Flying high on hope, foreign degree holders struggle to land in job market

By Dang Khoa, Linh DoDecember 7, 2021 | 05:03 pm PT
Many Vietnamese who study abroad return home to discover that in the local job market they are not the cat’s whiskers they had thought themselves to be.

Like other Vietnamese students who graduate from foreign colleges, Nhat Cuong, 24, of HCMC’s District 7 had high expectations when he returned to Vietnam with bachelor of science degree in marketing from a British university last July.

During his two-week quarantine, he went online to look for jobs. "I believed I would outperform local candidates and get a good starting salary," he says.

Reality turned out to be just the opposite. For an entry level test, he was asked to develop a sample marketing campaign for a brand along with appropriate hashtags.

His performance failed to impress.

"At the end of our interview, the recruiter told me that he had interviewed many candidates with international degrees like me. From his observation, we are not the right fit because we are not as creative as those with a domestic background and better local market insights".

He finds the salary of VND6-10 million ($263 – 439) a month that companies are willing to pay for him too low; he expects twice as much of around VND20 million ($878).

As a result, he is teaching English online and hopes he will be able to land a good job after the Lunar New Year, when there are more opportunities for job seekers.

The situation that Cuong finds himself in has become common these days, causing foreign degrees to lose their competitive edge while locally trained candidates are catching up, showing they can be as creative and articulate as those with foreign degrees were often assumed to be.

Studying abroad is a common option for Vietnamese students, especially high school graduates whose families can afford a relatively expensive international education. According to the Ministry of Education and Training, as of 2020, Vietnam has about 190,000 students who are studying abroad, concentrating in some popular destinations such as Australia, the U.S., Canada, the U.K., South Korea, Japan and China.

Representatives of Pennsylvania State University (L) talk with Vietnamese students during a U.S. education fair in Hanoi. Photo by AFP

Representatives of Pennsylvania State University (L) talk with Vietnamese students during a U.S. education fair in Hanoi. Photo by AFP

Nguyen Thu Trang, country head of workforce solutions company ManpowerGroup Vietnam, says candidates with foreign degrees only have an advantage in fields where local institutions are yet to provide training.

But in the case of tracks commonly offered at Vietnamese universities, those who graduate from abroad do not possess any clear-cut advantage, she adds.

Tran Quynh Nhi, a senior consultant at a HR firm in HCMC’s District 12, says unless job applicants graduate from American Ivy League or similarly prestigious colleges, having a foreign educational background does not magically help one find a well-paid job in an increasingly competitive labor market.

"Candidates with foreign degrees want more benefits while companies want to cut costs, especially amid the pandemic".

Connections cultivated at home also play a major role in helping land a good job, she points out.

Like Cuong, Tran Ngoc Bao Thy, 28, who has a bachelor of arts degree in communication from the U.S. is biding her time to find a better-paying job after reality caught up with her initial expectations.

Thy, who now works as a content specialist for a marketing firm in HCMC's District 3, recalls her first two months upon her return in 2018 and her panic after searching in vain for her "suitable, dream" job: a well-paid entry level position in a multinational marketing firm with lots of benefits.

What she found on job portals, local and international, was mostly low-paying work, much lower than she had expected.

"I thought my English proficiency would make it easier for me," she says.

Having internship experience abroad did not help her much in negotiating salaries either.

After a further search, in 2019 she managed to land her current job, but it pays around VND13 million ($570) a month.

"I am not really happy with my salary and have tried to find other jobs.

"But it has not been a rosy journey, especially in this belt-tightening environment."

The lack of appeal foreign degrees have to employers is not peculiar to Vietnam, but reflects a global phenomenon: no matter where they operate, recruiters attach little importance to job applicants’ international educational backgrounds.

A recent survey of almost 11,000 international recruiters by French HR agency Emerging and published on British magazine Times Higher Education about the employability of graduates from 2,000 universities worldwide found employers valuing soft skills and digital literacy the most.

Three other major criteria are specialized, professional and digital knowledge, and academic excellence takes a backseat.

Least important is "internationalization," which includes aspects such as foreign degrees and international work experience.

This attribute in applicants is especially unimportant for companies in some developed economies like Australia, Germany and Canada.

ManpowerGroup’s Trang says besides professional knowledge, recruiters in Vietnam also look for soft skills such as the ability to handle or adapt to particular situations.

Foreign degrees and work experience only become important if they are related to the job in question, she explains. "How candidates perform in interviews is also extremely important".

From Trang’s perspective, one of the biggest concerns for jobseekers who have studied abroad is not a high salary but whether they can find the right working environment, one that fits them personally.

Technically savvy Nguyen Duy Duc, 22, who has a bachelor's degree in graphic design from a school in the U.S., has found a job but says he has to lower his expectations to work in Vietnam.

When he first joined, he asked his employer for a better computer and software to capitalize on the skills and knowledge he had acquired abroad. His company’s response was simply "no".

Besides, he has also learned to adapt to the work culture here: like working for a full day on Saturday without getting paid overtime unlike in the U.S..

As the continuing pandemic makes people afraid of going to a faraway country to study, Tran Hoang Minh, 18, of HCMC's District 3 has scrapped his plans to go to Canada.

He thinks international schools in Vietnam can provide very similar experiences to studying abroad and their degrees have as much value, and are even better known among local recruiters.

"Because of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic, I think getting an education at local institutions is safer and cheaper.

"Besides, I can always take free online courses and acquire extra certificates to strengthen my resume".

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