The demand for expat jobs in Southeast Asia has been on the rise. Some expats come for holidays first and decide to come back for work.
Others work at a company at home and are offered an internal transfer to another office abroad, while others like me, ended up there by random chance.
Asia has a habit of getting under one’s skin and Southeast Asia is no different. Many of us opt to stay and continue our career after our first assignment abroad. The questions we tend to ask ourselves are where do we find the expat jobs, which ones are available and how do the different countries stack up?
Let’s dive into this overview.
Typical expat jobs in Southeast Asia
The most common jobs can be divided up into career and non-career jobs. Since I don’t cover non-career or one-off opportunities in-depth on this blog, let’s start there.
There are often a number of teaching jobs available whether it is focused on tourists like diving, surfing or another type of sports instructor. You’ll also find many that are English teachers teaching local kids. Many of them are doing it to support their travels and don’t plan to stay in the field.
A smaller minority are English teachers with a background in the field and have chosen it as their long term career, which makes it one of the few jobs that fall into both categories depending on our approach to it.
Career expat jobs we’ll often see in Southeast Asia are:
- Business executive (often in startups or outsourcing)
- Shipping and finance (in Singapore specifically)
If you don’t have a specific background or industry you are planning to work in, tech startups or the outsourcing industry are probably your best bet.
When we talk about the region, the picture can feel a bit skewed because the hub of Singapore is more developed and attracts a significant portion of the expats in the region. That means many of the industries and jobs that come up when looking for expat jobs in Southeast Asia are there as many foreign companies tend to place the regional headquarters there.
How Expat jobs compare between the countries in Southeast Asia
Specifically for expat jobs in Southeast Asia, we can divide the region up into three subgroups, where Singapore and Brunei are in a group on their own and a few particularly undeveloped nations in terms of expat job opportunities in another. Those are:
- Timor leste
- Papua new guinea
Honestly, I haven’t been able to find any in-depth details about expat jobs there due to either political unrest and lack of trade relationships with other countries. I hear mostly about English teaching and diplomatic opportunities but that’s about it. That leaves us with the main group of the region:
The reason is simply that these markets are developing nations with similar patterns in terms of the expat job market. Brunei stands out as being a tiny state with about half a million citizens and expat jobs there are focused around the oil and gas industry. Singapore will be particularly interesting for career-focused expats and deserves its own article altogether.
In the core group of countries in Southeast Asia, we’ve seen a large influx of tech startups inspired by western business ideas and tailored to the local markets. That will continue to rise for the next many years as investor confidence grows in the markets. These countries have long been popular outsourcing partners for the production of tech and graphic work from western companies looking to save cost. They tend to function as competition to those looking for an alternative to outsourcing to India.
I often notice expats jobs in the outsourcing sector. They tend to be for expats interested in helping bridge the gap between delivery of production work in local subsidiary offices in Southeast Asia and the headquarters’ expectations in the west. That means that unless we are doing sales or project management work, the expat jobs here are often from a mid-manager level and up.
Language and cultural skills to communicate well with the headquarters in the west tend to be more important here than in other jobs I’ve come across, so if you are looking for your first expat job in Southeast Asia, this might be a good place to start.
In tech startups, the focus tends to be more on working hard to solve problems than having particular credentials from home although they can help if they are highly relevant. As there will be many cultural differences between foreign founders, investors and local talent, some startups hire expats as mid-level managers to help with critical thinking and problem solving to support the execution and local market insights.
If you’ve held a senior role at a tech startup in the west, this can be a terrific option to help a startup in the same industry solve the same challenges in these markets. I haven’t seen any particular difference or benefit working in a role like Marketing or finance over tech, with the exception of sales and old school, non-digital marketing. It can be attractive if we sell or market to other expats because of the trust we are able to build but if we sell to the local markets, we need local market insights.
I notice that expats working in the region over time often switch jobs and work in a few countries within the core group of countries before either returning home or moving into senior positions in Singapore. It isn’t uncommon for someone to transfer their skills from a startup in, say, Vietnam to Indonesia since expats usually aren’t focused on the local market insights as much as the internal business side of things.
Since the countries each have their own language, the opportunities for English speakers tend to be about the same and usually the local language isn’t needed. It can be helpful but often doesn’t count unless we are fluent.
How the job search works: Where are the expat jobs in Southeast Asia?
Now to the important question: where are the jobs and how do we find them?
Besides the traditional option of transferring internally within a company, there are specific recruitment agencies that cater to expat jobs in Southeast Asia (contact me via my newsletter if you want a recommendation as it might have changed since writing this).
They can be a good choice if you already have a job and don’t want to tell everyone you are looking elsewhere. They can also give you a general sense of the salary range for expats in your role and country, as those tend to be unreliable when we look at typical salary websites like glassdoor or payscale.
Often the job sites we find for this region feel abandoned and outdated, and Linkedin is probably the best choice these days but don’t get discouraged if you can’t find relevant job postings online. The reality is that there are two job markets: the job postings online, and the hidden job market for those who don’t want just any job but their dream job.
The hidden job market
Just like in any other country, a large portion of jobs are never posted online but instead landed through our network.
Personally, I’ve landed jobs through networking and working on small gigs first, like freelance projects, to see if we were a good fit before joining a company full time. I’ve found that it makes a world of difference to have an existing relationship as that can lead to jobs being offered or created for us directly without even being posted online.
Most of my friends have landed their expat jobs in Southeast Asia here in the same way no matter the country. In fact, I can’t think of any that landed one through the traditional online application.
Enter the hidden job market with the Embassy technique
If you are interested in working in the outsourcing industry in Southeast Asia, here are the specific steps you can take to discover the unpublished expat job opportunities. This is not the most common approach but tends to work well if you want to impress your future employer and have extra negotiation power for a job down the road. It can work for any job but it works particularly well if you’d like to work at a company with ties to your home country.
We are going to speak to companies from our home country that are operating in Southeast Asia first instead of applying online. That will give us an idea of which upcoming jobs they have in the pipeline in the near future before they are ever published so we have an advantage.
If you can’t find the companies on google, we can usually get an overview of them by speaking with the embassies.
- Find your embassy website for the country you are interested in along with their email address
- Send each embassy an email asking for a list of companies from your country operating in that country
- Reach out to the companies on that list and ask if they are open to a quick 20-min call to talk about their hiring process for foreign staff
- After the call, send them a friendly update on your progress from time to time so they won’t forget you when the right thing opens up
This is an ongoing process and after the initial conversation, it’s all about staying in touch with the companies over time, so they remember you when a relevant job opens up.
What to talk with the companies about
When you’ve got responses, express your interest in working abroad but remember the old adage, ask for a job and get advice, but ask for advice and get a job.
I suggest speaking with them to understand how many foreigners they employ at the office, how they came to work there and what their general requirements have been for employing foreigners in the past.
That will help you get a baseline understanding of what they’ve already done which can feel easier to answer than what might happen in the future.
I also recommend asking what kind of challenges they have these days and what they are looking to do over the next 12 months related to your field or background. That will help you see if there are challenges you can solve and become a valuable member of the team. This approach helps show how proactive you are, something that most companies tend to love because it is so rare.
- For expat jobs in Southeast Asia, we can look at three groups of countries
- If you don’t have a particular industry you are looking to enter abroad, outsourcing or tech startups might be your best bet.
- It is possible to find jobs online but many of them are never published anywhere and creates a hidden job market