I’ve spent last five years of my architectural life in China, living both in Beijing and Shanghai. After all those years, China, by far the largest of emerging markets for new buildings, still seems to be the promise land for architects with lots of various job opportunities. However, things are changing pretty fast here so you need to stay up to date with local market news and trends. If you are looking for an architectural position in China, this post will give you a good idea about the job market, career opportunities and some formalities you’ll have to get through if you wish to dream your architectural dream in the People’s Republic of China.
FINDING A JOB
The job market in China varies depending on the city. For Shanghai and Beijing there is big number of varieties of architectural positions open to foreigners and below I will share some tips that might help you landing your dream job.
Although there are many job listing websites that might help you search for job offers in China, the one I strongly recommend is www.buildhr.com . This is a Chinese job board and the content is Chinese-only, but this is how it works here: if you want to get to local employers, you need to do what the locals do. Both of the jobs I have worked in China I’ve found through this board so I can personally recommend it. As the chances that Chinese employer will advertise any position on expats job listing pages are small, creating your own profile on www.buildhr.com where most of the engineering offices in China look for employees will increase your chances greatly.
At first BuildHr.com, as any other Chinese website, may look like digital chaos, lots of texts, links, and even animations which seem to be designed to make the page impossible to read, but there are some good reasons for that and you’ll get used to it soon. What’s most important, it’s a very powerful tool if you use it the smart way. First of all, most of the HR people in China are locals, thus it really makes sense for you to create your Chinese profile there, so they can easily understand your background and figure out what kind of position you are looking for. What I did to overcome the language barrier was to open the website using ’Chrome browser‘ which allows you to change the language to English and translate the webpage content to figure out the basics: where to sign in and how to create you profile – mostly it’s all about ‘copy/paste’ into the right sections like： Experience, Education etc.
Once your profile is done you can start searching job offers choosing position you are interested in and a city where the office should be located. Most of the job descriptions are in Chinese but again, using Chrome you can get it translated the way it will start to make sense to you and figure out the rest. Once you’re there you can simply click the apply button to send you Chinese profile directly to HR, so they don’t have to bother to translate your experience, education, and software skills from English. You will be surprise how much feedback you get. Now it’s time to use an online translator to translate all the messages. You can also suggest the same to HR as some of them might not speak English. Even if the whole process looks bit complicated it’s not and most of all it works. Enough to say, this strategy brought me many interviews, helping to land a great job twice, once in Beijing and once in Shanghai.
Nothing works in China as good as networking and some guanxi (connections). My advice is to make your LinkedIn presence very strong as lot of recruiters and HR agencies use it on daily basis. Put an effort into improving your profile, list information about your previous employers and job responsibilities, get some recommendations and try to connect right people to make sure that you are visible to both HR and hiring managers in the architectural industry. As there are always many ways to land a job, try to study successful job seekers’ cases or simply ask for some advice to outline the strategy behind their success you can implement into your job search later on.
For the latest architecture job offers in China click here
Finding a good job in China is an extraordinary task that requires an open-minded and a creative thinking attitude as well as the use of some traditional job searching methods, but it really pays off once you get it.
THE JOB ITSELF
Once you start working as an architect in China you will realize there’s a huge difference between the Western way of an architectural work and the way a designing process looks like in a Chinese company. Prepare for being puzzled or even frustrated sometimes. My advice is to engage with the company where at least some of the management positions are taken by foreign architects or where you could have some non-locals as co-workers. Otherwise you will be routinely asked to simply copy existing buildings or some characteristic elements of other constructions as in China there is generally nothing wrong about copying whatever you like – enough to say that in Chinese culture copy cating is regarded as a honorable way to show your admiration for the original idea or design…The truth is this cultural gap in the way how architectural copyrights are (not) recognized here, might be very frustrating for you with your Western ethics. Chinese education system doesn’t encourage creativity or critical thinking, that’s why a lot of international firms have trouble finding skilled Chinese workers. That’s the reason why global corporations are desperate for foreign workers who have studied in foreign universities. However, it doesn’t mean you don’t have to compete with local architects. As the architectural market in China slowed done recently, the competition from both expat architects and skilled locals is getting tense.
The way things work in China is different, so the process of designing, building client relationship and workplace interactions are not as clearly defined or as smooth as in other countries. The honeymoon period of experiencing new culture and being constantly amazed by everything around you comes to an inevitable end shortly after your first 6 months in China passes, when you’ll start finding yourself constantly frustrated and annoyed with the Chinese way of doing things.
