Making the China connection

Many US students are studying in China, but their job prospects are hindered by their inability to speak Mandarin

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For Terry Hu from California, it was the news she was hearing about China that clinched her decision to pursue her degree at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The second-year student on the joint IMBA programme with MIT Sloan School of Management says: “With all the talk about China as a rising power, I wanted to go and experience first-hand what the fuss was all about.”

For Denise Pu, who is also from California but in the China Europe International Business School MBA class of 2010, the reasons were more practical: “I decided that I wanted to work in China.”

Recent statistics indicate that more and more US students are applying for MBA programmes in China: Ceibs reported a 153 per cent increase in the number of applicants from the US over the past five years. In the Ceibs 2010 class of 180 MBA students, 68 are from overseas, with 11 of these from the US.

Tsinghua reports the same trend: in its 2010 class, 16 are from the US, the largest proportion of the 60 international students in the programme. Other international students come from countries such as South Korea, Spain, France and India – “a great increase compared to the past few years”, says Ling Wang at Tsinghua’s IMBA marketing and admission office.

The trend has not been limited to the mainland. Steven DeKrey, the senior associate dean and MBA director at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, has also seen a dramatic rise in the number of US student applications.

“In 2006, Americans constituted only 3 per cent of our class, but in 2010 they are now the second-largest student group at our school, constituting 15 per cent of our class.”

Economic opportunities and interest in China are cited as the most important reasons for US students to select a China-based MBA programme. Cost is another factor, with programmes at Tsinghua and Fudan University costing Rmb188,000 and Rmb157,000 respectively, a fraction of the cost of comparable MBAs in the US.

However, it is the promise of China that rings loudly above all practical considerations. “This is a great adventure. It’s the land of opportunity!” exclaims Rob de Picciotto, a Tsinghua IMBA student from New Jersey.

Yet as the number of US students rises, job opportunities for them grow increasingly uncertain, especially for those with limited ability in Mandarin. Patrick Moreton, associate dean of the Washington University-Fudan University EMBA programme, cautions international students studying for an MBA in China.

“Opportunities for jobs for non-Mandarin-speaking expatriates at the post-MBA level are still quite limited and not likely to grow much as the talent quality in China improves,” he says.

“A People’s Republic of China national has a decided advantage over an expatriate MBA graduate among multinationals because of their desire to build their local leadership pipelines.”

Prof DeKrey agrees. “Currently, the power combination is English-Mandarin-Cantonese and for those who do not have the Mandarin skills, it’s difficult for them to find a job, especially in China.” He reports that “for Americans without Mandarin, the opportunities have declined as their numbers have gone up”.

Lydia Price, dean of admissions at Ceibs, says that US students often find jobs in areas where the native Chinese students do not have the skills or experience – sectors such as finance and accounting, project management, business development and supply chain management.

But she adds that the job market landscape in China has shifted: while a few years ago there was a premium for the international student who possessed the skills and scope of experience that mainland China students did not, now these same students are at a disadvantage because of their language deficiency. “International students have to work harder to find a niche and be very clear about where they can add value,” she says.

China-based MBA programmes do not necessarily address the language deficit question since most are taught in English. But schools have tried to tackle the issue by adding Chinese language requirements: At Ceibs, all students must pass an exit test in Mandarin before they can graduate, while at Tsinghua all students must take mandatory Mandarin language classes in the first semester. At other schools, such as HKUST or Fudan University, language classes are optional – although strongly recommended.

Nonetheless, it is the students themselves who have understood the importance of Mandarin for those wanting to work in China. Mr de Picciotto is very aware of where he stands in the Chinese job market.

“Currently, the first-choice candidates for multinational companies are Chinese with fluent English,” she says. “The next step down is foreigners with Mandarin.”

At Ceibs, Ms Price has noticed that the quality of US students applying to the programme has improved. “We’re getting applications from people with more and more strong links to China, people who’ve lived here for four to five years. We’re also seeing the first wave of Chinese-language students coming for our MBA programme, and other students who’ve had some kind of connection to China.”

Mr de Picciotto too has noticed that most of his fellow US students at Tsinghua are “ethnically Chinese or have studied in China. The number of people in the international school body here with zero exposure to China ... is less than 15 per cent”.

The increase in the number of US students and the more challenging job market has forced HKUST to work harder to help the students find placements.

“It’s put extra emphasis on our career services,” says Prof DeKrey. “For the non-Mandarin speakers, we are helping them enter the Singapore and Shanghai market where there are more opportunities.”

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