Asia drawing more Americans seeking career opportunities

HONG KONG -- The global recession hit while Ryan Lovell was a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Lovell was taking business courses while working 30 hours a week for a property developer. He saw funding dry up. Deals being delayed. This first-hand lesson in economics, he says, played a key role in his decision to take a job in Hong Kong last year after graduation.

"The U.S. is not picking up, Europe is having a lot of trouble, and all the opportunity that I'm seeing is here in Asia," says Lovell, 24, a business analyst here for EC Harris, a real estate consulting firm.

For years, foreigners have come to Asia for adventure and career development as its economies have developed at a breakneck speed. But this trend is accelerating after the recession as booming Asian nations provide jobs and other business opportunities that Americans can't find in their own country. American companies such as General Electric and Caterpillar are also expanding aggressively in Asia, and transferring U.S. executives to key positions in the region.

Job placement firms are reporting a surge in American worker interest in booming economies such as Hong Kong, Singapore, China and increasingly, India. Hunt Partners, an executive search firm, estimates that it's getting 50% to 100% more unsolicited résumés from Americans looking for Asia-based positions today compared with before the recession. Other recruiting firms, including Korn/Ferry International, Robert Walters and Manpower are also reporting a significant rise in Americans looking for work in Asia.

Job prospects in the Asia-Pacific region are the strongest in the world, particularly in the sales, management and retail industries, according to the latest survey of employers' hiring intentions by Manpower, a global job agency. And unemployment in many Asian economies is a fraction of that in the U.S., where the jobless rate is 9.1%.

In places such as Singapore, China and Hong Kong, senior executives can usually expect to be paid as much as or more than in the U.S. for a similar position, says Steve Fisher, an executive recruiter at Korn/Ferry. Housing and educational stipends also sweeten the deal.

As long as Asian economies grow faster than developed nations, Asia will continue to draw job seekers, says Homi Kharas, a former chief economist for East Asia at the World Bank. "You have a huge number of jobs in Asia, where it's very difficult for the local talent to meet the kinds of needs the countries have," whether in architecture or radiology, he says.

The migration is going both ways, as Asians are also coming to the U.S. to sharpen skills in professions such as medicine, says Kharas, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Yet, for every American who finds a job in Asia, many more go away empty handed. In China, for instance, it's getting harder for foreigners to find jobs at the salaries they expect because expatriate packages are being phased out, and Chinese who studied abroad are returning home to compete with foreigners, says Shaun Rein, author of The End of Cheap China: Economic and Cultural Trends that will Disrupt the World, which is scheduled to be published in March.

Throw in cultural and language barriers, and Asia's pitfalls can outweigh its potential.

Erin Ruck, 27, realized Asia wasn't a good long-term fit after working in Hong Kong and immersing herself in Mandarin lessons in mainland China. Somewhere along the way, learning the language ceased to be fun.

"But the biggest deal breaker for me," says Ruck, of Menlo Park, Calif., "was not having clean air and an outlet to be active" in China.

Zennon Kapron, 35, who trains for Iron Man triathlons on Shanghai's congested roads, also finds China's pollution challenging. But his thriving business keeps him in China.

"The business opportunity here is just so large and I'm not even sure what I would go back to in the U.S. given the deteriorating situation," says Kapron, the founder of Kapronasia, which helps technology companies do business in China.

Nick Taylor, an American expat in Tokyo, sees Asia as a land of opportunity.

He and his wife Megumi moved from Chicago last year after she lost her job at a staffing firm and a position opened up overseas with his market research firm.

"We are kind of set against going back to the States, at least in the next 10 years," says Taylor, 36, who consults with Japanese companies on how to expand in Southeast Asia as Japan's economy shrinks. "I'm concerned about the U.S. economy due to all the posturing and inaction by the government."

Asia's economic boom comes with its own risks, including a real estate bubble that could derail the strong growth of China - the second largest economy in the world - and curb the momentum of its Asian neighbors. This possibility, however, is "not keeping me awake at night," says Taylor.

A magnet for professionals

For many Americans, issues such as pollution and culture shock — traditional barriers to moving to Asia — are taking a back seat to the opportunity for career advancement, says Matthew Bennett, a managing partner at Robert Walters recruiting firm in Hong Kong.

