Employment Outlook: China

by Mary Anne Thompson, Founder and President, Goinglobal, Inc

Job growth in China is hampered by skills shortages, but the world’s largest economy is dealing with this by working to attract more foreign nationals and lure back foreign-educated Chinese graduates to the country. 

China boasts both the world’s largest population and economy. Its employment is stable, unemployment is low, job growth is strong, inflation is low and consumption is increasing. And, its middle class is growing. 

There is much to be optimistic about in China these days, but there are still several issues the country must contend with moving forward. For instance, despite the growing middle class, there is still a wage gap, with rural Chinese fairing far worse than those on the east coast. Also, China’s population is aging faster than any other country’s; in just 20 years, the elderly population will double to 20% of the country’s total. By 2050 China will likely have 330 million old people – more than double the entire population of Russia. Weighing everything, China is still experiencing a positive economic era that is opening the door for both Chinese and foreign national jobseekers, especially those who can fill the growing skills gap.   

Trends to Watch

  • Skills shortages persist: The critical skills shortage continues to challenge employers. Demand for Internet, e-commerce and executive leadership skills exceeds supply. In fact, the skills shortage is worsening, and the fierce war for talent is increasing. Of 1,200 Chinese employers surveyed, 97% report they are struggling to find individuals with the right skills. They are willing to recruit talented professionals from around the world. Strong candidates often receive multiple job offers.
  • Shrinking labor force: China’s labor force is shrinking rapidly. In the next 30 years, the workforce will be reduced by180 million people.
  • Rise of domestic companies: The growth of Chinese companies and their increasing focus on international opportunities is driving demand for senior candidates with an international outlook.

Employment in the Short Term

While all types of businesses intend to hire more staff in the next three months, large Chinese firms have the strongest hiring intentions. Employers are cautiously optimistic, anticipating the strongest labor market in the last two years. In the short termthe most optimistic hiring plans are in the transportation and utilities sector. And employment is expected to increase in all six industry sectors. Although employers in all nine regions intend to add workers, those in Beijing have the strongest hiring intentions, while in Shanghai employers are cautious. 

The national government plans to revive the economy in the country’s Northeast over the next two years. Regional and municipal governments there are developing incentives to increase industry and attract both local and foreign talent, especially those with technical expertise.

Employment in the Medium Term

Chinese companies anticipate their greatest growth opportunities will come from artificial intelligence, big data, speech recognition and natural language processing.

The education sector is expected to grow 12.7 percent per year for the next four years. Private education is experiencing particularly strong growth. Most registered kindergartens are private. Private universities are increasing, as are schools to prepare Chinese students for universities abroad. Chinese parents invest large sums in their children’s education. Online education, while still in its infancy, is set to grow exponentially. Internet giants Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent have already entered the online education marketplace. 

Clean energy growth has seen record installations of both solar and wind energy plants. Grid-connected solar capacity recently increased over 73 percent in one year. The sector already employs more than 2.5 million people. And demand for electricity will only continue to grow. 

Health care is an especially promising sector, according to Goldman Sachs. The government is working to improve the quality of health care while promoting universal health care. China’s aging population and growing middle class are driving the growth of the country’s medical device and services industries.

Top Companies

Great places for foreign workers to start their careers include:

  • Alibaba
  • Tencent
  • Baidu
  • Hwawei
  • Xiaomi
  • China Telecom
  • Wanda
  • Disney
  • English First
  • Xindongfang
  • Wall Street English
  • Dipont
  • Agricultural Bank of China (ABC)
  • China Construction Bank
  • Bank of Communications
  • China Merchants Bank
  • Industrial and Commercial Bank
  • Bank of China
  • Saic Motor Corporation Limited
  • Sinopec
  • PetroChina 

Who Gets the Jobs?

Chinese returnees, known as Hai Gui (sea turtles), are highly valued and eagerly sought by both domestic and multinational corporations. A record number of 430,000 returned last year. Those with degrees from prestigious universities and niche skills have been able to demand high salaries.

