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Regular version of the site

Difficulties in the Career Path of a Sinologist

Interview with Aliya Arsaeva, head of the HSE partner –  recruiting agency 'China Professionals', specializing in Chinese market.

Difficulties in the Career Path of a Sinologist

Aliya Arsaeva is a recruiter and headhunter, career consultant in the direction of "working with China." Aliya runs the China Professionals project, the first recruiting agency to work with China and an online industry supplementary education platform for those looking to work with China. China Professionals help talented graduates of their courses find employment, and recruits’ companies for highly specialized or managerial positions. Since November 2020, the China Professionals Center have been a partner of the HSE SPB.

–  Tell us about your professional path.

–  I am a linguist and pedagogical methodologist by education. I received my diploma from Moscow State Linguistic University, and immediately went to be employed in large companies, Russian and Western ones. In general, I was more of an anti-example for high-flyer careerists: as a person with a methodological mindset, I was interested in scanning different industries and functional areas for "successful behavior" in this niche and understanding a business problem from different angles, not taking root in any industry. Before China, I worked in several industries - HR, PR, business development and marketing.

I came to Beijing in 2011 and worked there for a Chinese laser equipment company. I was the only foreigner there; I was engaged in business development in America and Europe with a team of 5 people. In fact, it was the export department, it was just necessary to streamline the processes, as well as think over positioning that was understandable for the West - from a bilingual website to marketing materials. Later, working at AliExpress in Hangzhou and Moscow, I expanded my understanding of a career in Chinese companies.

In parallel, from the age of 18, I taught languages, individually and in corporate groups, and ran my training center. Both "careers" - industry and teaching - complemented each other. Teaching allows you to hear people and build an individual development strategy for each, and business makes teaching practice boring and close to reality.

–  How did you come up with the idea to create an employment agency for Chinese specialists?

–  When I returned to Russia from China, I saw that the recruitment system for working with this region was unbalanced - despite the fact that China is Russia's number 1 trade partner. For three years, I have informally helped connect employers with talented candidates, while working on an educational project. And when we opened the China Professionals agency in 2020, it became clear that the market had been waiting for such professional services for a long time. After all, both jobseekers and employers have difficulties in recruiting. As a result, the entire sectoral front Russia-China suffers.

–  What, in your opinion, are the main difficulties in the employment of Sinologists?

–  According to the Ministry of Education, in 2019, about 80% of specialists with a diploma in oriental studies do not work with the region of the target language, and of the remaining, only 40% are satisfied with their work and do not dream of changing it. In general, most people in the humanities face the need for retraining and low career awareness, but learning the Chinese language requires tripled efforts: daily polishing of the language, internship in China, language support outside the environment, etc. For their investments, Chinese scholars also expect a higher return on investment, but in fact they do not receive the expected monetization and self-realization, why?

Firstly the “I can’t” reasons, the guys simply do not have time to master industry algorithms, because they are focused on the language. As a result, the average CV of a Sinologist is a mixture of teaching and translation experience. The employer can assign such employees only translation and administrative tasks. Specialists with Chinese cannot apply for interesting industry vacancies yet and are stuck in auxiliary positions for years.

Secondly, “I don’t want to” reasons: Sinologists do not hold on to industry work, do not see it as a career route for themselves. The main employer for Sinologists is still small and medium-sized enterprises operating in the commodity business. And we have the following situation: learning the Chinese language requires depth and subtlety of thinking, and the employer receives tasks like "bend the factory to the last yuan." Little intellectual tasks cool the ardor of young specialists in China, it is much more pleasant for them to start teaching private practice, and business is losing talented personnel.

Thirdly, “I don’t know” reasons: this is when the guys are savvy in the industry and are full of determination, but do not know where to look for good vacancies - with the prospect of growth, in stable companies, with interesting tasks, with a good salary, with a professional team. They do not suspect that there are managerial or expert vacancies with a monthly salary of 200-300 thousand rubles, which they can strive for and which do not appear in the public domain, and that they have every chance of becoming an international-class specialist. They are also not trained to search for such vacancies.

