The year 2008 saw a financial meltdown in the West and the beginning of a long recession of which we are still feeling the effects. Youth unemployment, in particular, began to rise to very worrying levels. For recent graduates, particularly those with liberal arts degrees or those without more sought-after skills, finding gainful employment became an extremely difficult task.
As graduates, they were often turned down from low-skilled, low-paid jobs in fast food outlets and retailers due to the perception that they were over-qualified and would move on to another job as soon as the economy recovered. Companies and agencies which may have previously hired them in entry level roles had seen their budgets slashed and their employees glued to their positions, thus reducing the number of openings.
Great news or is it?
All of this was great news for one industry in China – namely, that of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL). TEFL, although it does occur in public institutions such as schools and universities, is overwhelmingly a for-profit industry which operates out of a number of huge chain schools with thousands of branches around the country – the McDonald’s of TEFL – and a huge number of private schools which hope to be able to grow into a mega-chain some day.
Japan on the rise
Prior to 2008, foreign English teachers (TEFLers) were more attracted to positions in Japan, Korea and the Gulf, due to higher salaries on offer and (in the case of Japan and the Gulf), the superior reputation of institutions. By 2008, however, TEFL salaries in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing had begun to look more competitive and, coupled with the spike in unemployment in the West, resulted in much greater numbers of TEFLers seeking employment in China.
The demand doens’t end
The rapid growth of the middle class in China has created constant demand for TEFLers, and the industry has struggled to regulate itself. This demand means that a large number of language centers have resorted to employing people who would, in other places, be unemployable.
Non-native English speakers, those without degrees or sometimes even high school certificates, alcoholics, drug addicts, pedophiles and fugitives can still be found in the language centers of China – their center managers focused solely on having a ‘foreign face’ in the classroom to get potential students to sign up for courses.
Collusion, for cash or favors, between the powerful bosses of the mega-schools and the local police allowed fake degrees and other credentials to get through the system and allow the TEFLers to get a residency permit and the right to work stamped into their passorts.
Bye bye reputation
All of this meant that the overall reputation of TEFLers, and the industry in China, sank like a stone. After a number of embarrassing scandals, deaths and unwelcome newspaper headlines about wanted pedophiles, an inevitable backlash by outraged citizens forced the central government in Beijing to try to improve standards.
It is now official policy that anyone applying for a TEFL position in China should have relevant qualifications and experience. Furthermore, these qualifications – degrees and TEFL certificates etc. – must be attested and verified by relevant government bureaus during the visa application process. Letters of reference from previous employers must be provided and a thorough medical check must be passed, both in the applicant’s home country and again in China.
Effects on the industry
All of this has had two effects on the industry. Most notably, it has reduced the number of people coming through the application process –degenerates find it easier to find work in countries such as Cambodia these days, albeit for much lower remuneration. At the bottom of the industry this has meant that low-paying Chinese language schools find they are stuck with incompetent and unreliable TEFLers who turn up to work late and reeking of alcohol, who they can’t fire due to the fact they are difficult to replace.
Better salaries for…
At the top end of the market, however, qualified, reliable teachers who are presentable and don’t stink (Toothbrush Best, anyone?) are able to command higher salaries and better packages. In the wealthier third-tier cities, such as Suzhou, Wuxi and Nantong – all in Jiangsu province, reliable and competent TEFLers with a real degree and a couple years’ experience are often paid more than they could hope to make in the US, UK, Canada or Australia.