China Rising: If You Know Mandarin and Management, You're In

Globalization pushes enrollment in Chinese-language programs higher.

Three years ago, Chris Collins, a Wisconsin native, flew to China to take a job teaching English at a private school. He began studying Mandarin on the plane. Today, at 25, he is the international business development manager for a Chinese software outsourcing company, MaesInfo Corp., speaks the language and lives in a high-rise apartment in Chengdu.

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Collins' fast track to management ranks is a direct result of China's accelerating growth as an offshore outsourcing provider. The Chinese IT and business process outsourcing market, at $1.7 billion last year, is growing at 38% annually and will likely reach $7 billion in 2010, according to the Everest Group, a Dallas-based outsourcing consulting firm.

China's outsourcing growth is still only a fraction of India's outsourcing market, which hit $40 billion last year and is expected to rise to $60 billion by 2010, according to Everest. But the rapid development of the Chinese market is creating opportunity for U.S. citizens with a spirit of adventure, a willingness to learn the language and some business smarts.

"I think there is a significant amount of opportunity," said Brian Keane, the CEO of Dextrys Inc., a Wakefield, Mass.-based firm with software development centers in China. The opportunity is especially strong for managers, he noted. "Five years ago, there was no services industry [in China]—there is no older generation that is teaching this new generation," Keane said.

Jacob Hsu, CEO of The Symbio Group, a development firm founded in Rockville, Md. that today is headquartered in Beijing, said that "there is demand for any person in the U.S. who speaks Mandarin and who wants to come back to China—we got jobs," said Hsu, who was born in Taipei but moved at a very young age to California, where he grew up.

Chinese universities are producing a flood of raw technical talent out of its universities, but management experience takes time. "People who can manage 300-person teams just don't exist in China today," said Hsu.

One of the more daunting aspects of working in China is speaking the language. If China faces a shortage of managers, the U.S. suffers from shortage of language teachers, said Yulan Lin, who heads the world language program for Boston Public Schools. There are about 2,000 students now studying Mandarin in the school system, and that's about double what it was a decade ago.

As more students in China seek to learn English, the effort is mirrored in the U.S. "More and more, you will see students realize that it will be their future," said Lin.

College enrollments in Chinese-language programs have increased more than 50% from 2002 to 2006 and now total 51,582, according to a survey released late last year of nearly 2,800 colleges and universities by the Modern Language Association in New York.

While many in China are learning English, Cynthia Ning, the executive director of the Chinese Language Teachers Association in Honolulu, said it is as important as well for people in the U.S. to learn Chinese and that not knowing it creates a disadvantage. "If you don't speak their language, you can't play on a level playing field," she said.

Although the direct path to a job in China from the U.S. may be through management, there is opportunity as well for people willing to find a job once they arrive in China, which is what Collins did. "The majority of people who come over come as an English teacher," said Collins, who began his China experience in that fashion. But then he began to do some networking.

"Many of the opportunities that you hear about, just like the U.S., are local ones from friends or friends of friends," said Collins, "so it's very important to just establish yourself physically here in China and then start looking for business opportunities and managing opportunities."

Collins had some advantages. He majored in economics in college, with a particular emphasis on the Chinese market, and had experience living abroad in Germany and Africa.

Collins also has a facility with languages and can speak German, French and Swahili. Chinese isn't easy to learn, he said, "but if you stick to studying the language for six to nine months, then you can have a pretty firm grasp of it and start building off that for day-to-day conversation."

MaesInfo is Collins' third employer in China; he also gained experience from a logistics firm for a while before taking a job at MaesInfo, which was seeking a native-English-speaking employee to help develop its market. Many of the Chinese IT companies want to be listed in the Nasdaq and Hong Kong stock exchanges, and the demand for native English speakers will only grow, he said.

Collins believes in living in the community and not in expatriate enclaves. His office was about 60 miles away from the 7.9 magnitude earthquake in Sichuan Province last week. The developers ducked under their desks for the two minutes as the ground moved, and then they left the building. Although some windows broke in the office complex and cracks appeared in some of the stairwells, no one was injured. With aftershocks continuing the night of the earthquake, Collins, who lives 25 stories up, slept in a park along other high-rise dwellers. Only when it started to rain near dawn did he return home.

MaesInfo employees were soon back on the job, and Collins, in a cab heading home after work and on a cell phone with a crystal-clear connection, said the pay in China isn't what he may earn in the U.S., but the cost of living is cheap, and opportunities are abundant. "Things are progressing so rapidly," he said, "it's a great place to be."

This story, "China Rising: If You Know Mandarin and Management, You're In" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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