I’m sure you’ve heard of the amazing, old school, Asia expat jobs with a high salary, low tax, benefits like free international schooling for the kids, a private driver and a huge house.
But the internet has made them far and few between.
Back in the day, the idea was that it was compensation as one would have to leave our family and everything we knew behind to move to the unknown frontier. With globalization in travel and the internet, that has become less and less necessary as more people are interested in that experience because it is much easier for us to move abroad and still stay in touch with family and friends back home.
They still exist to some degree but without a long term plan in advance and a wealth of relevant experience, it’s hard to access the golden handcuffs. If GS elevator is anything to go by for the finance world, we’ll need to do excellent in a relevant university plus starting our career in the west before potentially “qualifying” for Asia’s expat jobs.
It appears that many traditional expat industries are following a similar pattern. So what else can we do and what other options do we have out there? That’s what you and I will explore in this article.
The best Asia expat jobs to advance your career
If you are simply looking for a list of common Asia expat jobs, here it is:
- English teacher
- Working in tech startups
- Diplomatic/government related work
- Oil and gas
Especially expat jobs in the finance space will be challenging to land if you haven’t already done the legwork to position yourself with the right background, and that takes years. There are a few more job types that tend to follow along the same lines:
- Diplomatic/government related work
- Oil and gas
For many of us, those are not relevant. Another classic option is to teach English. You might have heard of some people who simply fly to an Asian country with no background in teaching and land a job teaching English. That might be possible but it is not something I’ll cover here as it becomes stressful not to have the proper paperwork and doesn’t offer any serious career trajectory.
On the other hand, if you have a background in teaching, it might be attractive as many Asian countries place importance on it and thus want their children to learn it in school which means decent salaries considering the cost of living. I’ve heard of salaries ranging from around $1,500 to $6,000 per month but since that isn’t my field of choice and I’m not an expert here, take that with a grain of salt. If that sounds exciting, perhaps Alex’s site Ninja Teacher will be relevant for you.
With that out of the way, let’s look at three industry examples that are generally open to a somewhat flexible background and that we can land without many years of preparation:
- Tech startups
Import/export typically means working at an agency that helps businesses bridge the gap trading between a particular country and another region. Often that is helping one country enter the other for production or sales. For example, there are certain agencies that help European and western businesses enter Vietnam to either sell their products in this new market or the other way around.
The outsourcing industry follows a similar pattern but tends to be more focused on western businesses setting up a production house in the east to leverage a strong workforce and a lower cost along with the timezone difference.
Finally, the most exciting and flexible option: working at tech startups. Let me start by saying that there are many startups out there, so it can be a shit show or a terrific experience depending on the company and the founder itself. For those of us who are serious about our career but aren’t interested in traditional industries like finance, this might be your best bet.
Particularly, if you are a mid-level manager or are ready to become one with a few years of experience under your belt. The working culture is a bit different in Asia than in the west and in startups, foreigners tend to become mid-level managers and get more responsibility earlier than at home if we are willing to roll up our sleeves and get to work.
The startup experience in Asia is often rawer than the traditional expat packages as startups tend to offer only a salary with little benefits, until a late stage where the company turns into a more established business.
Along with that, as expats we can’t contribute much early in our career unless the business’s partners or customers are from our region of the world as we don’t understand the local culture as well as the locals.
Around the mid-manager level we can contribute with the critical thinking and collaboration experience we bring from home, not to mention that specific industry experience is a huge benefit as many startups take established ideas from the west and tweak them to fit the local markets. If we have helped build something similar back home, that is a huge benefit for the business and a leverage point for us.
Where most people look for expat jobs
Another approach to getting job ideas is to go to job sites and see what jobs are available to get a lay of the land.
That tends to work well with established job sites at home but if you’ve already done your research, you have probably noticed that finding expat jobs in Asia can feel difficult as many job boards are outdated and without serious job postings. And even so, many of the best jobs are hidden from the public eye and that means job boards are left with the scraps.
