What are the career prospects for foreigners in Taiwan?

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Here is an article by Alan McIvor, Practice Leader at Paul Wright Group, that tells it better than anyone.

The topic of working in Taiwan as a foreigner is something I’ve spoken about on multiple occasions. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking at events discussing this issue hosted by All Hands Taiwan, The Canadian Chamber of Commerce, TAITRA and at a couple of job fairs. Within the foreigner community in Taiwan, this is the pervasive question: what are my options here professionally? I chose the sub-title of my article, not to suggest foreigners here arerough, but to allude to the difficult truth about living here as a foreigner: life in Taiwan is fantastic but the job prospects are not great. You have to accept theroughwith thesmooth.

What do the statistics say?

At the end of 2019 there were785,341 foreigners living in Taiwan, 363,323 males and 423,018 females. Around 92% are from South East Asia and around 14,000 are from the larger English-speaking countries. The Ministry of Labor categorizes foreign workers into two major groups;Productive and Social WelfareandSpecial Professions or Technical Assignments.These categorizations are traditionally what is known as blue-collar and white-collar. The blue-collar labor market has 719,487 people working in mostly manufacturing and domestic nursing. Within the white-collar demographic,hereare some of the noteworthy statistics:

-5,084 in Education (4,367 of these people are cram school teachers)

-19,929 in Specialized Technical Work (mostly engineers)

-1,266 in Accommodation and Food Services

-1,712 in Arts and Entertainment

-3,118 Directors of Foreign Businesses (Country Managers, Taiwan GM)

For the purpose of this article I will focus on what could be considered white-collar labor, as my own expertise regarding the blue-collar labor market here in Taiwan is limited. Unfortunately, I lack direct connections to these workers, companies, or working environments. My job focuses on recruiting mid-to-senior level white-collar talent in Taipei, and so this is the area I am most qualified to discuss.

Who am I?

The reason I’ve been asked to give presentations about this topic is because I work as a headhunter in Taiwan for a company calledPaul Wright Group. For anyone interested in a more detailed explanation of the headhunting industry,hereis a link to an article I wrote previously.

An important part of my job is being hyper-aware of the labor market and hiring trends in Taiwan. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that internal human resource teams often rely on the market information that headhunters share with them. We trade in gossip and data. Effective and experienced headhunters will be experts on the job market they work within. I’m also a foreigner, a young Scottish gentleman to be precise. As one of the few foreign recruiters in the market, I attract a lot of attention from foreigners seeking advice about the job market. I’d say on average I speak to two or three different foreigners a week about their careers. These candidates all have unique professional backgrounds and the advice I give them depends heavily upon their individual situations. I want to talk a little about the different categories of jobs typical to Taiwan.

The Education Industry

For those professionals who have chosen education as their career, Taiwan has a lot of opportunities. There are thousands of kindergarten and cram school jobs available, as well as prestigious international schools for the more accredited teachers. There are a myriad of ways to pursue a career in education, be that teaching, opening your own school, coaching, editing textbooks, etc. I personally found teaching to be a difficult yet rewarding job and a lot of my friends here are in the industry. My take on it would be quite straightforward: if you enjoy working in this industry and feel challenged and fairly compensated, that’s great!

I would however add that the majority of frustrated professionals I encounter here are teachers whose hearts aren’t in it. I was in this category once myself. I taught English in Taiwan for four years before deciding to move to Shanghai with the intention of getting into something new. The gamble paid off and I’ve been working in the headhunting industry for seven years now. For foreigners who wish to transition from a teaching position into another industry, the battle is an uphill one. I’ll attempt to tackle the question, “So what can I do to achieve this step?”, a bit later on in the article. But first I want to distinguish between people in this situation seeking advice, and the expats who are at the very top of the pyramid.

Expat Contracts

Expat contracts, as they are known in the industry, are given to foreign professionals who have been sent to work in the Taiwan branch office. This group of talent are sourced from headquarters and are usually very globally mobile throughout their careers. The expat General Managers of multinational businesses here are on a vastly different level from the average worker. Expat contracts include things such as rent, a driver, children’s private education, flights home and massive salaries. The total cost of these people to the companies who hire them is often astronomical compared to the average worker.

