In 2014, we wrote a guide about the various ways to earn a living as an expat in Asia. In that article, we pined for the glory days of the late 1990s, when the whole continent was buzzing with booming economies, free-flow cash and plenty of interest in hiring university-educated westerners.
Today, we are deep in the dark ages of the Kali Yuga. At the core of the Kali Yuga is a theme of destruction and rebirth. In the expat job sector, we are seeing exactly that – the destruction of traditional opportunities, and the birth of new ones.
Destruction of traditional job opportunities
Our Introduction to China Guide (written in 2015) counted around 600,000 expatriates living in China with working visas. As the leading employer of expats in Asia, China trends give a good understanding of continent-wide ones.
Here’s a broad breakdown based on our own experiences in China, in 2015: the bulk of expats were either English teachers or high school teachers; skilled expats working for multinationals come up second (most involved in manufacturing), in addition there were a smattering of media, IT and service jobs.
Today, opportunities have dried up in all of the above sectors.
The decline of generous corporate packages
Changzhou is a town in Jiangsu province, around 100km west of Shanghai. It features a couple of high-tech industrial zones where foreign companies can get preferential treatment on land deals and tax policies.
Planet Asia reached out to Pat Clarke, in charge of Business Development for the local Economic Investment Promotion Bureau. His jobs involve bridging the gap between foreign executives and Chinese officials. In addition, he maintains active ties in the international school communities that depend on foreign students as their lifeblood. His impressions of the changing landscape:
“There are fewer ‘expats’ in Changzhou compared with 5 years ago. Many of the foreign companies have replaced foreign hires with local hires. When they do bring in foreign specialists or engineers, it’s usually just for 1-2 months – specifically to train locals in particular skills. These staff tend to stay at hotels during their time here. This saves the company many hassles and expenses. For example, large expat packages would traditionally include housing, education for kids, and other family expenses.”
Further west of Changhzhou is Nanjing, the capital of Jiangsu Province. To confirm Mr. Clarke’s assessment, we reached out to Simon Liang, General Manager of the Nanjing Bay Area Tech Consulting Agency. He confirmed the trend:
“Yes, there are less high income expats, because companies are hiring more Chinese nationals as executives. Those expats who do get hired are often given smaller packages. Unlike in previous years, relocation packages are offered in lump sum amounts to manage their own relocation, housing and education costs. However, this amount is usually significantly less than what was previously covered by the company. This means many executives will leave their families at home, or find alternative methods to make things work.”
Interns flood the market
In China, large manufacturers like Quanta and Apple have long used unpaid interns for labor to cut production costs. In fact, student internships are typically required to meet educational qualifications in the medical profession, hotel and tourism, creative industries and many other fields.
In 20014, this writer helped set up an English teaching internship for American graduates from Ivy League universities wanting experience in China. In exchange for a monthly stipend of 5,000 RMB (around $700 USD), they would teach English and culture full-time inside a private Chinese high school. We received a flood of applicants and a profitable business was born: charge schools 12,000 RMB per month, pay teachers 5,000 RMB, profit.
Teaching opportunities dry up
Over the years, tens of thousands of expatriates have managed to survive by teaching English in Asia. Once upon a time, all you needed was a university degree and a clean American or British accent.
However, salaries have been stagnant for around a decade. Now, interns are flooding the marketing – willing for work for pennies on the dollar. In addition, Asian employers are starting to recognize that Filipino teachers are often more qualified and docile – and willing to work for less pay.
As a case study, let’s consider the teaching conditions for expats in Cambodia:
- Licensed international school teachers earn $1500 monthly plus $400 for housing, for 50 hours of work per week
- Unlicensed ESL teachers start at $6 per hour ($8 per hour if you have a teaching license or CELTA certificate). Most jobs in this range offer part time hours only
General conditions in China:
- Licensed teachers earn around $2800 monthly, for 50 hours of work per week
- Unlicensed ESL teachers usually start at around 8,000 RMB per month (around $1200 USD)
Service jobs dry up
This sector has been taken over by interns. If you want to try opening your own bar, restaurant or hotel, consider Cambodia – join the hundreds of others who go broke every year committing financial suicide.
Expat employment dead ends
Most of the traditional jobs that dreamers tend to go for are bone-dry in 2019
- Scuba instructor: consider Ko Tao, a major diving island (over 40 dive centers) in South Thailand. “It’s extremely rare to see dive jobs advertised on Koh Tao; there simply is no need. On the whole, speculative CVs mailed to dive centers are ignored… If you want to work on Koh Tao you have to come here and start out as a freelancer.”