Foreign Workers

Only about 6 percent of the country’s employees are foreign nationals. However, the national government, regional and municipal governments and domestic businesses are all seeking to attract more foreign workers. The national government is easing regulations for them and regional and municipal governments are offering incentives to attract foreigners:

  • Shenzhen is offering subsidies for startups and simpler housing procedures.
  • Chengdu has launched talent offices in talent offices in Silicon Valley (US), Seoul (South Korea), Frankfurt (Germany), and Stockholm (Sweden).
  • High-skilled foreigners are being recruited in Beijing and Shanghai.

Most foreign nationals in China are located in its Tier 1 (largest) cities and along its more developed east coast.

Areas of Job Promise

The Chinese government plans to create 11 million jobs this year. Areas such as technology, design, e-commerce and digital marketing are in such great demand that businesses are eager to consider qualified foreign candidates, especially if they can speak Chinese.

Best Performing Sectors








 Intermediary service






 Real estate/construction/building materials/engineering


 Farming/forestry/animal husbandry/fishery




 Computer software

China Institute for Employment Research (CIER)

Top 10 Career Areas for Foreigners

Opportunities for foreigners have increased dramatically. The best careers for foreigners, according to Laowei Career are:

  • Teaching English
  • Information Technology
  • Engineering/specialized technical skills
  • Marketing/Creative
  • English Editor/ Writer/ Journalist
  • Sales management
  • Accounting/Finance
  • Hotel management
  • Advertising
  • Translator 

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

China intends to lead the world in AI. The government and Chinese businesses are focusing on natural language processing, computer vision, speech recognition and data science. Talented AI experts are in highest demand, though a severe shortage of highly qualified talent exists. Employers are increasingly able to attract skilled professionals from the US and Europe.


China’s e-commerce sector is the most dynamic retail market in the world, according to PWC. The largest e-commerce market in the world, it grew over 32% last year, with sales reaching 130 trillion CNY. Online sales are likely to consume 25% of all Chinese retail by 2020, according to PWC.

Other Fields

Renewable energy: By 2020 China plans to invest 367 billion USD in renewable power generation, creating about 10 million jobs. The sector is already the world leader in green energy employment, boasting 3.5 million workers.

Non-traditional finance: A shortage persists for qualified candidates with expertise in user experience, Internet security, wealth management and digital marketing.

Legal: Mergers and acquisitions professionals will be in demand. Pharmaceutical companies will also be seeking legal professionals. The greatest demand will come from Chinese companies.

Skills in Demand

The digital skills gap continues to be a challenge for employers. Demand for Internet and e-commerce skills exceeds supply. In fact, the skills shortage is worsening, and the fierce war for talent is increasing. Of 1,200 Chinese employers surveyed, 97% report that they are struggling to find individuals with the right skills. Strong candidates often receive multiple job offers.

Bilingual professionals with regional experience and demonstrated success in new markets are needed across industry sectors.

The soft skills most highly sought by employers include:

  • Innovative thinking
  • Critical thinking
  • Commercial acumen
  • Ability to drive and manage change
  • Understand the bottom line
  • Learning agility
  • Drive for results

Leaders Needed

Multinational corporations (MNCs) continue to be challenged to recruit and retain high-quality leaders, particularly those with an international mindset and strategic vision who can also inspire their workers. The leadership shortage is especially true in technology firms.

General Salary Trends

In spite of strong demand for talent, workers’ salaries are not increasing as rapidly as they have in the recent past. The highest salaries are commanded by returning Chinese with Western educations and international experience. However, for expatriates with the right skill set, Chinese employers are willing to double salaries and subsidize education and housing expenses. But competition for those jobs is intense. Although the increase in the domestic talent pools has altered pay packages for foreign workers, this group continues to fare far better than locals. 


China is the world’s largest economy, and it needs more highly skilled workers and soon. It is welcoming more foreign nationals than it ever has before to fill those gaps, as well as welcoming home foreign-educated Chinese. As the country’s population ages and many retire, jobseekers find opportunities available in most job sectors. Workers ready to accept those opportunities will be most welcome.