With the economy slowing down for ESL positions in places like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the best destination to teach abroad when factoring in salary, the amount of available jobs and opportunity is undoubtedly in China, the new hotspot for teaching English. By 2015, the East Asian behemoth is expected to need roughly 100,000 foreign ESL instructors. This should come as no surprise considering the economic, political and cultural domino effect in East Asia in recent decades. Since the end of the war, economic and cultural changes in east Asia have always begun with Japan and that trend continues today. It makes sense. Afterall, it was in Japan during the 1970’s and 80’s where a technological revolution of innovation and production came to rival and eventually overtake the United States. Consequently, Japan has always been one step ahead of neighbors politically and culturally as well.
Following economic historical trends, it makes sense that English as a second language first become institutionalized in Japan. A burgeoning economy in the 1980’s meant that Japanese business professionals had to learn English in order to maintain their new-found glory in the global economy. That mentality has trickled down to the rest of the Japanese economy over the years. English proficiency is a way for individuals to find better positions and for a country as a whole to compete, grow and ultimately maintain its status as an economic power. Spend a day walking through the streets of Tokyo today and what began thirty or forty years ago has transpired into a metropolitan society heavily influenced by English, foreign culture and global trade.
As the mighty mouse like Japanese economy began to slow down by the late 1990’s, it was South Korea and to a smaller extent Taiwan that was quickly catching up to similar stages of development during that time. South Korea experienced a robust economic boom, similar to its Japanese counterpart, from around the mid 1990’s until only a few years ago. Taiwan has always been there all along as well, but to a lesser extent. With the Korean economy selling Hyundai and Samsung products like hotcakes in recent years, South Korea has taken the place of Japan as the new epicenter of English education. Just as private language English schools and public programs emphasizing English sprang up in Japan during previous years, South Korea now boast an impressive and highly developed ESL industry. Schools there also offer some of the best benefits and opportunities for saving money in the world.
Economic booms don’t last forever; What goes up must come down!
One doesn’t have to be an economist to understand the economic patterns of the past, present and future. It’s not rocket science and it should come as little surprise that South Korea is quickly resembling the bubble economy of Japan as the unemployment rate there has risen considerably in the past few years. Similar to what happened in Japan 10 or 12 years ago, there is now a saturation of Western teachers or would be instructors in the capital of Seoul. While there are still plenty of jobs to be had and thousands of language institutes, colleges and public schools employing Western English teachers, there are now more available teachers than available jobs.
Up until a few years ago, the situation was reversed. As one can imagine, this trend is almost identical to what transpired in the large metropolitan areas of Japan a decade or so ago. As a result, the job market is becoming more competitive in coveted cities, such as Seoul and Pusan. Whereas foreign teachers could be quite demanding in the past, that is no longer case. While schools in Seoul continue to offer paid airfare, free furnished apartments and completion bonuses, this is likely to become a thing of the past in a few years.
Is China the Next Hotspot for ESL Teachers?
All indicators imply that China is becoming or may already be the new hotspot for teaching ESL. It makes perfect sense considering that China is now the world’s second largest economy and the designated global engine of manufacturing and production of everything and anything. Within a robust population of 1.357 billion, there are an estimated 200 million to 300 million individuals who have an income and lifestyle similar to their middle class competitors of Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The population of South Korea is around 50 million and Japan roughly 124 million. Just a quick breakdown of the numbers reveals that the potential for ESL education, employment and business development is vast in a giant of a country that is often criticized for growing too quickly.
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Like South Korea and Japan, English proficiency is highly valued in China. Thousands of English language institutes along with government programs to fund public schools and universities in the area of English have become institutionalized within the social, political and economic landscape of China. Currently, there are thousands of jobs available to teach English and employers include public language institutes, public schools, universities and vocational colleges. However, the number of available positions far outnumbers the amount of teachers and this gap does not appear to be shrinking. In other words, almost anyone can land a job teaching English in China. In some cases, even those from non-native English-speaking countries or without a university degree can work on a M-visa.
Does the pay, benefits and working conditions in China compare to other East Asian countries?
The answer to question is yes and no. Overall, schools in China cannot offer the same security, legitimacy, pay and benefits of the typical schools in South Korea or Japan. On the whole, there seems to be more uniformity and regulation when it comes to ESL education in the rest of East Asia. However, that might just be more of a reflection of Chinese culture and a massive economy that has and continues to grow at warp speed. Not surprisingly, there remains an issue with fraudulent schools in China that mislead teachers and students. The result is often someone not getting paid, a visa revoked or students being overcharged. Because of this, many Westerners are often reluctant to work in China, which is understandable. These types of institutes operate in other East Asian countries, but to a much lesser extent.
The reality, however, is that conditions for ESL teachers have improved considerably throughout China during the past few years. While one should always do their homework before signing a contract with a school, the vast majority of schools are legitimate and do pay on time. One way to check the status of a school in China is whether or not they require a TESOL or TEFL certificate. Schools that pay on time and are reasonably fair towards their teachers require a TESOL or TEFL certificate. Western teachers should also recognize that there is more variation in the cost of living and pay throughout China. Each province differs and there is a significant disparity between the large urban areas and the countryside. While the pay may not always compare to other East Asian countries, the cost of living is significantly lower when you escape the mega cities of Beijing or Shanghai.
Typically, almost every school in China will provide a free, furnished apartment or a housing allowance that covers the cost of rent in the area where one is teaching. Similar to South Korea, most schools offer a contract completion bonus at the end of one year and health insurance. There are also a fair amount of institutes in China that offer some kind of free or inexpensive language training for the teachers. While the vast majority of schools do not cover the cost of airfare, that is the norm in most countries throughout the world. In fact, only schools in South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cover airfare. The pay scale in China varies considerably compared to other East Asian countries. Positions in places, such as Shanghai or Beijing usually pay between $1600 to $2500 per month, but the cost of living in these cities is also higher. In the smaller cities, instructors generally make between $800 to $1500. Of course, salary is also determined by one’s experience, nationality and educational background.
In my opinion, China is a great place to teach English mainly because there are so many positions to choose from. On top of that, schools are offering better pay and benefits each year. While teachers have been burned in the past, conditions have improved considerably. China is also a great place to live because there is so much opportunity beyond teaching English for the business minded and tech-savvy Westerner.