–  What are the difficulties of employers in recruiting personnel to work with China?

–  It is often difficult for employers to assess the competence of a Sinologist: they do not know what Sinology is, and what this unique knowledge consists of, if there are no digitized achievements in the resume, and they cannot competently check the language in practice. They are more interested in whether this person will be able to relieve them of the headaches of working with Chinese contractors, distributors or suppliers, close specific business tasks, and bring results. According to our surveys, it takes up to a year to fully immerse yourself in the work of the humanities with the Chinese language. This is costly for the company in terms of time and budget. Everyone wants to get a ready-made specialist who will jump with a parachute and immediately run. To be faithful, employers often look for candidates "among their own" and do not necessarily find suitable specialists.

–  What are the solution options?

–  We monitor the dynamics of the labor market for working with China: we analyze each vacancy from open and closed sources, analyze vacancies by tasks and competencies. We have identified which niches have the most demand for personnel and have developed online workshops in these areas. Courses are built on exactly those competencies from the vacancies studied. Workshop participants check the capacity of demand in China for Russian goods, draw up a plan for online and offline promotion of goods in China, select real factories for the production of goods, check them for reliability, draw up contracts, do analytics in different niches, receive legal training on pain points for foreign business in China, questions - in general, they learn to think in business problems, and not in language problems. At the same time, they also receive lists of industry vocabulary.

In general, we are building a site where you can practice in different areas in a short time and choose your own path. Now we are cooperating with 22 universities of the CIS, which graduate specialists with the Chinese language. We recruit staff for 13 companies on a regular basis in the fields of import, export, logistics, e-commerce, IT, etc. we are experimenting with training formats: studying Western mechanics and working on an accelerator and an MBA program for executives, country managers in China. We introduce the audience to those who work with real China through live broadcasts on Instagram. We are preparing a closed selection of interesting vacancies with China for course graduates, gathering a community of young promising specialists in China.

–  How has the pandemic affected the labor market with China?

–  Business activity with China continues. Where the processes are established, the execution of contracts goes on the old rails, but some new business projects are frozen: new initiatives require face-to-face networking. The labor market is responding for this by lowering the number of full-time vacancies. In 2020, the competition for one full-time Chinese-language vacancy ranged from 60 to 90 people per position. There are fewer vacancies with the Chinese language in the traditional Chinese procurement sphere, there is more demand for specialists serving exports to China, incl. for digital marketers.

By the way, the selections of vacancies with the Chinese language and statistics on the labor market give a lot of food for thought and often talk about the economic relations between the Russian Federation and the PRC more than the agenda of official meetings or commercial conferences.

The main employer for Sinologists remains Russian business, not Chinese, as some think. The bar on the professionalism of foreign candidates in Chinese companies is rising: the Chinese are hiring industry leaders who can make decisions, and language specialists are assigned supporting roles. Therefore, the main industry experience in the coming years, young specialists can be recruited in Russian companies, in order to then try themselves in branded Chinese companies in key positions.

–  In which industries and for which functions are they looking for specialists with the Chinese language?

–  Traditionally, the largest number of vacancies in the field of foreign economic activity, there are interesting vacancies in the areas of technology transfer, the Internet. Functions: business development, sales, product and project management, finance, investments, legal support of transactions, analytics. We do not deal only with purely translation positions; we pass them on to colleagues.

–  Please tell us a little about the process of recruiting and forming a team of 'China Professionals'.

–  Now there is a lot of work, we are recruiting employees of various levels - from interns with payment for KPIs to large specialists with the opportunity to receive an option.

By the way, the HSE, against the background of many other state universities, does a lot for the employment of its graduates. I think the latter were lucky. Unsurprisingly, when I interviewed several dozen candidates for our advertised internship position, I found that all four of the interns we had selected were HSE. This suggests that HSE provides students with the right career guidelines.

