Teach Abroad

How the ESL Industry in China is Changing

Read about how the ESL industry in China is changing and what it means for teachers who want to teach abroad in China in 2016 and beyond.

How the ESL Industry in China is Changing

China is the wild west of the teaching world. With a booming ESL market, an obsession with English, and a growing economy, China's newest generation of parents are obsessed with providing their children the best money can buy. In this case, it's a native-speaking English teacher starting in preschool, all the way through TEFL and SAT tutors for Chinese high school students bound for international universities. While the ESL markets in Japan, Korea and Taiwan are slowly stagnating, China's ESL jobs have skyrocketed in the last few years, and continue to grow exponentially.

As China continues to regulate its ESL market, more and more jobs are opening for less-qualified individuals. Those with experience and qualifications can command high-paying salaries, visas, free housing, and worry-free contracts, while those who are new to China or don't possess desirable qualifications can still find jobs for up to $30 USD an hour.

However, it hasn't always been like this. The Chinese ESL market has already changed dramatically in the last decade, and these rapid changes can easily be seen from year to year. In the last four years, I have experienced a wide variety of ESL jobs throughout China, seeing firsthand how hiring practices and available positions have shifted. But how exactly is the ESL market in China evolving? And what does this mean for teachers?

A Perpetually Expanding Market

Ten years ago, about one-fifth of China's vast population was studying English. According to the Economist, in 2006 China was already the world's largest market for English language study, with English language books accounting for over a fifth of all book sales nationwide.

Mari Pearlaman at ETS, an American company that developed the TOEFL language placement test, estimates that in 2005 China already contained 50,000 private language schools, ranging from small family-run businesses to large chains like New Oriental, with 2.5 million students as of a decade ago.

By 2013, that number had grown to over 300,000 English students in China (about the size of the entire US population), accounting for one-third of mainland Chinese residents. The value of the English-training market in China is now about $4.5 billion USD and some analysts predict that this market will continue to grow at a rate of 12-15% over the course of the next few years.

As proof of this growth, Wall Street English, one of the largest private language institutions in China, is currently employing a $15.6 million USD refurbishment plan, with eight new centers in cities like Chongqing, Chengdu, and Wuhan opening next year. Wall Street English already has 66,000 students in China, which contributes to 30% of its global business.

Studies estimate that at least 100,000 English teachers are currently needed in China, and this number should slightly increase over the next few years. To attract more teachers, Chinese schools have begun to raise salaries, offer more benefits and follow government regulations to lure teachers away from other popular countries like Japan and South Korea. In the past few years, thousands of instructors have left their jobs in these countries to come to China.

Students Are Getting Younger

ESL students in China are getting younger by the year. Many companies like Disney English are designed specifically to cater to Chinese children. Public schools have switched from starting English education at age twelve to age nine, and some schools in China's larger cities start teaching English as young as six.

In the private market, many companies offer English classes to preschoolers. Parents send four-year-old children to be taught English by native speakers, who often serve as English-language babysitters, singing songs and playing games with kids in English.

While ESL schools were first established to teach English to adults, in the last decade the demand has shifted to parents who are willing to spend up to half of their household income on language classes for their children. Many private academies are taking note of this transition, offering more specialized classes for children. For example, English First's Shenzhen school used to contain primarily adults, however now more than 70% of their students are children.

Disney English has recently discovered that classes aimed at toddlers and preschoolers are one of the biggest areas of growth. There are even entire floors in shopping malls dedicated to English language training centers so that parents can shop while their children are in class.

Oftentimes the prestige of a foreign teacher is more important than the actual language learning process. Parents want to be able to brag to their neighbors that their prized baby girl is learning English from a native Brit at five-years-old. While skilled Chinese natives may be able to perform these English teaching jobs just as well as a native English speaker without training, the prestige of a foreign face is much more desirable in China, and parents are willing to pay twice the price for a foreign face.

An Increase in TOEFL, SAT, and College Counseling Jobs

How the ESL Industry in China is Changing: Increase in TOEFL, SAT and College Counseling Jobs

With more and more students heading overseas for college, China is increasingly looking for TOEFL, SAT, and ACT tutors as well as college counselors and admissions consultants.

