Caixin
Jan 09, 2019 09:26 AM
DOING BUSINESS IN CHINA

Job Hoppers Think Twice as Economy Slows

With Chinese New Year less than a month away, we’ll turn our attention this week to the employment market with a special focus on the job hoppers who tend to spring from the woodwork around this time of year. For the uninitiated, the period right after the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 5 this year, has emerged as a period famous for instability in offices and assembly lines around China for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

That said, I’ll cut straight to the chase and say my discussion with both employers and young workers this week points to a quieter job hopping period this year due to uncertainties created by China’s rapidly cooling economy. Such a situation isn’t too surprising and is relatively common in any weak economy. Still, as a longtime China watcher, the anxiety I uncovered among workers in my research this week was quite a shift from what I’ve typically seen and heard over the last two decades when the nation’s economy was booming.

We’ll kick off the discussion by looking at the bigger picture of job seeking in China, which has quite a complex history due to the nation’s socialist past. The notion of job hopping was non-existent in the China I first encountered in the late 1980s. Back then economic reform was in its infancy, and the vast majority of employers were still big state-owned work units that provided cradle-to-grave employment with very limited chances for career development and almost zero chance for changing employers.

The one thing I do remember quite clearly from that time was a mad scramble among college and grad students in the one to two years before they graduated, since whatever work unit they ended up with would quite likely become their employer for life. Back then, students from smaller cities in particular would do their best to land jobs in Beijing, Shanghai or other top-tier cities, which even at that time were seen as the preferred places to live and settle down.

Back then people did occasionally change employers, though most of the time it was because their skills were “needed” elsewhere, and thus they were more like pawns on China’s vast planned-economy chessboard. All that began to change in the 1990s when the system of getting assigned to work units was mostly phased out in favor of the more Western-style job market we see today where people are basically left to fend for themselves.

Under the current system, most employers give their workers an annual bonus at Chinese New Year, usually starting at an extra month’s salary and sometimes as much as four or five months. That’s why job hoppers now tend to take the leap after the Lunar New Year, since no one wants to bolt before pocketing the extra annual bonus. The seasonal trend is especially strong today among the millions of migrants who work in factories and other low-skilled jobs, since many often go back to their hometowns for the holidays and never return afterwards.

Growing anxiety

That brings us to the present, which yielded less of interest from employers and more insight from a few of the young workers I surveyed, a group famous for their job-hopping ways. Of the employers I talked to, most didn’t note anything special about the current climate, though one financial consultant said his company would probably be giving raises at the lower end of its usual 5% to 10% range this year.

One of my former students who recently left a financial services job in Shanghai due to poor company performance has since relocated to the southern boomtown of Shenzhen. She pointed out that weakness in the financial sector, which is one of Shanghai’s biggest strengths, was one of the reasons behind her decision to leave the nation’s financial hub.

The other sector that seems to be feeling disproportionate pain is China’s traditional manufacturing sector. One contact at a drugmaker told me people in his industry are generally moving around less these days due to difficulties finding new jobs. He pointed to one more extreme case of a rival that isn’t giving out any bonuses this year and is even having difficulty paying full salaries to its top officials. “Of course they’re complaining, but no one dares to leave because they’re worried they won’t be able to find other jobs,” he told me.

Two of my favorite cases came from some of my recently graduated students who have been among the more active job hoppers I’ve seen. One told me he has worked at four or five jobs in the year and a half since graduating. The other was similarly impressive, logging tenure at three employers in just a half year. But both responded similarly when asked if they were planning to change jobs in the next 12 months: Probably not due to the economic uncertainty, each said. We’ll see.

Even the more stable recent grads who were planning to change jobs in the next 12 months said they were quite anxious due to the uncertain outlook. One who has worked at a major food multinational in the nearly three years since graduation said he was looking for new opportunities somewhat reluctantly, mostly because he felt his current situation was no longer a great fit. “I’m worried that I won’t be able to get a big raise after changing jobs,” he said.

As a hiring manager myself, I do get the sense that it’s definitely an employer’s market these days, at least based on the relative ease we’ve had filling jobs over the last year. No doubt many of the applicants we’ve been getting are these same anxious job-hoppers looking to land their next position before the music stops.

At the end of the day, it’s probably fair to say that things haven’t gotten so bad yet that people aren’t changing jobs at all, even if they’re being a bit more careful and getting more anxious in the process. That means this year’s post-Lunar New Year period will continue to see a fair among of musical chairs among job hoppers. But if the economic situation continues to deteriorate, which seems like a strong possibility, it’s quite possible next year’s Lunar New Year could see China’s young but vibrant job hopping tradition take a long-overdue rest.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com

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