"In the U.S., there are fewer opportunities for people to grow, especially those in the mid-executive range," he says. "They're sitting in these positions and thinking, 'If I want to move up in my career, where do I go?' "

Those seeking opportunities in Asia generally aren't blue-collar workers, whose jobs are most at risk in the U.S., says Darryl Green, president of Asia Pacific and the Middle East for Manpower. They're professionals who are finding more opportunity in thriving Asian economies than in the stagnant domestic market.

"They may be able to get a job back home, but they'd prefer a job out here," says Canadian expatriate Paul Luciw, founder of AsiaXpat, an online classified site for expats and professionals. He's from Canada.

Darlene Lee, 48, felt her talents were "mismatched" with the jobs available in the U.S.

Lee began a job search earlier this year when the media research firm she worked for restructured. She didn't find a position in the U.S. that she was excited about. So in July, she reluctantly left New York's museums and operas behind and moved to Hong Kong to be the managing director of retail and lifestyle in greater China for Synovate, a market research firm.

"All the positions I was looking at in New York were very structured, and they'd tell me, 'These are the 16 things you do,'" says Lee, who had worked in Asia for 17 years before moving back to the U.S. — she thought for good — in 2004. "The opportunities I looked at in Asia were more expansive, with companies developing this or launching that. Things were happening on a bigger scale."

Jobs in developing economies are attractive for some Americans because they tend to be less defined and allow employees more creative freedom.

"When businesses are expanding quickly, especially when it's a smaller firm, there's a bit more lateral flexibility," says Virgil Archer, 26, who was hired as a business development manager six months after he started interning for a Shanghai media company.

Building careers

For some executives, landing a job in Asia can be a career-making moment.

A promotion brought investment banker Rob Sivitilli, 38, to Singapore from New York in April 2010.

Sivitilli hadn't considered moving to Asia before, but jumped at the chance to head the corporate finance, mergers and acquisitions team for a U.S. investment bank expanding in the region.

In a year and a half, he has grown the team nearly a third —with local hires and bankers from the U.S. — as the region's boom creates more opportunities to raise capital and advise companies on mergers. He says his move to Singapore isn't a "rejection" of the United States.

"I think the U.S. continues to hold lots of opportunity, but the fact is that when the (Asian) market is growing faster, there are simply more opportunities," says Sivitilli.

Sivitilli's transfer to Asia is not unusual. After the recession, more U.S. and foreign companies are relocating senior staff to Singapore "to capture opportunities in Asia," says Damian Chan, international director of the Americas for the Singapore Economic Development Board.

American firms are also becoming more aggressive about snapping up office space in Hong Kong, Singapore, Beijing, Shanghai, New Delhi and Bangalore as their U.S. operations stall, says Nick Axford, head of Asia-Pacific research for CB Richard Ellis, a real estate broker.

Even small U.S. firms are coming to Hong Kong because they realize they need a presence in the region, says Simon Galpin, director-general of investment promotion at InvestHK, which helps overseas companies set up in the city.

Despite its promise, Asia is a "long-term commitment," says Rob Chipman, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. "There are no instant miracles."

As American companies expand in Asia, they're being more careful about not leaving U.S. employees behind.

A growing number of American companies realize they need to be "sensitive to the fact that they're losing head count in the U.S.," says Bennett, of Robert Walters recruiting firm in Hong Kong. That's why "a lot of these new positions have to be advertised internally rather than externally, to give people the opportunity to come to Asia."

Seeing a brighter future

Many Americans who come to Asia hope their work and life experience will make them more marketable in the U.S.

Jacob Schickler, 25, moved to Beijing in 2009, and eventually found a job in business development for a German company. He's betting that working in China will give him an edge over his peers in the U.S.

"Many of my friends are bright, intelligent people with very expensive degrees, but they have not been able to put their degrees to use yet," says Schickler. "I'm getting real work experience."

Lovell believes his stint as a business analyst in Hong Kong will help him get into a top MBA program in a few years.

And Sivitilli says his time in Asia will make him more valuable to his company.

"The world of business is global these days," he says. "You need more people who have experience in developing markets coming back to the U.S."