According to Samantha Ayton, the first secretary of culture and education at the British Embassy, there has been a dramatic increase in students taking the International English Language Testing System examination (IELTS) needed to study abroad in the UK. The number of Chinese students at British universities has raised by an average of 13% annually for the last five years, while the number of mainland students increased by 29% in 2014 alone!

Chinese students aren't just heading to the UK. There are now more than 250,000 Chinese college students in the USA, accounting for over 30% off all international students. BBC reports that the 2013-2014 academic year saw a 17% increase from the previous year, and these rates continue to grow. China has also seen a rise in public school international programs offering English-language AP, IB, and A-Level tracks for Chinese students who wish to study abroad.

China's Slowing Economy Has Increased English Demand

One might assume that China's stagnating economy might decrease the demand for expensive English courses, however, the opposite has proved to be true. A command of the English language is a major contributing factor to finding a job in China's slowing economy, and China's increasingly global business market demands employees who are fluent in English.

A recent article by China Daily discussed that many English language centers are now offering specialized adult classes such as "how to conduct a meeting or interview in English." The average age of these classes ranges from 18 - 30-year-olds looking to develop their careers.

Technology is Altering the ESL Landscape

In the last decade, technology has become an important part of the English learning landscape in China. For example, in 2006, Beijing began testing interactive smartboards in their English kindergarten classrooms. At $4,100 USD a board, this technology continues to allow teachers to integrate movie clips, songs, videos, and internet content into their usual lesson plans, giving them a more interactive component.

The advance of free language learning technology has created a large impact on China's ESL environment as well. For example, New Oriental now has a free online English language center which uses television clips and culturally relevant material to teach in addition to lectures. This online resource is available to all of their current students, thus increasing the value of their courses in a competitive market.

"Expat Jobs" Are More Competitive

How the ESL Industry in China is Changing: Jobs are More Competitive

In the past, China was famous for its abundance of "expat jobs," hiring consultants, business managers, designers, architects, and more. Out of all the countries in East Asia, it was easy to get a high-paying position with benefits at a Chinese company as long as you spoke English.

Now, these jobs are on the decline. Hiring a foreign face is expensive, and in many cases, a bilingual Chinese person is a better fit. Why would a company hire a native English speaker without Mandarin skills, when a Chinese person fluent in both English and Mandarin can easily fulfill the position? With more Chinese adults obtaining English fluency, there's less room for cushy "expat jobs" in Chinese companies.

Because of this, many expats in China are turning towards teaching positions. These qualified workers with years of experience in China are snapping up some of the best-paying teaching jobs in China, making these positions much more competitive. Now the best ESL jobs in China are demanding years of experience, accreditation, and possibly Chinese language skills.

Stricter Visa Requirements

A decade ago, pretty much any foreigner, native speaker or not, could get a job teaching English in China. However, last year the Office of Foreign Affairs and the Board of Education jointly announced new rules for foreign teachers.

Now if you want to obtain a legal work visa and residence permit in China, you must be a native speaker with a college degree and a few years experience or a TEFL certificate. Slowly but surely, China is approaching the standardized model of South Korea and Japan, ensuring that the full-time English teaching professions in its public schools are qualified.

However, unlike Japan and Korea, the Chinese ESL market continues to grow at a rapid pace. For every legal job in China, there are three positions that will hire teachers without all the requirements. Rather than obtaining a legal visa and work permit, these teachers either teach on tourist or student visas, or they obtain a business visa and leave the country every few months. While this is technically illegal, the Chinese government has yet to crack down on this practice.

For those of you aren't native speakers or don't have a college degree, you will still be able to find a job teaching in China (at least for the time being). However, your salary will probably be lower and you will have little job security. Your company may also claim you're American when you're really from Austria, or say you graduated from UCLA when you only have a year of community college under your belt. This way they can command a higher fee from parents and students while paying you a lower salary than they would pay someone with the correct qualifications.

