Nguyen Thi Hoa’s rice farming parents thought their daughter would have a better life if she learned English to find a job. She chose Chinese instead and is now in her senior year in Vietnam. Her timing could hardly have been better.
From Apple suppliers Foxconn and GoerTek to tire and textile makers, an investment boom from Greater China has hit Vietnam, spurring demand for workers with Hoa’s exact skillset.
Rising demand for Vietnamese workers who speak Chinese is just the latest symptom of factories moving to the Southeast Asian country. Higher costs and risks in China, including the trade war with the US, motivated companies from many countries to make the switch. But among Vietnam’s top investors, mainland China has made the biggest leap — its cumulative investment has doubled in the past five years.
Adding in growth from Taiwan and Hong Kong, the shortage of workers who can translate between Chinese and Vietnamese becomes even greater.
“I just started learning Chinese because I liked it,” Hoa said. “But now my goals are clearer. When I search online there are so many different jobs. . . from North to south.”
When it comes to job offers, she’ll be driven insane after she graduates.
As companies pull the rods in China and cross the border into Vietnam, “they find it difficult to recruit staff of high professional quality [who are] fluent Chinese,” according to a recent report by Navigos, owner of the largest local job board, VietnamWorks.
Manufacturers in the smartphone, earphone and other electronics sectors are particularly affected, the company Nikkei Asia said, based on the recruiting work its consultants are doing for clients in these sectors.
Nikkei tracked job ads on VietnamWorks last month and found that ads seeking Chinese speakers have increased by 55 percent.
Apple suppliers Wistron, Pegatron, and Compal often pop up in lists for all kinds of engineers, line managers, and accountants.
At the request of Apple and other customers, key AirPod assemblers Luxshare and GoerTek were also aggressively expanding in Vietnam. The latter made one of the country’s biggest foreign investments in January, with plans to invest another $400 million and hire 30,000 workers in Nghe An, the north-central province said.
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“When [investors] Come here, they want to do business in their language,” said Filippo Bortoletti, Vietnam director at Dezan Shira, a consulting firm with 12 offices in China. “It’s difficult to find the total package.”
His customers include Chinese electronics and toy manufacturers seeking advice on relocating to Vietnam.
The communist country’s two biggest investors haven’t changed in the last decade — South Korea and Japan — so their native languages and English fill the help-seeking ads.
But the need for Chinese speakers has increased because China is the only nation to climb steadily into the top 10 by cumulative investment during this period, reaching seventh place in 2021 from ninth in 2015, according to Vietnam’s Planning Ministry. In five years, China’s investment in its smaller neighbors rose 102.8 percent, by far the largest jump among the top 10.
The U.S.-China tariff war has been a reason for corporate migration south more recently, but before that it was the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Garment makers came to Vietnam irritated by the TPP trade deal’s promise of reduced textile tariffs.
“We are seeing an influx of Chinese and Taiwanese companies investing in Vietnam,” said Chien Chih Ming, chairman of the Taiwan Chamber of Commerce in Vietnam. “The textile and footwear industries are more traditional, so I would still see them prefer to hire people who can speak Chinese.”
However, English remains the lingua franca, particularly in high-tech companies, which also “are asking managers from China or Taiwan to learn Vietnamese,” he added.
The move to Vietnam saw a slight reversal last summer as a brutal Covid shutdown forced global buyers to divert orders to China, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
But customers are returning because of the stability of the one-party state, geography, and modest but growing pool of suppliers.
“This is not only due to the customs duties,” said Bortoletti in an interview, “but also because the expertise in Vietnam is now very good.”
Additional reporting by Cheng Ting-Fang in Taipei.
A version of this article was first published by Nikkei Asia on March 14, 2022. ©2022 Nikkei Inc. All rights reserved.
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