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July 19, 2011

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Europe's job woes propel youth to China

WITH large parts of Europe battling recession, sovereign debt and a sluggish job market, many young people with a sense of adventure see China as a land of opportunities. Rahul Venkit reports.

Fresh out of university at age 22, all Kirsty Armstrong could look forward to in her native England were grim job prospects.

Many of her peers took a gap year to go traveling across Europe or Australia while figuring out their next career move. But Armstrong wanted to "be different from everybody else."

"I felt that experiencing a different culture and learning a new language would be more worthwhile than backpacking. So I signed up for a six-month internship in China," she recalls.

Those six months have become three years and Armstrong still very much lives in China. Ironically, her current job involves helping other foreigners who are keen on getting a taste of working in the world's fastest-growing economy.

"Three years ago, I arrived here with a batch of 66 other students from Britain. This summer, we have an intake of 200 interns from Britain, which is huge increase," she says.

With large parts of Europe battling recession, sovereign debt and a sluggish job market, many young people with a sense of adventure like Armstrong are looking to China as a land of opportunity.

According to official figures, about 5.2 million young people in the European Union's 27 member states are unemployed, which equals 1 in 5 of all young people on the labor market.

The numbers paint a far more worrying picture in Spain where a whopping 40 percent of young people are jobless. The depressing state of affairs has prompted graduates such as Jesus Valer from Madrid to focus their job hunt on China.

"I'm hoping to pick up the necessary skills to be employed by Chinese companies that are setting up shop in Spain like Huawei and China Eastern Airlines. I'll try any possible option since the employment situation here is desperate," Valer says.

The situation across other EU countries, however, is not quite as desperate. Germany, widely considered Europe's economic backbone, has seen its 24th consecutive fall in monthly unemployment rates. At 6.9 percent, it stands at the lowest level since the country's reunification in 1990.

In a similar vein, the Netherlands boasts the lowest youth unemployment rate in the EU at 7.4 percent. Austria, Malta, Denmark and Slovenia are also well below the European average when it comes to unemployed citizens between the age of 15 and 25.

Yet recruitment consultancies such as London-based CRCC Asia report a more than threefold increase in internship applications to China from 250 in 2009 to more than 1,000 this year.

So what explains more European students wanting to study and work in China?

Gilbert Silvius, head of the business in China program at the Netherlands' Hogeschool Utrecht, puts part of the reason down to China's rising economy.

"When business students start working, chances are high that they will be in contact with Chinese companies either as competitors or trading partners," Silvius says, pointing out how a basic knowledge of China vastly improves business contacts and prospects.

"But to be really honest, most students do not realize all these elements when they make the choice of studying in China. Most of them just want to have a great experience in a faraway country," he adds.

Even countries such as Poland, whose young workforce has traditionally looked toward western and northern Europe for opportunities, are slowly beginning to shift their gaze to China.

University of Warsaw student Piotr says he and his classmates aim to be part of the Chinese economic success story. "Many of us want to work in China and earn more money than we would in Europe. But I suppose it would be crucial to learn Chinese first," he remarks.

Language will be less of a barrier for Bastian Reichartz, a 27-year-old trainee at the German Investment and Development Corp in Cologne. Ever since a three-month stint as an intern in Beijing in the spring of 2009, he has been taking Mandarin lessons every week.

"I often get strange looks when I talk about how much I loved living in China and that I look forward to going back," says Reichartz, who returns to Beijing for work this fall.

"This is because many people my age tend to be rather skeptical about the political role China plays in the world and most perceive cultural differences to be very large. This is reflected in the way the German media report events in China which, from my point of view, is rather one-sided and sometimes almost xenophobic," he adds.

However, a growing number of young people in Europe are becoming more curious, open-minded and "brave" enough to recognize the enticing aspects of China's cultural heritage and its economy. For such people, China holds amazing opportunities, Reichartz says.

"Europe will be increasingly influenced by Chinese political decisions, companies and investors. Instead of trying to ignore this evolution, I believe it is more intelligent to accept it and adapt to it as quickly as possible," he says.

The highest levels of government in Europe and China are supportive of increased student mobility between the two regions. In May this year, European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and Chinese President Hu Jintao agreed to expand the number of European students studying in China and supported the idea of establishing a Sino-EU university in China.

"China is a global economic power. It is only natural that more European students want to pursue their studies and subsequent professional careers in China. I think this is a positive trend," says Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth.

Instead of worrying about "brain drain" or the phenomenon of indigenous talent traveling overseas, she advises countries to foster "brain circulation."

"Institutions and governments have to change their approaches in response to this increasing mobility," Vassiliou says.

In China, foreign talent is most in demand in sectors such as marketing, media, hospitality, IT, translation and education. While foreigners are by and large welcome and valued in Chinese workplaces, experts predict stiffer competition in the years to come.

"Chinese companies are slowly beginning to apply more stringent standards," says Matt Wong, business development manager of IES Global, a firm that organizes internships, work placements and teaching programs for foreigners wishing to come to China.

"Right now, there is still a novelty factor for Chinese companies in having international staff. But maybe in few years' time, that novelty might wear off. So now is the right time for graduates and young professionals to apply," he says.

Back in Beijing, Armstrong has no immediate plans of returning to England.

"Back home, there are not many jobs and a relatively mundane life. In China, you blink and you miss something. There's never a dull moment," she says. "I want to stay in China as long as possible and soak up as much experience as I can."


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