Overall, while China is creating stricter visa requirements for those who choose to work through legal channels, the practice of working outside of those remains common.

More Jobs Than Qualified Teachers

Now that the Chinese government has strengthened the requirements for ESL teachers, there are not enough qualified teachers to fill all of the teaching positions available. Data from the Bureau of Foreign Experts Affairs suggest that the current Chinese market needs at least 100,000 foreign teachers, while there are only 30,000 foreign experts legally recognized by mainland China. In addition, native speakers with teaching credentials, college degrees, and experience often demand higher salaries than what many schools can afford to pay.

It is not just the teachers themselves that need qualifications, the schools must also be registered to issue "expert certificates" to foreign teachers. According to the Beijing Bureau of Foreign Experts Affairs, only roughly 500 institutions in Beijing are allowed to issue these "expert certificates" which grant foreign teachers work visas; however, there are approximately 7,000 institutions who employ foreign teachers illegally.

In order to mitigate this problem, some agents offer contracts to foreigners who don't qualify for work visas, falsifying documents or encouraging teachers to lie on their applications. Some schools may bring teachers over on a business visa, paying them in envelopes stuffed with cash to avoid detection from the authorities. Others hire teachers part-time who are in China on tourist or student visas.

Many agents will also hire non-native speakers, lying to schools and parents about their origin. For example, one Italian teacher interviewed by China Smack was told to pretend she was Irish. This helps schools save money because they can pay non-native speakers lower salaries while pocketing the difference.

The Good Jobs Are Becoming More Secure

How the ESL Industry in China is Changing: Jobs are Becoming More Secure

While China may still be rife with teach abroad scams and schools that are looking to cheat foreign teachers, many schools are realizing the value of providing stable, secure jobs for their employees. They've realized that parents are wary of high turnover, and that it's easier to renew a residence permit than to pay for a new work visa.

For example, my company recently had a large turnover of foreign college counselors for various reasons. Many of the parents were concerned, hinting they may move their children to a rival company. Because of this, I have noticed that my current company places a very high value on my happiness and job satisfaction. They encourage me to speak up if I am having workplace issues, and they provide bonuses and raises for foreign staff who say for multiple years.

Compared to many of my friends teaching at other schools in China, I feel lucky to have such a stable and secure position. However, I have met many other people who have also noticed this shift in attitude towards providing positive, secure positions to their foreign teachers. Personally, I'd predict that this will be the new trend in the upcoming decade.

Teachers Are Becoming More Diverse

Unfortunately, many teaching positions in China prefer foreign teachers with a white face. While a black or Asian ESL teacher may have just as many qualifications as their white counterparts, these individuals have difficulty finding jobs, or are forced to accept lower salaries. Many companies claim that anyone with an Asian ethnicity "looks to Chinese" and that black people "might scare the children."

Many Chinese people still associate English proficiency with white skin, assuming that anyone who is black must be from Africa, and those who are Asian obviously don't speak English as well as their white peers. Because of this stereotype, a white Russian woman may find a job more easily than a black American, regardless of English ability.

Thankfully, this practice seems to be changing in China. My current position has Americans who are white, pacific islander and black, and my last job recently hired two Asian-American and African American English teachers. While the preference still leans towards those with white faces, this discriminatory practice is slowly but surely changing in China.

China is the Future

Overall, China has become the future of ESL. With fewer scams and discriminatory practices and more stable high-paying jobs, China is the next hot spot for teaching in Asia. For those with the necessary qualifications, China is a "teacher's market," offering free flights, visas, housing and bonuses to foreign teachers. For those who can't find jobs in more selective countries like Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, China still offers opportunities to teach without a degree or teach as a non-native speaker.

While many people still tout South Korea as the best and most lucrative place to teach English abroad, China may soon overtake its dominant neighbor. Keep an eye on this Asian giant, because Chinese ESL is on the rise. For anyone interested in teaching English in Asia, China is an amazing opportunity. Grab the lucrative positions while they're still available, because these jobs are only going to get more and more competitive! (*hint hint* you can start looking at teaching jobs here.)

New Jobs in China