Hey guys & gals, and welcome back to “normalcy”. The Shanghai lockdown ended (no joke this time) on June 1st and most* of us now have the luxury of being able to go outside and socialize. It’s safe to say that the worst is behind us, but what’s next? What is the “new normal” and what is life and work in Shanghai going to look like moving forward?
That’s kind of a packed question to answer in one sitting, so more specifically, what is Shanghai’s labor market going to look like for the foreseeable future and what does this mean for the remaining foreigners and well-traveled nationals. How will the new labor market affect you?
There are factors varying in importance that we can use to make projections for the labor market. The elephant in the room is the volume of foreigners, almost all of whom are employed here, that have left, leaving, or are planning to leave China. Other key factors in order of importance are: the number of companies closing or relocating and the adoption of permanent remote jobs.
TLDR (too long didn’t read) at the end
Labor market factors:
- Volume of foreigners leaving
- Remote work adoption in China
- Number of companies closing/relocating
Foreigners leaving China
With the supply of foreign talents in free-fall, the increased demand for hiring foreigners means more competitive salaries and a general power shift in favor of the job seeker. Even before the April lockdown, the shortage of foreign talent in China was being felt by multinational and cross-border companies. Recent estimates on foreigners leaving after the lockdown suggest this problem may have doubled down in severity.
In 2018, an estimated 208,000 foreigners lived in China. In 2021, that number was down to 163,000. In 2022, the European chamber of commerce commented that that number could halve in 2022 to 80,000. This figure seems to go hand in hand with multiple online polls on the issue.
During the lockdown a popular online survey of 950 foreigners living in Shanghai found that 22% want to leave the country asap, 26% plan to leave within 12 months, and 37% are considering leaving China if the situation doesn’t improve. In a more recent, post-lockdown reddit survey, roughly 50% of 294 respondents said they still plan to leave China. 10% said they changed their minds about leaving.
Remote work adoption in China
The number of foreign talents leaving China has forced some companies to accept permanent remote work. How many of the foreigners leaving Shanghai are keeping their jobs? Has working from home during the lockdown shifted companies to embrace remote work? We decided to poll the question in the Shanghai subreddit:
Of the 58 responders, 34 (58%) said their employer would not allow them to work remotely. 24 (42%) said their employer is ok with full remote work. Quite a surprising outcome given how against flexible work models companies in China typically are. Since 2020, remote work in China has gained popularity, but not to the extent of other countries where remote and flexible work have become a new norm. Overseas remote work in China has long been a challenge due to censorship and less-than-perfect internet overseas connections. We could see the foreigner shortage crisis be alleviated by mass adoption of remote work models, but this is unlikely in the near future.
Companies leaving China
Another key factor in the labor market are the employers, aka the companies. Less companies means less demand for labor in general.
Simply put, China is increasingly being viewed as a liability by multinational companies. The European Chamber of Commerce reported 23% of their member companies were considering moving current or planned investments out of China. In May, AirBnb joined the list of large companies exiting or moving part of their operations/manufacturing out of China, along with multiple other large tech and auto companies.
It’s worth noting that most of these companies are not making full exits, but rather relocating different sectors and manufacturing operations out of China to reduce dependency & risk. Not as many companies are straight up leaving China as some headlines might suggest although many smaller branch offices have or are at risk of closing permanently and laying off foreign staff in the process.
The volume of foreigners and expats leaving China, especially expats in senior positions is going to further increase foreign job seekers’ bargaining power against employers. This will be offset slightly by branch office closures and companies accepting remote work and hiring overseas. Employers will be incentivized to use PEO providers to hire remote employees abroad, but this will not be a widespread practice given Chinese work culture and cross-border internet connectivity. While multinational companies are relocating parts of their operations out of China, most of them are not making full market exits. Smaller branch offices in China are at higher risks of closing and laying off staff.