China goes on the road to lure "sea turtles" home

NEW YORK (Reuters) - They were the “gold-collar” workers: highly educated Chinese people working on Wall Street. Now, they are known as “sea turtles” as they head home to escape the financial storm.

Financial professionals of Chinese heritage and Chinese people studying or working in the United States meet with recruiters for companies from Shanghai during a recruitment event in Queens, New York, December 13, 2008. REUTERS/Jacob Silberberg (

Nearly 1,000 would-be turtles in business suits packed the ballroom of a New York hotel last Saturday, where they pitched themselves at a job fair for opportunities in Shanghai, China’s financial hub.

Among them was Dong Shaw, who has worked on Wall Street for the last eight years after doing a PhD at Columbia University, and now uses an anglicized form of his last name.

“The crisis in the U.S. is very severe. We’re having a serious shock that will reshape the landscape of Wall Street,” said Shaw, who is looking for jobs that match his expertise in model-driven stock selection.

Shaw, who said he was in his 40s, currently does stock-picking at a hedge fund and has also worked at Scudder Investments, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America.

Like many at Saturday’s fair, Shaw is attracted to China’s relatively unscathed financial sector and still healthy growth prospects.

“As a new market, China is full of opportunities,” the native of Shanghai told Reuters.

The worst financial crisis in decades has left the U.S. economy mired in a recession since December 2007, claiming more than 2 million jobs so far. New York’s securities industry has lost 16,000 jobs and could lose a total of 38,000 by next October, while another 10,000 could be axed in related fields such as banking, according to New York’s state comptroller.

Some cities and firms in China are quick to exploit the opportunity to lure back native talent. Saturday’s fair was led by the Shanghai municipal government and organized by about two dozen banks, insurers and securities firms from the city, including the Shanghai Stock Exchange, one of the two stock exchanges in mainland China.

New York was the last stop in the delegation’s efforts to poach back up to as many as 170 seasoned specialists in such fields as risk management and private wealth management. Its two earlier recruiting sessions in London and Chicago attracted a total of 1,200 people.

Earlier this month, Nanjing in Jiangsu province in eastern China held similar events in several major cities in the U.S., which attracted hundreds of people.

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Eager to become a major player in the world economy, China is working hard to expand its talent pool and overseas Chinese, who offer both international experience and language and cultural skills, have often become an ideal option for local firms.

Of the 1.2 million Chinese people who have gone abroad to study in the past 30 years, only one fourth of them have returned, according to the Chinese government.

It’s been a tough year for many of the “gold-collar” Chinese on Wall Street. Some have lost their jobs and most have seen their personal wealth shrink.

“This is an unusual time. For some, this is their first experience of being unemployed and they’re under enormous pressure,” said Tony Tang, president of The Chinese Finance Association (TCFA), a nonprofit group based in New York.

“Now these Chinese companies are giving out positions and many are contemplating it.”


To be sure, the Chinese economy is also hitting a bump this year as export demand evaporates in response to the global economic slowdown. Sagging asset values are another cause of concern, with the local stock market down about 70 percent this year, one of the worst performers in the world.

Beijing unveiled over the weekend another round of stimulus measures including increasing money supply by 17 percent to boost lending and consumption. It comes on the heels of a 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) package announced last month amid fears growth could fall below the 8 percent considered necessary to create enough jobs.

Indeed, so many sea turtles (hai gui in Mandarin) have returned home that the people of Beijing, Shanghai and elsewhere have invented a new name for those returnees who cannot find a job: “seaweed” (hai dai).

But, while unemployment is rising in China, there are still opportunities at the top of the labor market, especially for those with foreign education and experience.

Zack Liu, who returned to China earlier this year after more than a decade on Wall Street, said he was impressed by the efforts made by Chinese fund firms to institutionalize and professionalize the industry.

Liu started his career in finance in 1996 at Bear Stearns after earning an MBA from Cornell and a PhD degree in physics from Florida State University. Over the past year, he has watched two of the three firms he worked for either collapse or merge with others as a result of the credit crunch.

“It’s sad to watch all these big banks fail. Life is like a roller-coaster. I made the right decision at the right time to come back to China,” Liu told Reuters by phone from his new home in Shenzhen.

Patriotism is sometimes a factor, but economic interest is certainly a much more important consideration. Still, many “sea turtles” acknowledged that they’re willing to accept lower pay if the job provides attractive career prospects.

Career International, a leading recruitment firm in Beijing, said there has been a jump in interest from Chinese employees on Wall Street. Their potential employers in China, according to the company, mostly offer a base pay in the range of $100,000 to $500,000.

“Before the crisis, we were receiving about five resumes per week on average. Now, it’s two or three times of that,” Jun Xu, director of the firm’s financial services group, said by telephone from Beijing.

“We’re also trying to help their family through the transition. Unlike us (who only have one child), many ‘sea turtles’ have two or three kids and some also need a bilingual daycare center.”

Some in the United States, such as Ke Zhang, who works for a hedge fund after being laid off from Lehman Brothers earlier this year, are taking a wait-and-see attitude.

“The economy here is terrible,” said the 27-year-old who holds a masters degree from Columbia University. “Gaining experience in the U.S. is still very important. Besides, the employment situation in China is far from rosy either.”

Reporting by Wanfeng Zhou; Editing by Eddie Evans