Updated: Jan 12
We’ve all heard a million times how important first impressions are. Let’s talk about a very important first impression that so many foreign workers are on the receiving end of when they get their first job as a foreigner in Taiwan: working in a buxiban (補習班 / cram school).
Teaching English (or other cram school courses) in Taiwan offers a lot of positives. Take this scenario. You arrive in a country where you likely don’t speak the language. Despite having little or no previous work experience, you are able to set up a couple of interviews at schools, and after the interviews you are offered a job. You take a full-time role working about 35 hours per week for NT$570/hour (~USD$18.50). You find an apartment with roommates for NT$12,000/month (USD$400) and get a local phone plan for NT$700/month (~USD$22). Now you’re set up with work and after your local bills and taxes, you’re banking about USD$1,700 each month in a place where you can easily eat for under USD$5 per meal. That looks pretty alright on paper, no? Whether you’re in the “just going to do it for one year” club (good luck with that), plan to go traveling again after saving some cash, or are just looking to pay the bills while you figure out what’s next, that’s a decent financial situation to find yourself in.
The widely-held experience of working in cram schools is important because it goes a long way toward shaping so many people’s impressions of what it is to work in Taiwan, and the lasting effects of those impressions can strongly impact one’s approach to finding non-teaching work down the road. While there are positives to be taken away from holding nearly any job in a foreign country and culture, I’m going to focus on a few aspects of the cram school teaching experience that might be problematic or confounding as people attempt to transition from teaching into other professional work in Taiwan.
Finding a Job
While buxiban jobs are getting more competitive as more foreigners discover Taiwan, teaching opportunities are still widely available. The relative ease with which one can find a teaching job could be misleading, though, if you assume that will be the same experience across other industries. There are multiple reasons for this. First, there are far more foreigners seeking professional roles in Taiwan than are available. Second, it’s still not that easy for local companies to hire you. In addition to the fact that you must meet certain conditions to legally obtain a white-collar visa – potentially including two-years of relevant experience or a master’s degree – companies must also meet requirements and many HR managers and companies don’t even know the processes involved in hiring foreigners. Third, there is a lack of resources and job boards for job seekers. While there are a couple of Facebook groups and some English job postings on 104 and LinkedIn, not just anyone can get a meeting with a recruiter, and there still isn’t a strong job posting infrastructure available for those seeking an opening. (We’re working on fixing that, see our growing list of resources here.)
*Disclaimer: This is a highly contentious topic. For the record, I believe that all people should be paid more in Taiwan. For the purpose of this blog post, the following is an attempt to objectively discuss salaries with respect to the real-world earning environment in Taiwan today.
For the expected quality and amount of work, teaching English pays really well. As a result, it can come as a shock when job seekers encounter openings – mostly entry-level and not highly-specialized roles – that can have posted salaries that would be a 1/3 pay cut from what they make as a full-time teacher. This situation seems to exist for at least three reasons:
Companies are being as frugal as possible. In Taiwan that means that they may be seeking to add foreign talent as close to the NT$48,000 minimum legal salary as possible.
Many companies have never hired foreign talent and don’t have a good understanding of either the market or what foreign talent salary expectations are.
Some companies that have been hiring foreigners for years – primarily in the publishing and computer hardware sectors – continue to post jobs offering low salaries. With the proliferation of more job boards that require posted salary ranges, this is likely to be influencing some less experienced companies.
So, what can be done? This is another contentious point, so I’ll simply list some options. Any time you receive a job offer you have the right – many would say the duty – to negotiate for the best possible salary. If you are prepared and put your best foot forward, you certainly can be paid more than the posted salary range. Another option is to accept a lower paying role as a way of getting your foot in the door. With 12-18 months of white-collar experience, you have a ton more leverage with which to negotiate, and I know many people who have earned a significant pay bump when moving from their first job to the next. Finally, side hustles in Taiwan are extremely important income supplements and networking opportunities. Having projects on the side while you’re teaching can help you build a portfolio of work and doing side jobs even when you have a 9-5 is a great way to bolster your reputation and bankroll.
Management + Expectations
Once you’re in the door with a job, there’s one last set of issues that you may have to contend with. You’ve probably noticed in your time in Taiwan that your local friends work really hard and some work really long hours. In most instances, when you move from teaching to another job, you should also expect to work really hard but hopefully not an unreasonable number of hours. Obvious as this may sound, bear in mind that we are talking about transitioning to this routine from what likely was a much more relaxed working environment in a buxiban. Those hardworking friends? Your approach is now likely to be compared to theirs.
One final aspect I’ll touch on here is that of management style. In general, the older the company and the older the manager(s) you have, the more likely you are to encounter long working hours and a sternly top-down relationship with your superiors. Conversely, many younger Taiwanese companies are attempting to adopt what they often refer to as “a Google/Facebook style office.” This usually means lots of snacks on hand, younger managers, and, often but not always, a more flat and open management structure.
In reality, these three aspects of adjusting from teaching to other professional work are quite general, and each person who moves from teaching to other work has their own experience. I’m sure some of the information and observations here will spark conversation and debate. Let’s hear it in the comments.