For this group of foreign professionals, there is not much I need to tell you. If you are being paid massive amounts of money to work in Taiwan and your contract runs out, finding a similar job here as a local hire is virtually impossible. For local hires, i.e. foreigners who already live in Taiwan who are applying for jobs here, we need to play the game alongside our Taiwanese colleagues. In most cases, local hire foreigners who work in business are paid no more or no less than their Taiwanese colleagues. Unlike in the teaching industry, theirforeignnessdoesn’t entitle them to preferential treatment (and quite right!).

But why is the job market so difficult for foreigners in Taiwan?

Before giving advice to foreign professionals who wish to stay and build a career in Taiwan, I want to tackle the fundamental question at the core of the issue. Why is the job market in Taiwan limited and challenging for immigrants? This question is more than a little difficult to answer and I think taking it on as an MBA thesis topic would be an interesting endeavour (tempting!). The answer I most commonly give in private discussions is one that I’m guessing will attract a degree of controversy. I think that one of the major reasons why there aren’t a plethora of opportunities for foreigners in the professional market here is that Taiwan’s history doesn’t include large periods of European colonization. Major cities throughout the world, after undergoing long (and often brutal) periods of European rule, usually became more international and cosmopolitan.

Places like Hong Kong and Shanghai grew to accept foreign businesses and businessmen as the norm. During the period of modernization in Taiwan however, the market was not heavily influenced by Western companies and people. Taiwan remains a largely homogenous society (the exception being the aboriginal community, whose own history and relationship with colonists is not without brutality and suffering). The resulting effect being that Taiwanese businesses are mostly localized, they don’t have a history of hiring many foreign white-collar workers. Change is a slow process, and the reality is that the majority of businesses here have little experience hiring foreign professionals.

The current situation in the job market is that when given a choice between hiring a local who speaks English or a foreigner who speaks Chinese, the former wins almost every time. As an example, a large Taiwanese company who sells their products globally will have a workforce composed almost solely of Taiwanese employees. If this Taiwanese company is selling into the Russian market, they’ll hire a Taiwanese person who speaks either Russian or just English to work in their sales team. It could be argued this is nonsensical - surely a marketing professional from Brazil is going to be more effective at marketing a product in Brazil than a Taiwanese local who has been randomly assigned that territory. However, this is not the norm in Taiwanese companies.

Foreign businesses in Taiwan are sometimes even more localized, with 99% of the staff being Taiwanese. These multinationals would seem like a good place to start as a foreign professional looking to work in Taiwan. For instance, if you are from France, you might think that French companies such as L’Oréal, Pernod Ricard, Air Liquide and Chanel might hire you to work in their Taiwan office. It is definitely possible, and I won’t discourage anyone from trying. However, these companies are overwhelmingly localized for justifiable reasons, it makes sense to hire Taiwanese people to focus on their local market, where their native language and cultural understanding will help them make their employer financially successful. For example, L’Oréal hiring a French candidate to work in mid-level sales, marketing or supply chain is very uncommon. The only notable exception I’ve witnessed is global management trainee programs or brand ambassadors in the alcohol industry.

It also isn’t a question of salary cost or working visa as I often hear. If you bring up the topic of this article to a Taiwanese professional, they will most often guess that companies are reluctant to pay higher salaries for foreigners or that the working visa is difficult to apply for. I don’t think either of these excuses is correct, the minimum salary for a working visa (ARC) is 47,971 NTD per month which is at the very bottom end of the salary spectrum for professional jobs in Taiwan. Even junior-level employees can make between 60-90k per month. The working visa or ARC permit is also not difficult for companies to apply for and costs them only a small expense. Taiwan's working visa stipulations are very reasonable compared to many other countries.

So, what is the solution?

As with most complex problems, there are many things to consider when looking for answers. On a macro level there are people and organizations slowly improving the situation for foreign professionals in Taiwan. Groups like All Hands Taiwan, the various Chambers of Commerce, Taipei City Mayor’s Office, and Crossroads are pulling things in a positive direction. The amount of lobbying that takes place in Taiwan on behalf of the foreign community is impressive. The situation is improving slowly thanks to these types of influencers and organizations. There is also the factor of learning from successful examples. If a company hires a foreigner and they perform well, they are more likely to hire other foreigners in an attempt to replicate the success. This growth is hopefully exponential. Performing well in a management job here helps all of your fellow foreigners in the long run.

