As someone who has never been particularly confrontational, hates arguments, and finds disagreements with coworkers and supervisors very uncomfortable, salary negotiation is something I had to build a tolerance and understanding for. Add to that the fact that salary negotiations are complex in China. Employers are required to pay additional fees and taxes when they hire a foreign employee. They must pay the government for the ability to hire a foreign worker, along with the worker’s healthcare, and added taxes for paying your salary. This can raise the cost of employing a foreigner up to around 50% more than what they are paying you. Whether you’re currently in China and going from one employer to another or a prospective foreign teacher collecting job offers and planning your move to China, I’d like to offer some basic advice on how you can successfully prepare to negotiate with your future employer and get the best possible salary at your next job.
If you’re not an education major, the bare minimum to start teaching in China is a bachelor’s degree in any subject with two years of teaching experience. But it’s a well-known fact that schools in China value teaching qualifications. If you’re planning on teaching, it’s a great idea to beef up your resume with a teaching certificate such as a CELTA, TEFL, TESOL, DELTA, or TKT. Schools will see this as a reason to hire you over a lesser qualified teacher, and I have personally see schools add anywhere from 500 to several thousand RMB to the salary on a teacher’s contract simply because they hold one of these certificates.
If you’re in your final year or two of your undergraduate degree or are looking to teach abroad a year or more from now, investigate a teaching licensure program in your home country. As the job market for foreigners develops in China, schools are beginning to prefer teachers who hold teaching credentials from western countries. Taking the time to add one of these to your list of qualifications can drastically increase your starting salary in China. And if you’re considering becoming a career teacher, it will also grant you the ability to teach in your home country when you return from your time abroad.
Research the local cost of living and teacher salaries
It’s important that you enter into salary negotiations with reasonable salary expectations. If you have completely unrealistic salary demands, expect negotiations to go nowhere. The school might simply skip over you and move on to the next applicant.
China has a hierarchical “tier” system for its major and somewhat-major cities. If a city is considered somewhat-major, it will be recognized as a city that belongs to one of these hierarchical, numerical tiers. Tier 1 cities, such as Shanghai or Beijing, generally have the highest salaries (20,000-40,000 RMB per month). Tier 3 cities, such as Baoding, Weifang, or Hohhot will have comparably lower salaries (usually starting somewhere around 10,000 RMB per month and quite rarely reaching 20,000 RMB per month). I was recently contacted by a particularly qualified and experienced teacher who didn’t want to work in a big city but still planned to negotiate for a big-city salary (25,000 RMB per month after tax!) in their search for a job in a third tier city. If they took those expectations directly into salary negotiations with an employer in that city, there is little to no chance that they would be granted a job offer.
Do some research! Visit numbeo.com or simply Google search the cost of living in the city you would like to live in. Look at different job boards with availabilities in that city. If you don’t see any jobs that reach your salary expectation, then you may need to either lower your expectations or look elsewhere. If you have a job offer and would like me or a colleague of mine to take a look at it and let you know if it includes a competitive benefits package, feel free to reach out to me at the email address at the end of this article.
Be flexible with benefits
During salary negotiations, there’s a budgetary limit that the hiring officers have in mind, and they cannot exceed that limit. Often, schools have other ways of meeting your expectations without necessarily adding to your monthly salary. Benefits can often include free housing, medical insurance, transportation allowance, sick leave, paid time off, airfare, Chinese lessons, provided meals, teacher certification classes, or free tuition for your dependents. Although you might only be interested in a higher salary, try to keep other options in mind. These benefits can quickly add up to a substantial increase in your total remuneration, and you may be pleasantly surprised at what the school is willing to offer you in order to secure you as a teacher.
Rather than an increase in salary, you might also be able to convince the school to decrease your workload and professional obligations. Some schools may reduce office hours, lower your weekly maximum teaching hours, or exempt you from certain extracurricular activities. I recently had a teacher apply for a kindergarten position requiring up to 30 teaching hours per week. During the final contract negotiations, the candidate decided they would like to undergo an online graduate degree program and was not sure if they could commit to a 30 hour workweek. We relayed this to the hiring manager at the school and they responded with a revised contract requiring only 20 teaching hours per week. The salary was reduced accordingly, but the teacher was hired, happy, and able to pursue their next degree! Be careful, though, in these negotiations: You don’t want to give the school the idea that you plan to do the bare minimum. This will certainly hurt your chances of getting the salary or benefits you’re hoping for, and possibly even take you out of contention for the job altogether.
Ask for more than what you want
You probably have a good idea of your value in the Chinese job market. If you’re a competitive candidate with lots of qualifications and experience, it makes sense to expect more. But remember that Chinese employers are frugal and they’ll likely try to haggle you down to less than what you initially ask for. The key is to go into negotiations with a figure of total salary plus benefits already in mind that you know you’ll be satisfied with. Then you can use the strategy of asking for more than that, leaving your employer room to negotiate down to your happy number. But don’t get carried away asking for too much or refusing to budge at all.
Throughout your negotiations, it’s also crucial that you demonstrate why your salary demand is justified, especially if you’re asking for more than the advertised maximum for the position. You can highlight your teaching experience and certifications, awards or other professional achievements, or ways that you’ve gone above and beyond in previous jobs. Make your qualification very clear to the employer, and they may see things from your perspective.
Have an exit strategy
Experts agree, you should never enter salary negotiations without another option if things don’t pan out as you expected. There’s an abundance of teaching opportunities in China. Take the time to apply to all the schools that interest you. You’ll have a lot more leverage negotiating a higher salary with a school that you really want to work for if you already have a competing offer from another school in your back pocket. Worst case scenario, the school doesn’t want to continue their talks with you, and you take the competing offer.
If you are entertaining multiple potential employers, remember that many job offers are time-sensitive, so it’s important to act quickly. This is especially important if you’re transferring from school to school within China, as your visa’s days may be numbered.