As for the career development, if you are lucky enough, there is a great opportunity to gain work experience quickly. The chances are high that you’ll be working on some huge urban schemes or manage small projects on your own, being responsible for the whole designing process and having your own team to lead. The kind of projects you will get to work on are amazing: facades, skyscrapers, money making office buildings, museums, train stations, schools to name a few. There is al lot of fields where you can gain experience from …if you’re lucky enough.
On the other hand, there is also a big chance that you’ll end up doing only schematic design, for developers and competitions that never go beyond a few pretty renderings and some detailed floor plans. Be aware that in China there is no step by step designing process, starting from the sketch, brainstorming up to detailed solution. You should also be prepared for unreasonable deadlines. Most of Chinese clients need the things done by yesterday so you’ll be routinely requested a proposal for new projects with unreasonable (impossible) timings. Even if your design is never going to get to the construction site stage, you are expected to deliver detailed designs right from the start. No questions. China’s development laws and processes are a huge gray area and oftentimes involve many layers of concept and schematic designs before something is finally approved, this goes without saying some projects require local architects to move forward.
A typical development process in China usually goes through a competition stage to win the land from the local government and it may take several more developments to satisfy the client because the original design was just meant to appease the bureaucrats. At this stage it is not rare that the client either loses funding or drastically changes requirements because they assumed they could skirt the zoning or far. Then, if you are lucky enough, you may get a chance to hand your design off to the local architect who usually ends up changing half of it anyway. Voila! In China big decisions are always made behind closed doors so be prepared to modify, change and redesign your project without any clear reasons and very tight deadlines to cope with.
To sum up, if you are into doing conceptual work coming to China may be a great opportunity, however if you want to learn more about how a building is actually put together, how to work with consultants or deal with local regulations you may want to look somewhere else. As much as I love being here and for me pursuing an architectural career in China proved to be a good decision I’m fully aware of the fact that it’s really important what kind of company you are working for and what’s your workplace environment. My advice to you is to increase your chances of getting some luck by using the above-mentioned tips to plan your architectural adventure in China in advance.
Wages in architectural industry in China much like everywhere depend on your experience, educational background and your skills. When I first moved to Beijing in 2012, with my MArch degree and 3 years of experience I was paid RMB 18 000 (～ USD 2 700) monthly while RMB 15,000 (～ USD 2 250) is regarded as a decent pay for a fresh grad. If you have 3-5 years of experience you can expect something around RMB 20,000 (～ USD 3 000). Living costs in the top tier cities in China like Shanghai or Beijing are getting higher and higher but you can live quite comfortable life on a standard expat architect salary here.
As a foreigner in China you need work visa (Z visa) and work permit. Until you get it be prepared for ‘visa runs’ meaning that you need to leave the country each 30, 60 or 90 days depending on your visa status. Work visa is difficult to get in China, you need to be above 24 years old and have at least 2 years of documented relevant working experience for the position you apply for and it cost a lot of money. However, you don’t need to have Z visa to start looking for a job, and you can enter country on tourist visa which allows you to stay in China up to 3 months. Notice that tourist visa cannot be changed into a business or working visa once you are hired. You will have to leave the country and re-enter it again once you get your work visa. If you’re in China already with a fixed job offer in your hand your employer should help you getting all the paperwork done. Most of the cases you can expect:
Business visa – this is what most people get since it’s easier to obtain, free for the company that hires you and more flexible in terms who you can work for. You can get 3, 6 or 12 months visa requiring you to re-enter China every 30, 60 or 90days. Technically you are supposed to not be paid any cash with this visa, and instead just given food and housing, so don’t be surprised if you get a business visa and get paid in cash.
Work visa (Z Visa) is pretty complicated to get but many offices will try to do it for you. When you apply for the visa you need to submit original copies of your college diploma, your passport, prove your work experience and do medical check. Your employer will probably handle all the paperwork for you through an agency.
If you’re ready for challenges in your architectural career, China seems to be the right place with lots of job opportunities. It requires constant struggling with bureaucracy, dirt, smog, people hawking on the streets and over-priced Western style food to become a ‘laowai jienjoushi’, but that’s the price you have to pay for your Chinese dream. Hopefully it will pay off in the end. It did for me!
If you have any questions related to this article or want to share your Chinese experience feel free to comment below.