Liudmila Veselova on Career Opportunities of Orientalists-Sinologists
— Tell us about your career path and research interests.
— When I was a doctoral student of Faculty of Asian and African Studies at SPBSU, I started to combine the studies and work in business sphere: I was the head of procurement and logistics department and worked mostly with Asian countries. There have always been two directions in my life: academic and practical. While working, I faced a problem: the company needed new employees — to be exact, orientalists-sinologists — to work with Asian countries. It was hard to find such employees even for basic positions of managers. There has always been an imbalance: a candidate was an orientalist with expert knowledge of Chinese history and culture, proficiency in Chinese, but weak business qualities. Or vice versa, a person had great business qualities, but lacked general and cross-cultural communication skills and knowledge of Chinese language.
About ten years ago, I started thinking about why there was such an inconsistency in the educational system. Students graduate from the universities being poorly adapted to labour market conditions. In the labour market, the graduates of Asian studies faculties are not in great demand and it is hard for them to get a job due to the lack of competencies. For example, my major was the history of China. When entering the labour market with the historical education background, I faced the problem of low demand for me as a specialist. The ‘turn to the East’ was not so obvious back then. The fundamental requirements were knowledge of English and work experience. Most companies did not need rare at that time knowledge of the Chinese language and regional expertise.
But I was lucky: starting with my first place of employment, where I was just a procurement manager, I have worked with China. Since that time, my career has developed in the sphere of cooperation with Asian countries and manufacture in China. I did not forget Chinese, and I needed all the regional knowledge, especially the geography of China. You might say that I was one of the few who started working in the profession. The most interesting part is that almost everywhere I worked I subsequently ran workshops on cooperation with Chinese suppliers and peculiarities of Chinese ethno psychology.
Some years ago, I fully devoted myself to the academic track and dived into working in the university. It is important to me to keep the master's programme ‘Business and Politics in Modern Asia’, which I am in charge of, practical and the most useful to the students. Only this way the higher education can solve the problems in the labour market. It will also allow us to train specialists who understand business sphere and processes related to Asia.
My research interests are very diversified. My doctoral dissertation was devoted to the topic of informal relations (guanxi) in China. This research was directly connected with my business work in China, which means it was based on my practical experience. Now I am occupied with talent management, gender politics in Asian countries, labour market changes and formation of the middle class in China. The last aspect seems very important to me as the middle class is an engine of economy in China.
— What was your speech at Oriental Lectorium at Kazan Federal University devoted to?
— First of all, we should explain what Oriental Lectorium is. Kazan Federal University (KFU) organises meetings of a very interesting format: they invite various specialists who talk to students about Asian countries.
My speech continued the report, which was presented at the conference in November 2021 in Kazan. It was devoted to the labour markets of Russia and China in terms of gender issues. We talked about the position of men and women in the labour market, imbalance in salaries, unequal conditions of promotion. My colleagues liked the report in November and they asked me to tell the graduating students about the labour market issues in a more practical aspect.
For many graduates, the question ‘What shall I do next?’ is topical because many Asian countries are still closed due to the pandemics and political reasons. The situation in the Russian labour market is not clear too. My colleagues and I decided that a conversation about employment will be useful for students.
— Is gender research of a personal interest to you?
— Right, I and my colleagues from the Hamburg University of Technology in Germany are conducting a countries research including Russia, China, the USA and the Netherlands. As a result, we want to find out how women feel in the labour market of these countries. My report is a small part of an extensive research.
— What tendencies prevail in the labour market for sinologists today? Which companies are interested in the graduates of this academic track?
— I can say that generally the situation for the orientalists becomes harder because earlier only a small group of people had been learning Oriental languages. Recently, Russian education has changed its focus to China. Many universities and language courses provided an opportunity to study Oriental languages. It happened so that the students of non-specialised programmes started learning them and it is not something unique anymore.
There started appearing economists, lawyers, sociologists who alongside with knowing an Oriental language (though not as proficiently as the orientalists) have additional skills and competencies. We see on the job web-sites that since 2010 there has been an increasing number of job seekers who know Chinese and other Oriental languages.
In 2022, there is a demand for specialists in the sphere of logistics and procurement. Currently, the Russian economy is fully refocusing to the East that is why a growing number of companies open foreign activity departments. There is a great demand for the specialists in Asian-oriented companies: these are household electronics and appliances manufacturers, traders and major production facilities. For example, recently Anna Kotova, head of the Career Development Centre, and I went to Imperial Porcelain Manufactory which is planning on entering Asian markets and is interested in cooperation with us and our graduates. They lack orientalists despite of the industrial scale and brand publicity.
