How Viet Kieu Workers Are Changing HCMC's Job Market

Working - Saigon/HCMC: yesterday

Julie Huynh, marketing and operations manager at Ho Chi Minh City-based bespoke tailor Rita Phil, has had a few experiences that remind her she’s not in Los Angeles anymore.

Speaking to #iAMHCMC, she said one that stands out to her was working with a local photographer. Huynh has worked with photographers in the US in the past, and the interaction there usually begins with a contract and a discussion of the fee.

But “photographers here [say] ‘oh, we’ll give you a good deal,’ ” Huynh said.

“I’m still learning to finesse that.” While she speaks Vietnamese well enough, “I still have a very Western attitude. I’ve been told I’m too aggressive,” a remark she said was more about her role as a foreigner in Vietnam than being a woman. She said Viet Kieu of both genders have to tread lightly here.

Untapped potential

Huynh moved to Vietnam to join her sister at her a couture garment firm she founded, called Rita Phil. Huynh, a California-educated Vietnamese professional who was at that time working at an accountancy firm, made the leap to Vietnam in 2015.

Why? “It just seemed like the right time. I just wanted something different in my life,” she said, adding her mum and sister already lived in Vietnam.

Nguyen Phuong Mai, managing director for executive recruitment firm Navigos Search, said family is a commonly reported reason for Viet Kieus coming to Vietnam. Those who make the journey also express an interest Vietnam’s nature and a love of Vietnamese food as their big draws in coming back.

There are around five million Vietnamese overseas, according to the World Bank. In 2015, the Communist Party reported around 12,000 Viet Kieu—or “overseas Vietnamese”—had come to Ho Chi Minh City to either relocate permanently or to live as long-term residents.

Viet KieuImage source: i.imgur.com

This may only be a fraction of the potential size of this community. Recruitment firm Robert Walters conducted a survey in which 70 percent of overseas Vietnamese professionals expressed an interest in returning.

The top reasons for returning were caring for ageing parents, a perceived ability to earn a higher salary in Vietnam and a love of Vietnamese culture.

The top factors overseas Vietnamese look at in evaluating a return was a suitably high salary in comparison to local rates, a clear career path forward and flexible work arrangements.

However, Nguyen said micromanagement was one of the biggest fears the Viet Kieu have expressed to her in coming to work in Vietnam.

Their biggest fear is “empowerment”, Nguyen said. “They’re afraid of [a] micromanagement style.”

A Western-educated employee has been invited to have a critical role and look for opportunities to innovate. So, she advised companies that want to successfully recruit and retain the overseas Vietnamese to offer recruits roles with a high degree of agency and self-determination. Like the Western classroom they come from, a Viet Kieu educated abroad will expect to have their questions and criticisms heard, something that may not be welcome in a more traditional setting.

Huynh said she’s seen that with new Rita Phil employees who’ve moved in from other firms with a more culturally Vietnamese setting.

Viet KieuImage source: hbr.org

“It’s a culture where you have to save face,” she said. For example, “if you have an argument with a coworker, [traditional Vietnamese employees] don’t want to engage that at all.”

Rather than trying to make her employees more like her, Huynh described a process in which a middle ground is negotiated between her Western training and the Vietnamese staff she oversees. For example, Rita Phil’s work schedule does not permit afternoon naps as some Vietnamese staff enjoy elsewhere, but she is working with her staff to decide the right length of time for their Tet holiday vacation.

“That’s an example of us transitioning and adapting,” she said. “When the Viet Kieu [perform] under the Vietnamese culture better, we can adapt our perspective better.”

The Three Kinds

Returning Viet Kieu broadly fall into three categories.

The first is what Nikkei Asian Review in 2016 called “pilot” actors helping foreign companies expand into Vietnam, such as Henry Nguyen, the prime minister’s son-in-law and McDonald’s’ first franchise partner.

The second are entrepreneurial actors who enter Vietnam and build something new, as Duytan Tran did. In 2010, he started eSilicon Vietnam, a semiconductor producer that Nguyen said was originally started with a group of 20 engineers. The US investors who acquired it a year later acquired a successful firm that had grown to a 100-person staff, Nguyen said.

The third are highly qualified professionals who move to Vietnam and are installed in leadership positions at local firms, as Nguyen has as head of Navigos Search. Online publication Vietcetera profiled Crystal Lam, a University of Chicago-educated Vietnamese woman who is currently managing director of lumber retailer Vinawood.

Huynh’s role as one member of Rita Phil’s leadership team doesn’t excuse her from performing some of the business’s toughest work. “We’re still just a startup,” she said, adding the business has been able to expand globally—her responsibilities are specifically the US, Australia, Canada and United Kingdom markets. The company has done so on a lean staff you could count on two hands.

So, “any great idea you do have...you have to do it yourself,” Huynh said, laughing.

Video source: Vietcetera

In the Office as in the Classroom

Vietnamese living abroad to who come to Vietnam have a complicated relationship with their work environment almost immediately.

For one, corporate structures in Vietnam tend to be more top down and hierarchical, according to Nguyen.

She said Vietnamese management expects more deference from their employees and adherence on the agreed-to goals. It’s a reflection of the typical Vietnamese classroom where rote memorisation and lecture-style instruction are the mainstays of the educational philosophy. Because colouring outside the metaphorical lines or giving anything other than the back-of-the-book answer in school would earn a Vietnamese reprimand or even punishment in a school setting, the work environment that students move into after schools tends to hew very rigorously to standardards and authority, Nguyen said. Management can feel empowered—and often is, if not officially then implicitly—to tightly manage staff.

Viet KieuImage source: ibb.co

This, Nguyen said, was a key concern for Vietnamese abroad thinking of making the move to Vietnam.

Nguyen said the other big bugbear for Vietnamese who are recruited overseas is the local business culture’s tendency to mix emotions and business. It’s a conflation that a Western-educated worker steeped in a work culture with a heavy emphasis in meritocracy may bristle at.

Here, “people treasure [the] relationship,” Nguyen said. “Many Vietnamese companies here, they let the relationship or personal feelings get in” to their business dealings.

Those entering the local business scene “need to be more aware of that.”

“We Need a Viet Kieu”

By law, only if a company can’t find the necessary talent at the local level can they expand their search. Nguyen said companies said Viet Kieu are usually among the last candidates to be looked at, although she has in the past worked with clients who’ve specifically asked for a position to be filled by a Vietnamese abroad.

Viet KieuImage source: studentexchange.vn

“We’ve seen that. Companies will say ‘We need a Viet Kieu,’” Nguyen said. These are roles where the experience of a business person living abroad while also having an understanding of Vietnamese culture are needed.

“It’s better still if they can speak Vietnamese,” she said.

For companies that are recruiting a leader who will themselves recruit and build a new department within the company, a Viet Kieu is preferred, Nguyen said.

Nguyen said it can take maybe two years for local Vietnamese to see a returning Viet Kieu as one of them. Until then, they’re just another Westerner.

That’s usually the proper amount of vetting time a Viet Kieu would need to see if their life in Vietnam has legs, Nguyen said. Those who come have many reasons for living here, but after a year or two, those who have settled here either do so permanently or find a stopping point for this chapter in their lives.

Huynh spoke to #iAMHCMC having recently decided to extend her stay in Vietnam another two or three years.

Professionally, “I’m not really giving up…anything.”

“People [who want to] make the jump to come…that’s what they think,” she said. “I’m following a path I wasn’t sure I wanted,” Huynh said.

“Vietnam is obviously growing. The economy is getting better. I think it’s prime time for Vietnam.”

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