- Yoga teacher: in any part of Asia where western expats hang out, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an aspiring yoga teacher.
- Massage therapist: the best massages are done by blind old people all over Asia at $5 per session
- Private English teacher: strict visa crackdowns in all regions make it very dangerous to work under the table anywhere in Asia – it could land you in immigration prison
- Bar or restaurant owner: you’ll either go mad or go broke. Many make the attempt, few succeed
- Website developer: you’ll spend 90% of your energy on sales and get paid $300 per site – if you’re lucky
- Online English teacher: in 2015 we raved about online teaching as a viable option. These days, there is fierce competition for jobs, higher standards, payment deductions for ‘penalties’ (like having negative student reviews) and many shady operators squeezing teachers for all they can.
Emerging streams of income for savvy expats
In Sun Tzu’s military classic The Art of War, he advised: “Take advantage of the enemy’s unpreparedness, make your way by unexpected routes, and attack him where he has taken no precautions.”
In this case, the ‘enemy’ is the growing shortage of traditional job opportunities for expats in Asia. What better way to address job shortages, than to ‘make your way by unexpected routes’? In other words, given the stark employment prospects for expats in Asia, a solid way forward is to think outside the box.
Below we break down several examples of how this strategy can pay off by yielding a lucrative career.
Chiang Mai is considered by many to be the digital nomad capital of the world. It’s packed with trendy cafes, vegan restaurants and successful digital marketers living large off the grid. Matt Diggity is the most famous marketer in town. Long ago, he checked out of the American rat race and bought a 1-way ticket to Thailand. Then he met some digital nomads, learned about Internet marketing and went on to make a fortune.
Each year in October he hosts the Chiang Mai SEO Conference, where successful digital marketers from all over the world convene to share ideas about making money and living free.
Simply being in the presence of these people is highly inspiring – attend this conference if you can!
Follow passions and fill a niche
Once upon a time, an old friend of Planet Asia’s expatriated to China from Germany with plans to forge a career in industrial quality control. She spent several years learning the language and culture, and was on the cusp of securing the qualifications she needed to hit the big time.
However, her heart wasn’t in it. Then she got a dog. One day, the dog got sick after eating fake Chinese kibble. She put everything she had into learning about canine nutrition. This led to a thriving luxury dog food business serving wealthy Shanghai dog and cat owners.
In sum, this route involves following your passions to fill a need in society.
Develop Internet properties
Internet marketing requires a strong stack of skills and high level sales skills. Those without the gift of salesmanship can still parlay their skills into independent streams of income by using SEO (search engine optimization).
In general, websites that rank for certain keywords will attract traffic. If that traffic spends time on your web pages and clicks through to other pages, Google bots see these as signs of a good user experience. In this case your web page will get higher rankings and more traffic flowing through. The easiest was to make money with a site drawing traffic is via affiliate website sales.
Planet Asia’s top-performing affiliate currently earns $350 per month and climbing. Within a year we intend to use SEO tactics to bring it up to $1,000 per month. This becomes a 100% independent stream of income that goes directly into one’s pocket. If you don’t know how to make an affiliate site, you can choose a niche and have one professionally built for around $1200.
A standard formula will have you ranking for keywords, attracting traffic and earning money within 12 months:
- For the first 6 months, Google keeps all new sites in a ‘sandbox‘ (very low rankings)
- If the site shows a lot of activity in its first 6 months, it will start to rank
- A site shows activity by adding new content
- Spend 6 months writing articles 1,000 words to 3,000 words long
- After 6 months, check your rankings, connect an Amazon Affiliate account and start making money
Emerging opportunities for non-English speakers
During our research for this story, we came up with a great option for non-native English speakers. As we discover other options, we will post in this section.
Call center gold rush in Makati
Makati is a suburban city in the Philippines’ Metro Manila area that serves as the country’s financial hub. Packed with skyscrapers, banks and shopping malls, it offers the best living conditions in the country.
A local tipster told us of a hiring boom in progress: “A lot of foreigners in the Makati area are employed by call centers. If you know a language like Spanish, French or German, you can earn triple the amount that native English speakers earn.”
To learn more, Google ‘call center Makati‘.
These dark days of the Kali Yuga are all about destruction and rebirth. As old employment options crumble, the destruction of our expectations may lead to new opportunities.
If you wish to move to Asia and seek a means of financing yourself, these are your best options, in our opinion:
- Tap into the Chiang Mai Digital Nomad scene and forge a digital marketing career
- Follow your passions through to providing a service to society
- Invest time building affiliate websites until they are solid streams of independent income
- If you are fluent in languages besides English, move to Makati and work in a call center