Vietnam's overseas graduates face job-finding struggles at home

By Xanh Le, Quang Huong   April 7, 2024 | 03:31 pm PT
Holding a high school diploma from Canada and a university degree in Chinese commerce language from China, Tat Dat has faced difficulties securing a fulfilling job upon his return to Vietnam.

After moving back to his hometown of northern Quang Ninh province in 2022, it took him four months and over 20 job applications to land a position in e-commerce, with a starting salary of VND8 million ($320) per month - less than he hoped for.

"I diligently monitored job platforms every hour, in search of an e-commerce trade position, hoping for a monthly salary of VND12 million to VND20 million," Dat said. "Upon eventually securing such a position, the employers informed me that what they could offer me would be VND8 million, a figure not open to negotiation."

Dat said he believed that the salary he was offered would never compensate for the VND15 billion invested in his education, yet he remained at the position for six months.

However, the unsatisfactory salary was merely one of several challenges he encountered in the Vietnamese job market, including difficulties adjusting to workplace culture, being tasked with duties not outlined in his contract, and frequently working overtime without additional compensation.

"In practice, although the company’s policy stated an eight-hour workday, the actual hours frequently extended to 10-12 hours a day, with no additional overtime compensation," Dat said. "This was a stark contrast to my previous experiences where an eight-hour workday strictly meant eight hours, nothing more."

Dat discovered that being bilingual was no longer a distinctive advantage, facing competition from peers fluent in three or four languages.

"Encountering peers fluent in English, Chinese, Korean, and French made me feel less competent," he admitted.

A woman wearing academic cap and dress. Illustration photo by Unsplash

A woman wearing academic cap and dress. Illustration photo by Unsplash

Dat’s experience aligns with the results of a survey conducted by recruitment agency SHD involving 350 Vietnamese graduates of foreign institutions. The study revealed that 87% experienced cultural and workplace adaptation challenges within Vietnamese corporations, while 83% were dissatisfied with their salary and benefits.

Ngo Thi Ngoc Lan of headhunt service Navigos Search observed that although graduates returning from abroad bring confidence, language skills, and open-mindedness, they often face difficulties adjusting to Vietnam’s distinct workplace culture. Such graduates require additional time to acclimate compared to their domestically-educated peers, due to the substantial differences in business practices between Vietnam and other countries.

Ha Vy, a U.S. taxation degree holder, had experiences similar to Dat. After investing VND6 billion in her degree, Vy returned to Vietnam confident in her ability to get a well-paying position. Nonetheless, her lack of practical work experience meant it took her up to four months to find employment offering a monthly salary of VND10 million.

"My expectations were set on a starting salary of at least VND20 million, but such opportunities proved elusive," she said.

After enduring over a year of dissatisfaction due to the mismatch between her efforts and remuneration, the 27-year-old embarked on a job search in Malaysia, driven by her frustration with the undervaluation of her degree in Vietnam.

"I had anticipated that my degree would garner greater appreciation and financial reward in Vietnam," Vy said.

She further explained that despite her proficiency in English, the absence of practical experience posed a significant barrier. Consequently, she said that she now deems it unrealistic for overseas-educated graduates to expect salaries ranging between US$2,000-$3,000 upon their return to Vietnam.

Le Thanh Ngan, the Head of Recruitment at FPT Education, said that foreign degree holders frequently aspire to high-ranking positions straight out of college, overlooking entry-level opportunities despite their lack of experience, which further complicates their job search in relation to salary expectations.

But there are more reasons than that for graduates returning from abroad’s challenging job seeking journeys. Vu Hanh Hoa, CEO of a leadership training institute in Hanoi, pointed out that the ongoing economic downturn has been an additional hurdle for this group. As companies streamline operations, they favor experienced employees over those with overseas degrees who necessitate comprehensive training.

"Major corporations are also facing challenges and have been compelled to reduce expenses to optimize their functions," she commented. "They prioritize retaining efficient, versatile staff capable of delivering immediate value."

Hoa noted that many graduates returning from abroad come from affluent backgrounds, thus lacking the resilience and perseverance deemed essential in the challenging Vietnamese job market. Only a small fraction exhibit the endurance and tenacity valued by employers in today’s global economic climate, she added.

Another challenge for holders of foreign degrees is their limited experience in communication and building connections within the Vietnamese context.

"Students who have spent significant time abroad tend to understand foreigners better than their own compatriots, necessitating a considerable period to re-acclimatize to Vietnamese society, its people, attitudes, and work culture," Hoa explained.

Thus, many employers estimate that international graduates require six to 12 months to adapt, during which they incur significant training expenses without providing immediate benefits to the company. This in turn leads to employer’s reluctance to offer high initial salaries.

Hoa advised that instead of focusing solely on the prestige of their foreign degrees, graduates returning from abroad should pursue opportunities to gain practical work experience to alleviate their employment challenges.

"Often, these graduates return with the expectation that their "higher" qualifications merit positions at renowned, large companies with substantial salaries," she said. "This expectation creates a barrier to employment."

Hoa thus encouraged returning graduates to adjust their expectations and recognize that a foreign degree serves merely as an additional credential. In the face of the economic downturn, as companies increasingly prioritize actual work performance over academic qualifications, Hoa said the ability to "genuinely contribute" was the key factor in getting hired.

Thus, overseas degree holders should consider the importance of accruing work experience and evaluate how they can add value to a company based on their strengths. Hoa advised against holding out for positions in their preferred fields that meet their salary expectations.

"Set aside your degrees and avoid becoming ensnared in delusions of grandeur," she counseled. "Don’t become overly fixated on your foreign education."

Otherwise, such graduates risk enduring continuous challenges similar to those faced by Dat.

Disheartened by his comparatively lower earnings in relation to his domestically-educated counterparts, he opted to take out loans from his parents and other sources to launch a homestay business.

"The overwhelming financial pressure left me with no choice but to venture into entrepreneurship," he said. "Starting this business has put me in debt of VND7 billion."

Although the financial success of his new business remains uncertain, the venture’s costs have accumulated to the total amount Dat has spent on his education and business startup, making it even more difficult for him to earn back what he has invested.

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