In your opinion, what skills and competencies should our students develop during the educational process in order to broaden their employment prospects? 

Chinese-language scholars who want to work in commercial companies, firstly, need to train their business horizons, for example, to determine the monetization model of any business: what brings money in the company, who are the stakeholders and what business pains you can overcome with your skills. Second, to shape structural thinking. I have noticed many times that it is difficult for Sinologists, especially those with a good knowledge of the Chinese language, to see a large picture, and sometimes it is boring to search for it. Apparently, the “一步 一步” (“step by step”) approach to learning Chinese is then extended by students to their approach to business problems, making their thinking process oriented. They are engaged in translations as they become available, without reflecting and moving up the career ladder blindly. At the same time, successful work that contributes to career advancement is the exact opposite: to get a general idea, delve into business problems, sketch a map of actions, actively ask for new areas of responsibility, bring results, solving the problem with the help of language tools, including. For those who have a structured mindset rather than a list mindset, it is easier and more fun to work. After all, the same Chinese say "小 智 治事 , 大智 治 制" (the small mind is busy with individual tasks, the big mind is busy with the system).

–  At one of your speeches, you noted that “working in a Chinese company is a must-have,” but a difference in mentality can become a significant difficulty in the workplace. Do you have any tips for job seekers on how to adapt their mentality in advance to interact with Chinese business?

–  The Chinese think collectively, not individually, so it is important to dissolve your ego a little for the sake of overall harmony. Do not get emotionally involved in Chinese characteristics that run counter to your business ethics. Love the Chinese chaos and learn how to navigate in it. Notice reasons for respect and traits to learn from Chinese colleagues every day. Take work seriously. The Chinese feel and appreciate it. It will simply create a positive emotional state and a breeding ground for your growth. After all, the key when working on a par with the Chinese is not to lose a positive attitude. There is a category of Russians who are not psychologically suited to work for a Chinese boss. Then it is better not to torture yourself and try to work with China in a different capacity - as an employer or as a customer (for example, coordinating the work of contractors - developers of complex electronics).

But working in a Chinese environment is not an end in itself, but one of the stages of a Sinologist's career. It teaches you how to work with the Chinese, but it does not add solid skills to you. Therefore, you should always sit on two chairs, or rather stand on both legs, and be able to quickly switch between the two systems.

–  In your opinion, is getting an education in China a guarantor of employment in the PRC? Or do Chinese employers not pay attention to diplomas?

Rather, a Chinese diploma is a guarantee that you have more loyalty to the region, and if you have not wasted time during your studies, it means that you have more fluent Chinese and more extensive connections among the Chinese. Chinese employers have no goal of employing foreigners in key positions not related to business development in Russia. They would prefer to hire someone with an overseas education and an already big name in the industry overseas. I think that graduates of Chinese universities are generally of interest to Russian companies in the future as heads of representative offices in China. But these guys will need to go all the way to gain practical skills in the industry. Because the days of magical career lifts in China are over.

–  What parting words could you give to young specialists with the Chinese language?

–  You cannot present work with China as a rosy dream for everyone: we focus on statistics, economic indicators, and not on our desire to educate and get everyone a job. Working with real China is both pain and rapid personal growth. But I will not exaggerate if I say that working with China is an opportunity to exist in a completely different speed and energy regime. And the sooner you start your career with China, the more likely you will be at the forefront of the integration process with that region when the moment is right.

It often happens that bright careers and successful businesses in China are built by those who do not even speak Chinese, but know their business, feel, and love this region. We want the Sinologists to get this chance as well.

It is important to realistically assess yourself as a product in the labor market, know your gaps and broaden your business horizons. We expect a surge in career opportunities for China professionals following the formal completion of the lockdown. In the meantime, the guys have all the chances to prepare and gain practical skills. Recruiters, headhunters, and additional education are just catalysts for the labor market. We hope to contribute to the formation of an elite at least partially - a highly professional personnel reserve for working with China.