Many manufacturing companies try to enter Chinese markets. It would be problematic to do without employees who know Oriental languages and understand the specific nature of work with the East. That is why we can say that it is time for orientalists to shine, but on the other hand, the competition in the labour market increased.
— What is the ratio of job seekers and employers in the labour market?
— On average, it is 11 people per place. There is a competition, getting a good job will be a challenge.
— What tendencies will prevail in the labour market in the next 5-10 years?
— It is hard to predict as the labour market depends a lot on the global situation and relations with China. For the last three years, China had been closed for us and many graduates who had gone there to work before could not do it at that time. Now the country’s borders are opening step by step and there are more flights. I believe that when China will finally open, specialists will go there again. After all, it is still appealing. There are many people who love this country, want to work there, to plunge into the environment and improve their knowledge of Chinese.
There appears one more question: where will orientalists be able to work in a new reality? Since last year, the Chinese government has begun to control the school and pre-school education more strictly. Extra courses and language schools were banned, but it is this sphere that offered the most appealing positions to the graduates. In that regard, many tutors, including our graduates, lost an opportunity to teach legally in China. Currently, the situation in China is very harsh: they can apply to starting position which are low-paid or superior positions which require a substantial amount of work experience.
— What is the ratio of people who work in China and those who stay to work in Russia?
— It depends on the region. In the Far East Region, historically people choose China, Korea and Japan. First of all, it is the consequence of these countries’ proximity. Second, the logistics of moving is easier coordinated when you work with Asian countries. Nowadays there are positions in Chinese companies in Russia: one does not have to go abroad, but can both practise Chinese and understand how Russian business works.
There are many Chinese companies in Central Russia and megalopolises. A person can work in a new business environment and practise the language without leaving Russia. Besides, the pay rate in Moscow and Saint-Petersburg can compete with wages in China.
It is difficult to talk about the ratio. A number of graduates still decide to stay in Russia because China is too expensive for relocation. Graduates without working experience usually get starting positions. In my opinion, it is better to go through this stage for a year or two staying in your home country, next to your relatives. A good strategy is to go to a Russian-Chinese company, work there for two years, get some experience and letters of recommendation and only then move to China.
— What is the profile of the job seeker who will enter the labour market and successfully find the job in the profession, in your opinion?
— All the companies are very different. Sometimes companies from commodity sectors reach out to me. They look for the candidates who know well how procurements are formed, can make sales, understand the logistics, have basic knowledge of chemistry and are fluent in Chinese and English. Such a candidate is hard to find. This knowledge is rather specific, and it is a very serious set of competencies for a starting position.
There are companies which value soft skills the most. For instance, a number of consulting companies which work with our programme are satisfied with our students' training.
However, there are some companies which are not always fully satisfied with the students' training. As an example, now two of our students are undertaking an internship in TOLMUCH company, which promotes Russian companies in the Chinese social network WeChat. The head of the company is happy with our graduates' work, but very upset that they do not know many functions of WeChat and use it as a messenger only. The last thing is not surprising: when you do not work in the business sphere and there is no need to gather business intelligence, you use WeChat just for communication with the Chinese. Moreover, when you open an account on WeChat from Russia, many functions are not available. That is why students may not know about them. Learning about all the network features is possible only if a person works in a rather specific sphere of social media analytics in China.
On the one hand, we understand the future employers, on the other hand, it is hard to foresee the business demands. In this matter, I think business should get involved in the educational process. This is what we try to do. We invite colleagues from the business sphere to give speeches to our students. For instance, Olga Subanova, head of TOLMUCH, came to our Chinese club and talked about WeChat features. Business should explain what competencies they require or even better take part in the educational process. Later, it will help them to hire the graduates with the competencies demanded in this sphere. It is much easier to do within the master's programme where a business can train 30-40 people at once and then choose the best candidates.
In general, I would describe the business demands in the following way. First of all, a job seeker should be reasonable. Second, they must know how to work in a team which is easy for HSE graduates due to the vast experience of project activities. Third, they must be able to present themselves and a product: from legal and consulting services to sales. Finally, it is important to know foreign languages and understand the economy and business processes in Asian countries because many employers do not want to spend time on training the candidates.
We often come across the graduates who have not made a public presentation within four years of the bachelor's programme in their university even once. It is very stressful for many students to make a speech in front of their course mates. Of course, it is better to prepare for public speeches during the educational process than after you start working.
— Are there any differences between Russian and Chinese companies?
