By Denise Montgomery
Despite four years of economic challenge, one bright spot is drawing job applicants in record numbers. In November 2011, USA Today, quoting the global job placement firm Manpower, reported that the Asia-Pacific region is now the strongest job market in the world.
Bloomberg confirmed the trend in March 2012, citing Asian employment rates in such economies as Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, China, and Japan as among those experiencing tight labor markets and unemployment rates at least 50 percent lower than the United States and Europe.
For adventurous people who are willing and able to travel and explore possibilities outside their native borders, now may be the best time in modern history to explore and expand career opportunities through the study of Asian languages.
“In Japan, if people see you making a sincere effort to communicate in their own language, they will open their hearts to you,” says Nobu Tajima Baum, an instructor at UC San Diego Extension.
“You don’t have to be completely fluent. Even basic conversational skills will take you a long way in building trust after hours, when the ‘real’ business is still frequently done in Japan over dinners or drinking.”
Baum says her students in the program range from high school students to housewives, with heavy representation of those who will eventually go to work in the legal, engineering, and science professions. But even finance professionals have something to gain from a firm grounding in a second language, she says, and she has an example that comes from close to home. “My son studied finance at UC Santa Barbara, and when he began looking for a job, he emphasized his knowledge of Japanese. He was recruited by a company that does business there, and not only does he do financial analysis, but also helps with translation and communication in Japanese.”
She notes that there is also strong demand in Japan-owned companies and niche industries traditionally strong in Japanese demand, like video games and anime.
China, arguably the world’s fastest-growing economy, also has an unquenchable thirst for well qualified professionals who speak either Cantonese or Mandarin, says Wei Wang, who has taught Chinese at UC San Diego Extension. “One of my students was studying with me and had not even completed his degree,” says Wang, “and he was recruited by an Asian company. It was only two weeks from initial contact to job offer.” But careers in China frequently do not even require a formal employment contract—or a completed degree.
“The people of China are so hungry for instruction in English, you can get a job teaching if you have spent just a quarter or two studying Chinese. Most students there study English but want the input of native speakers; speaking basic Mandarin or Cantonese will make you a lot of friends very quickly.” Indeed, jobs teaching English in China are so plentiful (and potential sticking points and pitfalls so common), the United States Embassy in Beijing has prepared an unofficial guide to finding work teaching English in China.
Baum says the linguistic proficiency required for a successful career boost with Japanese companies is somewhat higher—from two to three years of study, in most cases. “Japanese is taught in books, and the first year teaches the first book, or basic conversation.
That will be enough for tourists, but not enough for professional conversation,” she says. To create an advantage that will add power to the resume, Baum advises those who want to take advantage of the Asian Pacific job market to take two full years of Japanese at minimum, and three years for a level of fluency that also includes all three writing systems found in Japan. And the time to start learning is now.
“It is common knowledge that earlier is always better when it comes to learning a new language,” she says encouragingly, ” but it is never, ever too late.”