On an individual basis, there are many things you can do to improve your chances of getting a good job and building a successful career. Learning Chinese is probably a good idea in general for improving employability and quality of life. Networking is also a very good idea; knowing the right people can certainly open doors andguanxiremains an important force in the professional world. Studying something new and adding qualifications to your resume doesn’t hurt; things like coding courses, Google Analytics certificates or even a full MBA. If your resume is lacking in relevant work experience for the career you want, then adding anything to it will do you favors. Doing an internship or part-time project in your relevant field could make a world of difference. If you are a writer or artist, then focus on building a portfolio.

Acting and dressing professionally would also be advisable. If your haircut, jewelry and general attire aren’t super appropriate for a professional setting, then you are only making things difficult for yourself. Cut off those festival bracelets, take out the earring and buy a nice suit (these are actually all real examples from my past).

Of course, none of the suggestions above are unique to the situation in Taiwan – the same advice would be relevant to any job seeker. So let’s get a bit more specific: what are the particular things that make you more employable in Taiwan? I’ll share a story from an American Marketing Director friend of mine who managed a team of Taiwanese and a team of foreigners in her company. She told me that decisions were made at the management level and then she would delegate roles for her two teams. The Taiwanese team would listen, write notes and then get on with it. The foreign team would listen, give their opinion and then argue about the strategy chosen by the higher-ups. My friend found this extremely frustrating and became reluctant to hire any foreigners who seemed to be too opinionated and individualistic.

The relevance of this story is that you shouldn’t expect to change Taiwanese working culture. If your behavior and attitude are too alien for the local Taiwanese colleagues to deal with, you won’t last long in a company here and certainly won’t be getting promoted any time soon. The best examples of successful foreign professionals I’ve seen are the people who adapt, and understand the local culture. More specifically, this means understanding how to communicate a disagreement and how to speak with a Taiwanese boss. The subtleties are interesting and varied but ultimately you want to be considered an insider without losing the advantages of the outsider.

Job hunting strategies

Before you can flourish in a job in this part of the world, you’ve first got to find one. When I was working in Shanghai, I wrote an article giving some tips to expat job seekers in China. Some of this advice would still be relevant to those in Taiwan,hereis the link.

Ultimately, the best way to approach looking for a job is using a combination of perseverance and creativity. I’ve covered the reasons why companies don’t often hire foreign talent, now it isyourjob to persuade someone why they should. Perseverance is paramount because often you’ll need to apply for lots of jobs, interview many times and work hard to improve your professional profile. Enduring failure and rejection will no doubt be a challenging and frustrating part of your job search. If you have the ability to overcome the defeatism that comes with rejection, you can slowly climb towards your goal and learn something from every set-back.

Creativity in a job search refers to the ability of a person to try every option and think outside the box. For example, have you thoroughly covered all of these options:

1)Applied for jobs on LinkedIn and 104.com.tw

2)Used your current network to its fullest

3)Taken the time to build a new network of contacts through LinkedIn and events

4)Spent the time to craft an attractive resume and LinkedIn profile

5)Researched which companies hire foreigners

The fifth point on the list above is usually the advice I give my foreign connections that they hadn’t previously thought of. If you’re going to look for opportunities in Taiwan, it makes sense to look for companies with a history of hiring foreign professionals. You can use LinkedIn and Google to do some market research; which companies currently employ foreigners and in what capacities? It makes sense that these firms will be easier to persuade to hire you. I previously worked for a large business in China where I was the first foreign hire. It was great fun, but it was a new experience for everyone involved and as a result lacked structure.

Another angle might be to look into the start-up market. If you speak to experts within the start-up community here in Taipei, they will share the same prognosis of the market: lots of great ideas but a significant lack of business acumen, sales, and marketing ability. If this sounds like a great opportunity for you personally, then you are starting to get the picture. Look for opportunities everywhere, around every corner. For a confident but inexperienced foreigner, a partnership with a start-up venture might be the right move. The start-up can use your natural sales acumen and creativity and you can have the advantage of being given a chance to shine. These kinds of jobs will probably not pay well initially, but your priority should be getting a foot in the door and earning relevant experience.

Growing your career in Taiwan

If you are already on the career ladder in Taiwan and have more than a couple of years’ experience already, then perhaps I haven’t tackled your circumstances adequately enough. For this group of people, the real question is how do you build a solid and improving career here over a number of years? I’m actually going to tackle this question in more detail in a future article, so I won’t go into too much depth here. However, I’d still refer back to a previous point regarding compromising with the Taiwanese working culture. Over a period of years this only becomes more relevant. Being promoted and given more responsibility within a company also means an increased need to communicate amicably within a hierarchy. The better you are at communicating with your boss, colleagues and subordinates, the higher you will climb in the business.

