I often feel compelled to put disclaimers up when talking about salaries in Taiwan, so I guess that’s a pretty good sign that I should just knuckle down and give the subject its own post. To start with, here are some of the real-market pay and salary numbers.
Published cram school monthly salary for foreigners: NT$60,000 and up
Published cram school hourly pay for foreigners: ~NT$580-800
Published entry level professional monthly salary for foreigners: NT$50,000 and up (varies greatly by industry and specialization)
Just so we’re clear on these numbers: starting cram school teachers with no experience can easily earn triple the minimum monthly salary of a Taiwanese person. Let that marinate. That’s the minimum salary for Taiwanese people who, at most companies, are generally expected to follow the unstated mandate that you are likely to work more than 40 hours a week. Compare it with the sort of going rate for full-time-ish teachers who make a racket about any overtime and don’t have to take their work home with them. This is an important point, because there is a lot of clamoring in the foreign community for better pay for professional non-teaching jobs. Knowing that you could maybe walk out of your professional job every day of the week and earn more money at the cram school across the street starting tomorrow can be hard to swallow. In response to those who clamor for better pay for professionals, I offer here a few points for your consideration.
I agree that all professionals in Taiwan should be paid higher salaries. Corporations and business owners take home an outrageous cut of company earnings with little government restriction to protect professional worker salaries. It’s well known that this drives professional brain drain, hurts the birth rate, and contributes to a number of other social issues.
You’re not at home. The salaries aren’t the same, the cost of living isn’t the same, the competition isn’t the same (which could work in your favor), the work culture isn’t the same, and there’s a real good chance you don’t deserve more money just because you’re not from around here. The sooner you stop thinking that any of those standards apply in this market, the better. Wake up and smell the stinky tofu, 兄弟.
If you’re seeking your first job in Taiwan in an entry level or junior position that is not a specialized skillset (such as computer engineer), it’s strongly advisable that you prepare yourself to see salary offers that are less than what teachers make. This is the reality. Teaching pays really well. If you find yourself scoffing when you think about making NT$50/55,000 a month, don’t forget that the Taiwanese person in the cube next to you might be making half of what you make. Is your work worth twice as much as that person’s work?
After your first job in Taiwan, it becomes significantly easier to negotiate salaries a rung or two up from NT$50/55k. If you are of a mindset to see a first job as an opportunity to get in, learn, and network, the returns can be very solid when you move to your subsequent jobs.
If, at any pay grade, you’re not content then I say to you: don’t fear the hustle. A great luxury of living in Taiwan is that there is far less competition for some niche skill or talent that you could potentially offer. Having side projects not only keeps you busy, but also shows initiative and personality, which are a fantastic boost to networking, which is another thing that you naturally do if you’ve got a hustle. Trust me. There are less urban gardening consultants, freelance taco dudes, and Spanish language tour guides here than back home. Your niche is probably just waiting to be carved out.
A note (or two) about entitlement.
No conversation about entitlement among foreigners in Taiwan can be had without discussing teaching. Disproportionately high salaries for cram school teachers directly influence the debate about how much foreign professionals should be paid. This is an undeniable fact. The benchmark by which so many gauge their own take-home pay is set by work that has a very low barrier to entry and does not require specialized talent. That can feel like an ego hit if you let it. It really is a choice to stick around in Taiwan and work and network and find a way to get to a professional salary that you are content with. If you are too proud to potentially earn less at your day job for a year or two than you could as a teacher, the odds are stacked very much against you.
Bear in mind that other point, too. Speaking a native language that is not Mandarin or Taiwanese doesn’t mean you have a specialized talent. It may make you a bit rarer, but it is not specialized. Here, too, entitlement can rear its ugly head. Spanish-speaking tv news anchors in Chicago and French-speaking hotel managers in London (for example) and people with other such language talents may be a great fit for a given position in-part because of their language abilities, but does language alone make them considerably more valuable? Only in the cases where the language skill is exceptionally rare. So if you’ve taken a job that involves you doing work in your native tongue, be careful to check what you think you’re owed against your Taiwanese coworker at the next desk who’s doing the exact same job in Chinese. Are you producing work that generates twice as much – or more – money for the company as that person? Because there’s a good chance that your salary could be double theirs.
Keeping things in perspective.
It is extremely challenging to not compare professional salaries with teaching salaries, but we all might be so much the better off for it. My first two years of professional work in Taiwan were at salaries lower than what I could have made teaching. There was a lot of frustration in that. But at the same time, if you’re a single person in Taiwan – especially outside Taipei – a salary in the NT$60,000 range makes for a comfortable life and that work can be an important kickstart to your career here. As I said above, this is all very much about choices. Where the optimist sees opportunity, the pessimist may see wage imbalance. The choice is yours.