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Do I Need to Speak Cantonese to Work in Hong Kong?

We are regularly asked by Western expatriates in construction considering coming to work in Hong Kong whether Cantonese language skills are required.  This is a question sometimes flagged up as a result of an engineering or quantity surveying job description on our website stating Cantonese as essential, or another one saying that it is not needed.  The honest answer to the question is that it depends on a number of factors. As an expat construction recruitment consultant in Hong Kong with fluent English and Cantonese language skills,  I hope I can spread some light on the issue.

Cantonese and English in the Hong Kong Construction Industry Boom
The obvious first point to make is that there is a massive boom in the Hong Kong construction industry, and there are more construction sector jobs than qualified and experienced local Hong Kong people available to do them.  This shortage of skilled local construction staff has resulted in companies having no other option but to employ candidates from overseas to get the work done.

Who Decides Which Roles are Expat Roles?
As compulsory state education in Hong Kong was only progressively introduced from  1973 for primary and 1978 for secondary education onwards, a significant number of older people in Hong Kong are illiterate and have certainly had no structured educational exposure to learning foreign languages such as English.  In addition, away from the 'expat areas' of Hong Kong many local people in rural areas have no need or inclination to learn or speak English (and why should they!).  This can result in a divide in business terms at least between, in very broad terms a bilingual Hong Kong island where many affluent expats also live (and is the Hong Kong most tourists see) and the many other parts of Hong Kong where there are fewer expats and fewer English speaking locals.

Local Hong Kong Construction Contractors V International Construction Contractors
The above distinction is broadly mirrored in the Hong Kong construction industry where day to day construction and renovation around Hong Kong is largely conducted in Cantonese and with contracts and correspondence written in Chinese.  However the official/legal language of construction contracts in Hong Kong is English, and this is certainly the case for major projects including those underway by the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTR) in Hong Kong including the Shatin to Central Link (SCL) which is out to tender currently (we profiled this in our blog last month).

Contractual/Technical Roles V Labour Management Roles
Another useful distinction to make is between roles requiring technical expertise versus those requiring labour management or extensive subcontractor interfacing. The former roles, such as Contract Administrator, Contracts Advisor, Claims Consultant, Planning Engineer or Project Director are all roles where Cantonese language skills are usually not deemed essential to the role if the employee can add value to the employer and project with relevant expertise gained on projects elsewhere in the world.  In contrast, a Senior Quantity Surveyor handling plant and labour subcontractors (rather than say contract administration) or a Site Manager supervising site works would almost always need Cantonese in order to  understand what is going on and be able to perform their role successfully.

It is certainly the case that there can be grey areas with the above generalization, but we try hard to take accurate job descriptions from employers & detail their requirements in full on the job descriptions we advertise on the Maxim Recruitment website.

Education Standards in Hong Kong
It is certainly the case that the local & international education system in Hong Kong works to a very high standard and many Hong Kong Chinese parents ensure that their children become fluent in Cantonese, Mandarin and English at an early age. So much so that many Hong Kong nationals have enjoyed great overseas career development opportunities using their English language skills from 1997 until just a few years ago when Europe and the Middle East boomed and the Asia construction industry was quiet.  It is these 'returning expats' to Hong Kong who are bilingual and have international as well as local experience who will be very successful in the current Hong Kong construction boom.

So, Do I Need to Speak Cantonese to Work in Hong Kong?
As outlined above, it depends on your skill set, your experience and what value you can add to the local market here. Both an employer and the Immigration Department need to agree that there is a benefit to be had from granting a work permit in the particular circumstances proposed.  Also the attractiveness of the salary/package on offer will reflect the urgency with which your skills are needed – in our view only the best intending expatriates (both in terms of ability and character) need apply as Hong Kong is a dynamic place where non  Cantonese speakers need to find their niche quickly and add value on an ongoing basis to be successful. That said, there is a booming construction industry here with a mixture of skills and language abilities and there are a lot of non Cantonese speakers who have been in Hong Kong 20 or 30 years and built hugely successful careers. Now is the prime time for plenty more expatriates to come to Hong Kong (ideally to learn the language as well!) and get a piece of the action here!

Donald Leung
Recruitment Consultant
Maxim Recruitment

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