As some of China’s leading brands and the government work to tempt Chinese research and engineering talent back to the country, how can smaller companies make sure they can attract top talent too?
By Sandy Shi, Associate Consultant, Services and Technology practice
Is China now experiencing a reverse migration?
Exact figures are hard to come by, but anecdotally, it seems as though thousands of skilled Chinese researchers and software engineers working or studying in the West are being tempted to return to China.
Partly this is due to perceptions that, post-Covid, the Chinese economy may continue to grow much faster than the United States. At the same time, the Chinese government is supporting Chinese companies to seek out Chinese talent with key research experience abroad. The companies themselves are also keen.
Wanted: Chinese talent
Take the example of a Chinese pharmaceutical company I recently did a search for. They wanted R&D talent with specific mRNA-related research experience. Crucially, the company insisted that this person be a Chinese national. They had no interest in hiring foreigners – only a Chinese person.
Whether this was because of an emphasis on rapid cultural fit and language skills, or because they would receive more governmental support for hiring a Chinese national, the result is the same. Companies are keen to tempt back research talent with extensive experience of working in key foreign markets.
For more examples of this, we need only look at the offices that Chinese firms like Tencent, Baidu, and Alibaba have opened in the San Francisco Bay Area to compete directly for talent with the likes of Google and Facebook. They are all there looking to attract the best talent they can – and that includes attracting Chinese talent to return home.
Establishing overseas offices is also a convenient way for these companies to attract top Chinese talent to work for those firms while remaining abroad. It gets top talent working for Chinese firms without the hassle or possible delays of physical relocation.
Do Chinese researchers want to return?
But how do Chinese researchers feel about this? It’s complicated. Thousands of Chinese students have moved to universities and tech companies in California – and other parts of the US – to start tech careers. The same is true in pharmaceutical research.
Traditionally, 9 out of 10 Chinese AI graduate students stay in the US for five years after graduation. However, as this article makes clear: “an emerging generation of Chinese experts—educated and trained in the United States—are heeding the call to join the project of national rejuvenation at home, where their Silicon Valley pedigree gives them intoxicating power to reshape organizations, industry, and culture.”
What’s drawing them back is a mix of ambition, practicality, and possibly a desire to spend more time with family. Interestingly, one leading candidate for the pharma company I mentioned earlier said she had no plans to apply for US citizenship. She only wanted a Green Card, giving her the option to return to the US for her career in future, but not to have to accept any of the extra responsibilities of American nationality.
There are many Chinese nationals living and working abroad – as well as many within Chinese industry – who see a stronger economic future in China compared with, say, the United States. To back this up, one could cite official Chinese statistics showing consistent quarterly GDP growth even during COVID-19.
The strong development of China’s technological sectors in the last five years also leads many to believe that China’s economic power may come to rival or surpass the US much sooner than previously thought. Because economic growth remains strong and there is still lots of room for further development, many now think this is the time to return to China and capitalise on the potential for a more satisfying career.
In the wake of the pandemic, it seems that many valuable Chinese researchers are tempted to make the journey back to China, and Chinese companies are willing to make it easy for them. But this is a market driven by the need for specific talent. The question, therefore, is how Chinese firms can stand out in the competition for relatively limited supplies of skilled employees? If you are not on the size, scale, or brand reputation of the likes of Tencent or Alibaba, how can you become more appealing to top talent?
Here are 5 tips based on what I have observed in the market from client companies and their competitors in the technology, consulting, and pharmaceutical sectors.
Tip #1: Offer increased compensation
The first obvious tactic is to offer higher compensation. Many Chinese firms are offering significant salary increases for the right talent. Any company seeking to attract returning talent must ensure they are aware of the salary levels on offer and benchmark their offer against that.
As we will see, money is not everything, but with so many large and well-known brands pitching for talent, smaller companies cannot afford to ne outbid. If you’re looking to attract skilled Chinese talent to your company, get an idea of what salaries are being offered for that talent, and then make sure you offer compensation in the higher band of that.
Tip #2: Offer a promotion
Another tactic many firms are using goes hand in hand with offering higher salaries – also offering more senior roles to the talent they want. This is both flattering and, when offered to the right person, often results in an extremely motivated employee who is keen to justify the faith shown in them by their new employer.
It is also the case that many fairly senior Chinese employees in US and European companies can get frustrated at the relative lack of Chinese-born talent in the C-suite of major organisations – especially when compared with the conspicuous success of foreigners from other countries. Some may feel that there is a kind of glass ceiling for them outside of China. Offering a promotion for returning can be a great way of increasing the likelihood that they want to join your organisation.
Tip #3: Give them more responsibility
Along with a promotion, skilled researchers and engineers often crave more responsibility and a more challenging set of goals in their work. Make sure that you are clear when interviewing for key roles with returning Chinese talent that they will be getting a significant budget or a team to manage that will test their skills and boost their personal and professional development.
Tip #4: Clearly communicate your strategy and future plans
Most Chinese firms will receive financial support from the government for attracting key Chinese-born talent back to the country. This in itself is not an advantage. But if you clearly communicate the responsibilities and budget that goes with the role you are offering – and do so better than your competitors – then talent will be more likely to take you seriously.
Have a clear growth strategy in mind and be sure to make clear where the individual fits into that strategy. Even if your company is relatively small right now, if you have a strong and convincing plan for your future development based on some kind of evidence, then individuals will be more likely to see the potential for what they can achieve and how they can develop their career by joining you.
Tip #5: Offer support with moving, including resettling families
One of the biggest barriers to returning is the hassle, the expense, and the complications that come with moving families thousands of miles at short notice. When you are certain that you have chosen the right individual for your business, making the effort to help them relocate can mean the difference between them choosing you or one of your rivals.
Can you help find the right school for their children? Find a good temporary rental property? Pay an advance or a bonus to help with moving costs? Or perhaps even arrange the removals directly on their behalf?
Any extra effort is appreciated and can help make that individual see you as the right place for them rather than one of your competitors.
Sandy Shi joined Sheffield Haworth in 2021 as part of the Services and Technology practice and is based in the Shanghai office. She works with multinational clients across biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, technology, industrial, retail, hospitality, and the consulting service sectors to provide executive-level talent identification, screening and evaluation.
If you’d like to discuss your recruitment needs with Sandy, you can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org