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Tough times for returning 'turtles'

JUST a few years ago, many Chinese believed a degree from a foreign university was their ticket to a guaranteed high-paying job. But these "returning turtles" got it wrong. Yao Minji reports.

Benjamin Chen left Shanghai for a master's degree in management at Lancaster University in the UK in 2007, fully expecting a bright future after graduation with a foreign diploma.

Chen, who saw himself as an "elite," expected to find a good job in London, such as a business consultant with a top international company, living the good life. He expected to be earning far more than the meager 4,000 yuan (US$588) monthly salary (after taxes and social security) that he now takes home in Shanghai as an entry-level salesman with a joint venture trading company.

Chen is one of the thousands of young and ambitious "returning turtles," the term used to describe overseas Chinese who come back to work in China just like sea turtles swimming home to their birth places.

These turtles find themselves in fierce competition with top local graduates for jobs far beneath the level they believed they deserved with their expensive tuition abroad.

And the returnees, who once were quickly snapped up, don't necessarily get hired over local graduates today, despite significantly lowering their requirements, compared with just three years ago.

Returning turtles who are looking for work and waiting are called "seaweed."

"Almost everyone was asking for 10,000 yuan only three years back, but now I'm seeing 'returning turtles' fight over jobs with a monthly salary of 3,000 yuan almost every week," Donnie Tang, a senior consultant with a local recruiting company, tells Shanghai Daily.

"It's just a simple matter of demand and supply."

Tang also attributes the competition to the ease of going abroad to study. The numbers of Chinese studying overseas has rocketed, while in many cases the quality of "returning turtles" has plunged, he says.

Further, China can't provide enough professional jobs for its own university graduates who are struggling to find work.

In 2009, the number of students who went abroad to study was 229,300, 27.5 percent more than in 2008, according to the website of China's Ministry of Education.

The same site shows that 108,300 overseas Chinese graduates came back in 2009, 39,000, or 56.2 percent more than in 2008.

The numbers are even more dramatic when compared with earlier figures.

During the 31 years between 1978 and 2009, the number of students going overseas was 1.62 million, while the number of returnees was 497,400.

More than one-eighth of all overseas students in the past 31 years left in 2009 and nearly a quarter of all "returning turtles" came back in that year. They have certainly enlarged the talent pool.

Tang emphasizes that specialized, experienced, top talents are still in high demand in all fields.

It is often those "turtles" in non-specialized majors (communications, business, media studies, and so on) from second- or third-tier universities who face job-hunting difficulties.

Shanghai Daily interviewed 15 "returning turtles" in non-specialized and non-tech majors from lower-tier universities in Canada, the UK, the US, Australia and New Zealand. The interviewees, all holding a master's degree, graduated after 2008; they range in age from 23 to 29.

Nine are earning a monthly salary (after taxes and social welfare) between 3,000 and 5,000 yuan, four between 5,000 and 10,000 yuan and only one above 10,000 yuan. The other one, who graduated last June, is still looking for a job, after more than a year.

"They basically have no advantages over local graduates besides the oral English. Plus, many of the one-year master's holders don't even speak fluent English as they just hang out with other Chinese students abroad," Tang says.

During interviews, he has seen dozens of "returning turtles" who have difficulties in expressing themselves clearly in English. Tang often sees no difference between a "returning turtle" and an ordinary local graduate. He meets one qualified "returning turtle" among every 50-60 returnees.

"The new ones who graduated after 2008, just love blaming it on the financial crisis, the easy excuse. It is a factor, but definitely not the determining one," he says.

Some "turtles" don't apply themselves to their studies overseas, relying on a diploma itself to open doors.

Someone with a keen insight into lazy "turtles" is Alex Lu, a graduate student in Birmingham, England, who writes theses and homework assignments for other Chinese students in the UK. He declines to identify his own school.

Lu said in an e-mail interview that he covers half his tuition, around 5,000 pounds (US$7,686), by working for "turtles." He once wrote 10 papers in two weeks during finals, a record.

"I've had customers who don't even read their homework assignment before giving it to me. They don't even know what I'm supposed to do for them, and they all graduate with nice grades on the transcript, with my help.

"And I'm definitely not the only one doing this. A friend in London does the same business. It's good money and you will never lack customers. I first started in my own school, and gradually earned a wider reputation."

One "returning turtle" who blames the crisis is 27-year-old Amanda Liu, unemployed. She worked for two months as an assistant public relations manager, then quit. Her story is typical.

She graduated in 2008 with a business degree from Sydney University and found herself in the middle of the financial crisis. She spent months job hunting, lowering her standards from top firms in Sydney and Melbourne to any long-term business job anywhere in Australia.

Nobody was hiring.

After six months, Liu realized she was wasting time and money. She returned to Shanghai, exhausted and ashamed, hardly the "elite" she had imagined herself two years earlier.

"Every single Chinese graduate around me was moving back to China then, it was just impossible to find a job overseas - forget about a good job for a foreigner," says Liu, who grew up in Zhejiang Province.

Her parents were understanding and "blamed everything on the bad luck of having to face the horrible crisis," says Liu, but it was hard to hide her shame for not fulfilling their expectations, and her own.

"I felt horrible for not being able to start paying back the money they had spent on my overseas education, around 200,000 yuan. I desperately needed a high-paying job, something around 10,000 yuan per month so I wouldn't feel like a liability," she said.

Her search for work in Shanghai hasn't gone well.

At job interviews, Liu often ran into other "returning turtles" with pretty much the same criteria for job level, pay and benefits, and they weren't getting hired.

"That's when I started to panic," she said. "Almost half the time, employers chose locals over turtles, which was quite a shock for me."

After a long and earnest conversation with her parents, Liu lowered her standards and aimed for something more realistic. Though her English isn't that good, she still wants a salary around 7,000 yuan, and she's still looking; she considers it humiliating to take a lower-paying position. Her thinking is that it's better to be looking than to take a low-level job.

"I basically considered myself the same as local graduates. After all, I had no advantages, but higher requirements," said Liu. "I would not have hired myself if I were the boss."


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