When Don Phan was looking for a job last April, he thought he’d stay in New York. But when he was offered a position in Thailand, he decided he just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to witness rapid economic growth firsthand and capitalize on the country’s emerging private equity industry.
So he packed up and moved to Asia.
Phan, a 28-year-old American, now works as an investment consultant in the Bangkok office of Leopard Capital, a private equity firm founded in 2007 by Doug Clayton, an American expat who moved to the region in 1983 as a military officer and never left.
Phan is one of many seeking career opportunities far from home. Dismal economies in the U.S. and Europe and booming industries in Asia are prompting Westerners to uproot and move at least 7,000 miles away to find jobs, say recruiters and employees in the region. Recruitment firms say the number of resumes they’ve received from Westerners looking for jobs in Asia has surged by between 15% and 35% since the financial crisis hit in 2008.
“The job market in Asia is generally more favorable than in the West,” said Mark Ellwood, Singapore-based managing director of recruitment firm Robert Walters. “People know that there are many opportunities here, that Asia is a focus for companies and that relocating could translate into a good career move.” His firm has received a 15% to 20% increase in the number of resumes sent in by Westerners over the past three years.
People in all industries are looking East for employment. Professionals in technology, consumer goods, finance and functions including sales, marketing and operations want jobs, according to Kalpana Denzel, a Singapore-based consultant for executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates. She and her colleagues have received a 30% to 35% increase in the number of Americans and Europeans who have contacted them, unsolicited, to express their interest in working in Asia.
“Years ago, companies had to incentivize Westerners to come to Asia with attractive expat packages,” Denzel said. “Now there is proactive interest on their part to come here given the growth, opportunity, and investment in this part of the world, coupled with the troubled home economies. Having Asia on your CV is seen as an advantage.”
Employers are more optimistic about adding staff in Asia than in other parts of the world, another attraction for Westerners. A recent Duke/CFO Magazine survey found that American chief financial officers expect employment across all sectors to grow only by 0.9% in the next year. In Asia, CFOs expect employment to grow by 7% over the same period.
According to Trading Economics, which tracks economic indicators for 232 countries, unemployment rates in Asian countries are considerably lower than in the U.S. While the U.S. posted 9.1% unemployment last month, China reported 4.1% in the first quarter of 2011, Hong Kong 3.2% in September, Thailand 0.4% in June, Singapore 2.1% in the second quarter of 2011, Japan 4.3% in August, and South Korea 3.2% in September.
Kenneth Wilson, a 40-year-old Scotsman, has experienced the disparity firsthand. Only one job has been posted in his field of Russian Politics in the entirety of the U.K. since he received his doctorate from Oxford University in 2005. “It’s got worse since the financial crisis,” he said. “Universities are making cuts rather than expanding.”
After fruitlessly searching for a teaching position in the U.K, the U.S., Canada and New Zealand, Wilson landed a gig in early 2009 — in South Korea. He’s now an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Dongguk University and has no plans to leave the country any time soon.
Finance people have renewed their interest in Asian jobs since the market turmoil of the summer. “When the financial crisis hit, we saw a significant increase in the volume of CVs from people based in America and Europe who perceived Asia as a safe haven in the crisis,” said Richard Boden, a Hong-Kong-based principal in the financial services practice for executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles. “We are seeing the same situation all over again in the second half of 2011.”
For those just out of school, Asia is a place to gain experience. “People come out here because there is more activity and they want to be a part of it,” said Phan of Leopard Capital. “Here, young people are optimistic and can take on responsibilities that they couldn’t back at home,” like conferring with the boss on a daily basis.
This year, Leopard Capital got 400 applications from MBA students for 10 internship slots, said the firm’s founder Doug Clayton. About 95% came from Western countries including the U.S., Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Ireland. “I doubt we would have gotten that response four or five years ago when we started the firm,” Clayton said.
Entrepreneurs see opportunity in Asia as well. Felix Baden-Powell, a British 25-year-old, moved to Vietnam in February of this year to co-found Bloom Microventures, which extends micro-loans and introduces tourists to local entrepreneurs. He plans on staying at least another year, then wants to emulate the model in Laos and Cambodia.
The focus on Asia as a destination for job-seekers doesn’t look like it will abate in the near term.
“This trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future,” said Ellwood of Robert Walters. “Especially if Western economies continue to stagnate and opportunities are limited in that part of the world.”
Write to Julie Steinberg at Julie.Steinberg@dowjones.com