If you work for a company where the Taiwanese staff vastly outnumber the foreign staff, cooperating well with your local colleagues and having them see you as an asset to the company can be the most obvious key to achievement. If you can find ways to exploit your differences and strengths, it will most likely be recognized internally. Find yourself allies within the business to help you with the harder tasks and work hard to prove your worth.

Is the market changing for the better?

It is quite clear that the current labor market for foreigners is a bit intimidating, which brings me to an important question: is the market changing for the better? If I had to speculate, I’d say the situation is improving for white-collar foreign labor. I personally would love to see more diversity in companies here. I’m a big believer in the advantages of a mixed workforce, hiring a variety of personalities and skills allows a company to utilize different employees for different needs. Having a charming and outgoing Sales Manager might be to your advantage, while having your Finance and IT Heads be more technically astute would make more sense. I’d extend this to foreign talent. For example, having a marketing team comprised of ten locals and one foreigner would allow a company to get a non-Taiwanese perspective on the ideas and strategies being discussed. A diverse workforce improves a business.

The government is also attempting to attract foreign talent to the island. There is a labor shortage in a number oftechnical professionsand the birth rate in Taiwan is amongst thelowest in the world. Having said that, intentions don’t always translate into measurable results and improvements could definitely be made. Recent measures such as the introduction of theGold Card program, setting up Contact Taiwan, and a general willingness by the government to engage in discussion with the influential individuals within the foreign business community. There are also rumors that working visa stipulations will be lowered by the end of 2020. The restrictions around minimum wage, two years of experience, and holding a bachelor’s degree are all beingconsidered and reviewed.

Ultimately, any change will be slow and gradual. Successful examples of foreigners working here will lead to more companies taking a chance on hiring foreign talent. The best changes I’ve witnessed recently have been the result of efforts by a few close friends of mine. Daniel Miller runs a company called Pagoda Projects that partners with Universities from the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in placing interns into companies in Taiwan. I think this is brilliant. Before this kind of semi-governmental project came into Taiwan, there were very few examples of foreigners being given a chance in entry level roles. I can guarantee that companies who hire a strong performing intern will be more likely to start increasing their openness to hiring foreign talent. Crucially, it is a much less risky investment for the Taiwanese business to hire an intern for six months. Interns are a company’s gateway drug into the world of office place diversity.

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The next positive organization I’d like to mention by name isAll Hands Taiwan. Before All Hands Taiwan came into being, you could feel the palpable frustration and anger emanating from the online job-boards and discussion groups. On the Facebook group, “Non-Teaching Jobs in Taiwan” the comments under job postings were frequently confrontational and aggressive. The admins of the group work incredibly hard with their volunteered time and it was often repaid with ingratitude. I watched several comment threads get completely out of control. All Hands Taiwan aims to offer an alternative to this negativity, creating a community of events and discussions centered around collecting practical and actionable advice from people who know what they’re talking about. This has allowed the foreign community to grow and learn from each other’s experiences. I have high hopes for these kinds of efforts and will continue to do anything I can to support people like John Murn, who are combining good intentions with good ideas.

The foreigner’s dilemma: To stay or to go?

The decision about whether to stay in Taiwan or move home is one that many people agonize over. Once you consider that you might not be able to have a successful career here, it makes sense to weigh your options. For some professionals, moving to Shanghai, Singapore, Bangkok or back home might be the best play. The market in Taiwan for foreigners is worse than in many major international cities. The decision will have to be considered alongside many factors and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Moving back to your native country might be the best option if you wish to have an easier career ladder. It makes sense that ambitious professionals are more likely to hit their full potential in their home market. However, if you’ve already lived overseas for many years, going back home and attempting to start in a new market might be comparably frustrating. I would recommend everyone to analyze their situation and consider all factors. I give individualized advice about this kind of decision on a regular basis if you want to contact me on LinkedIn.

Conclusion

Taiwan is a hidden gem in Asia: It’s a beautiful, safe and welcoming country to live in, andsurveyed expats reportbeing incredibly satisfied with their quality of life . However, for those foreigners who wish to start and grow a successful career here, it can be quite challenging. There are approaches you can take to make the roadblocks easier to bypass, and the market is potentially changing for the better and becoming more open. However, this progress will probably be slow. The path you choose and decisions you make about your career will ultimately need to be determined by your own individual situation. Maybe with some tips from a headhunter ;)

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