—The main difference is employment in Russian and Chinese companies. In Chinese companies in and out of the country, the vacancies are not publically accessible. There is a large number of job seekers in the Chinese labour market. If you make a vacancy publically accessible, you will be overwhelmed with the amount of applications. It is common in China to find people for a position by acquaintance or recommendations. If a person wants to work for a company in Asia, they should get in touch with recruiting firms. China Professionals, our partners, collect interesting vacancies and sometimes post them in their telegram channel.
Another difference is salary. In Chinese companies, it is not always clear what salary you get and how it is formed. A job seeker should be ready for this and discuss their salary with the employer in the beginning. It is much easier and clearer when you deal with Russian employers.
— Where can graduates be hired nowadays?
— I suppose that in the next 6 months there will be a reduction in a number of vacancies in Chinese companies. I would recommend not to waste time and go to Russian companies. There you can gain some experience and at the same time look for vacancies in the representational offices or in China itself. To my mind, it is the most reasonable strategy at this time.
— Should a graduate apply to a master's programme right after a bachelor's programme?
— In Russia there is an interesting tendency: after bachelor's graduation students apply to master's programmes by inertia. It was the same for me when I was a student: after the graduation I did not know what to do next. In Europe the approach is different: students graduate from bachelor's programmes, work in the profession for some years, analyse what skills they lack and only then choose a master's programme often changing an academic track. Foreign students who study at HSE are often 3-7 years older than our students. They choose a master's programme more reasonably. We need to work with graduating bachelor's students and recommend them to find their place in the labour market. Master's degree is not just a chance to prolong student life, but a way to become a skilled specialist. You should choose a master's programme for a reason. Only then it will be beneficial.
I would recommend bachelor's graduates to try finding their place in the labour market for a couple of years. Only after you understand what knowledge you lack, you should apply to a master's programme.
I do not think that it is hard to find a job for master's graduates. I believe that a talented and goal-oriented person always can get the position they are aimed at. Students who soon start their second year of master's programme should begin to search for vacancies and internships. At HSE, we offer internship to the second-year students in particular. Students should take it very seriously as it is a chance to work and see if you like it. From our programme experience, I see that the internship shows the results. Students undertake an internship and after the presentation of their thesis they are offered a position in a reliable partner company. After working in these companies, it is our students who take on the roles of employers and can invite others to internships. ‘Career Boomerang’ is what we should aim at.
— Why do we face a problem with finding jobs when there are severe staff shortages?
— My colleagues from China and I published an article ‘Phenomenon of Chinese Labour: Difficulties in Finding Jobs for Chinese Graduates and ‘Acute Shortage of Labour’ where we singled out three main problems. First of all, every year universities release many specialists with one specialisation who enter the labour market at the same time. Of course, the market is taken over by a great number of professionals. HSE deals with this problem well. There is MAGOLEGO and elective courses which allow us to train specialists with different competencies within one programme. Students with different skills do not compete with each other.
Second, there is a problem with excessive career expectations. Young specialists who have no working experience, but a diploma of a prestigious university are not ready to take on a starting position with a small salary. It is hard to explain to them that salary must be based on the employee's skills and qualification. Unfortunately, both Russian and Chinese graduates do not want to take on low-paid starting positions.
Finally, the curriculums do not correspond to the demands of the labour market. When the external factors rapidly change, it is problematic to adjust the curriculum as it is usually formed in spring. That is why the university should forecast the labour market demand. Every year we rearrange curriculums and try to consider the situation in our country and the world to give our students only topical knowledge.
— What competencies do the students of the programme ‘Business and Politics in Modern Asia’ get which give them competitive advantage in the labour market?
— The pool of competences is rather extensive. Since last year, we have given many credits for internships. The same is for the projects: within the practical track, six credits are given to this kind of activity. We pay a lot of attention to economics, cross-cultural communication and peculiarities of business cooperation with Asia. We introduced the seminar ‘Experts about Doing Business in/with Asia’ where the business representatives share useful and up-to-date information with our students.
— What advice would you give to the prospective students of this programme?
— The most important advice is to continue learning after you graduate. I support the lifelong learning approach. We should learn throughout our lives: it is beneficial for both our health and career. My colleagues and I constantly undertake training: more than three continuing professional developments a year which are connected not only with Asian studies, but other spheres too, for example, software development, marketing, SMM and others. Our world is changing all the time. If you do not want to be left out, it is necessary to read more, develop oneself and communicate with other people. It is always important to build relations with specialists from various spheres. This can help you with the employment, work and studies. You should visit career events, listen to podcasts, watch webinars and try your best to gain new knowledge. Meanwhile, you should know how to separate ‘white noise’ from really important things for you.
The article was prepared by
Alexandra Polosukhina and Margarita Kotelnikova,
managers of Career Development Centre at HSE University – Saint Petersburg