than they are is very hard."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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