Asian Executives: 10 Barriers to US Candidates Working Abroad

asian executive

September 7, 2020

Brain drain is the emigration of highly trained or intelligent people from their home country to another, often more developed, country. One aim of the mission statement of Alariss is to reverse brain drain and facilitate the international development of emerging markets. There are barriers that exist that make it difficult for US students to work abroad. Here are the top 10 reasons I discovered via my conversations with Asian employers.

1. Awareness. Nick Manske, Alariss’ co-founder, was a former U.S. Diplomat in Asia and the Middle East, and for many students like me, the State Department is the extent to which we hear about international opportunities. For most of us, there aren’t recruiters pulling us to work abroad. As a result, the passive thought that many students have never manifest into any opportunities. “When I was graduating from college, the only global careers on my radar were the Foreign Service, Peace Corps, and maybe the oil industry. There just wasn’t a lot of information available. Our objective at Alariss is to shine light on tons of different cool overseas careers — and do it in a manner which increases trust and transparency between both employers and job candidates. “


2. COVID.  A common response I get is “check in with me in 3-5 months.” Since the pandemic hit South East Asia (and the rest of the world) from early this year, companies have been re-evaluating and slowing down their hiring plans. Unfortunately, this pandemic has affected many players in the hospitality industry, both local as well as multinational companies.


3. Cost: An international business school graduate who returned to Indonesia to work at an Indonesian e-commerce unicorn startup, explains from personal experience that early startups are less likely to hire international students as they sometimes perceived to be expensive and culturally clash with domestic teams. As companies grow, they become more proactive in looking for international talent because of their broad knowledge, best practices and international network. “I’m seeing the trend of global talent but it depends on the type of talent and the stage of the business.”


4. Language. Clement Lam, a retired expert at a leading aircraft maintenance company, shares the blunt reality of the importance of local language. If you don’t speak the local language, people in Asia can be more skeptical and reserved. Language is a soft skill barrier that can trigger in-group and outgroup dynamics and is used to signal credibility. “In terms of speaking the local language, it is more essential for those who need to work with the working level [closer to the customer], especially in China.”


5. Culture. When Emma Lo Russo’s Australia based social/digital marketing company, Digivizer won their first major Asian contract with a large technology client, she had 30 days to expand and set up shop in 14 countries. She understood from her years of experience working in Asia, that it was a relationship driven market and while assembling her US/Australian team to lead the engagement, she had to hire those locally and integrate cultural awareness of each country back into the organization. “The art of localization is so much more than just translating content.”


6. Travel. Maria Johnson is the International Operations director for Personalis, a biopharma company based in Menlo Park, as they expand into China. A recurring theme among my conversations with Maria is the challenge of finding quality candidates with a strong willingness to relocate to a completely new environment, which is complicated by international Visa applications. On a positive note, COVID has foreshadowed an alternative to travel, remote work. “A core challenge in hiring for abroad is the location change. Our main option is to publicizing job positions in the US, training them at our Menlo Park site and transfer them to China.”


7. Company Fit. Christopher Day is the Chief Commercial Officer at Coder School, a startup that runs coding bootcamps to develop mid-level engineers in Vietnam. As his company grows, the challenge has been finding the right fit to his growing team: someone at the senior level software engineer, passionate about Coder School’s mentorship and education mission statement, and has experience in a tech company environment. Among the massive pool of LinkedIn candidates, finding the ideal fit can feel like looking for a needle in the haystack. “I don’t believe the ultimate purpose of education is to serve outcomes i.e. job readiness. I have a liberal arts view that the ultimate outcome is to teach them to be happier and have more fulfilling life.”


8. Government Policy. Henry Woodward-Fisher was once an international graduate looking for opportunities abroad, and now, as the Senior manager at Impossible Foods, Singapore, he remembers the barriers he faced as a recent graduate. Each country in the Asia region has a different attitude towards the international market depending on a variety of factors such as its growth stage, government structure and local economy. Singapore, for example is very open to international talent, but still enforces a rule for businesses to hire a certain number of domestic hires for every international hire. Many companies in emerging markets are encouraged to hire domestically. “When your liberal arts, international profile doesn’t fit in a specific “box” such as “software engineer,” US talent is left with unclear roles and pathway into Asia. Unfortunately for me and a large part of the US, we are these ambiguous candidates. I study Psychology.”


9. International Politics. For those concerned about the US-China trade war or the social unrest in Hong Kong, it’s a nuanced but important risk to understand. A senior executive at a leading international fashion/apparel company that I spoke to gave some thoughts on the impact international dynamics have on domestic businesses. This environment can be a barrier for professional development and business growth. “In China, major corporations may be cautious in appointing US citizens to senior roles, or the government or public may engage in retaliatory action against US companies if their products or advertising contain content or imagery that are deemed sensitive.”


10. Entry Points: Edward Chan, a Harvard alum working at the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation explains the unique challenge of entering Hong Kong without a strong domestic network. Some alternative entry points to consider are connecting with your school’s alumni club in your region during your job search, participate in an international management training program at a domestic conglomerate, or consider working for a global company in the US first, before transferring to an international office. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about how competitive you are as a candidate. Hong Kong is an externally focused economy, but it’s not easy for fresh graduates to find jobs in Hong Kong this year.”


Barriers exist for international candidates, and it’s critical that we understand these obstacles. But for the time being, Vijay left me with this thought as I explored my options in Asia, “curiosity is the essence of man, don’t lose your curiosity.”


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