Even if you find some job boards that are legit, the big challenge with using them is that you are competing with motivated candidates who leverage their network to get ahead.
It is well documented that at home many people find jobs through their network and that is amplified abroad. In fact, I can’t think of a single person I know who landed a job in Asia through a job site.
I spoke to an expat the other day who landed their job through someone they met at an event. Another bought a festival ticket from someone who later connected them with their current job and I could go on and on.
How to find the hidden expat jobs in Asia
I’ve found a better approach is to head over to LinkedIn and look at existing expats that are already working abroad and look at what kind of jobs they have right now. That gives us a more realistic picture of what’s going on right now and when you find something interesting, you might want to look through their background to get an idea of what landed them that job.
If you are feeling extra motivated, message some of them and ask how they got their job. Here’s an example script:
I’m considering working in Asia and I noticed you’ve been doing that for a while. I’m researching to find my dream job and I’d love to ask you two questions since you have so much more experience than I. Would that be ok?
I’m looking forward to it
And then ask the questions you are wondering about. The key is to ask questions that will offer us insights we can’t find by researching online. For example:
- Were you hired abroad and relocated or were you already in the country when you landed the job? Do you think it makes a difference?
- What do you think had the biggest impact on you landing the job?
- Besides X, what do you like about working at Y company (or country)?
- How did you discover the job you have now? Did you find it on a job site and if so, which one?
I can’t believe I have to say this but we have to remember to thank people who helped us. Too many people ask for someone’s time and then don’t thank them for going out of their way to help. It’s a surefire way to guarantee they won’t help us again.
When you have spoken to five or ten expats doing something related to what you want, you should be able to spot a pattern based on their answers. If the answers are all over the place, it might be that the people are doing things that are quite different – not everyone updates their LinkedIn profile regularly.
But you’ll still be ahead of everyone else since it’s challenging to find accurate information about our specific dream job abroad out there.
How to find startups
One challenge we might run into with startups in this region is that their headquarters are registered in another country. That means they might not show up on standard lists and when you look on LinkedIn, they might appear to be in a different country than the one they operate from. The easiest way to assess that is to research the company on other websites and look at where most of the employees are located.
Something to keep in mind is that many startups won’t be ready to hire foreigners who don’t have highly relevant expertise and are not already in the country until they reach a certain stage and are, for example, ready for expansion.
The easiest way to look at this is by which stage of funding that startup is at. It changes depending on the industry and there is no one size fits all but it will give you a basic overview to get started. You should be able to find news about a company’s funding via a quick google search or on crunchbase.com.
- Seed round: the startup is refining the idea and the product
- Series A: they working to prove that the idea has legs and that customers stick around at some scale
- Series B: things are working and it’s time to expand
- Series C: further expansion
In many cases, it isn’t relevant for us to join before a Series A funding and for many, not before Series B as that is generally seen as the stage where the startup turns into more of an established business with systems and processes. As long as they are past the seed round, they might be worth looking at depending on the role you’d play with your skillset.
A note on recruitment agencies
Recruitment agencies can be a hit or miss. I know startups that work with them but don’t hire only through them and there are many that don’t use them at all.
They can be useful to get an idea about the job market, especially if you have an existing job and don’t want to ring the bell and share with everyone that you are looking for the next step.
In general, I am hesitant to use them unless I have a personal connection there because our job is an important decision and it’s not a good idea to outsource that to someone else who doesn’t have your best interest at heart (recruiters are often paid a commission when a candidate is placed in a job).
It’s similar to creating a startup and asking someone else to raise capital for it. It’s too important a decision and if we fail, at least we only have ourselves to blame than someone else and we can change what didn’t work.
- One of the best career options for an expat job in Asia is to work at a tech startup if you don’t have a specific traditional expat industry lined up
- If we insist on using job boards to find expat jobs in Asia, we are likely to fight for the scraps as most jobs aren’t posted there
- A more effective approach is to ask experts who are already working in Asia how they got their jobs