Younger Chinese are spurning factory jobs that power the economy

SHENZHEN, Nov 21 (Reuters) – Growing up in a Chinese village, Julian Zhu saw his father only a few times a year when he returned from his grueling job at a textile mill in the south. Guangdong.

For his father’s generation, factory work was a protection against rural poverty. For Zhu, and millions of other young Chinese, the low wages, long working hours and risk of injury are no longer a sacrifice worth making.

“After a while, the work makes you bored,” said the 32-year-old, who stopped the production process a few years ago and makes a living selling dairy products and delivering scooters for mall in Shenzhen, China’s southern technology hub. . “I can’t stand it again and again.”

The industrial decline of Zhu and other Chinese in the 20’s and 30’s contributed to the growing unemployment that was crushing China’s manufacturers, which produced one in three of these products are consumed worldwide.

Company leaders say they will produce more, and faster, with young blood to replace their aging workers. But providing the higher wages and better working conditions that young Chinese demand will undermine their competitive advantage.

And small manufacturers say that big investments in automation technology are uneconomic or unwise when rising inflation and borrowing costs reduce demand in China’s main export market.

More than 80% of China’s manufacturers face job losses from hundreds to thousands of workers this year, which accounts for 10% to 30% of their workforce, a survey by CIIC Consulting showed. China’s Ministry of Education predicts a shortage of nearly 30 million manufacturing workers by 2025, more than Australia.

On paper, jobs are scarce: about 18% of Chinese people aged 16-24 are unemployed. This year alone, a group of 10.8 million graduates entered the labor market which, apart from productivity, is very low. China’s economy, wracked by COVID-19 restrictions, a slowdown in property markets and a crackdown on technology and other private companies, is facing its slowest growth in decades.

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Klaus Zenkel, president of the European Business Center in South China, moved to the region about two decades ago, when university graduates were less than a tenth of this year’s and the economy as a whole it is about fifteen times the current US dollar. word. It operates a factory in Shenzhen with 50 employees that builds magnetic shields that hospitals use for MRI scans and other procedures.

Zenkel said that China’s broken economic growth in recent years has raised the demand of the younger generation, who now see its work system as a disadvantage.

“If you’re young, it’s easy to do this job, climb ladders, operate machinery, handle tools, and so on, but many of our installers are 50 to 60 years,” he said. “Soon, we should get more young people, but it’s difficult. Applicants will quickly look and say “no, thanks, that’s not for me.”

The National Development and Reform Commission, China’s economic watchdog, and the Ministry of Education and Human Services did not respond to requests for comment.

SOME TIME

Manufacturers say they have three important options to deal with the negative effects of the company’s business: to sacrifice benefits to increase wages; invest more in automation; or jumping on the wave of change from the intense competition between China and the West and moving to cheaper pastures like Vietnam or India.

But all those options are hard to apply.

Liu, an industrialist in the electric battery chain, has invested in advanced manufacturing equipment with better digital measurements. He said his older employees struggle to operate the software, or read data on the screen.

Liu, who like other company executives declined to give his full name so he could speak openly about China’s economic slowdown, said he tried to lure young workers with 5% higher wages. but he was given the cold shoulder.

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“It’s like Charlie Chaplin,” Liu said, describing the performance of his workers, referring to the 1936 film “Modern Times”, about the concerns of US industrial workers during the Great Depression. in the heart. The main character, Little Tramp, played by Chaplin, does not follow the tight bolts on the conveyor belt.

Chinese policymakers have emphasized automation and industrialization as a solution to an aging workforce.

The country of 1.4 billion people, on the brink of demographic destruction, will reach half of its robot installations in 2021, up to 44% per year, the International Federation of Robotics said.

But automation has its limits.

Dotty, a general manager at a stainless steel processing plant in Foshan city, has automated packaging and surface cleaning operations, but said similar improvements for other projects would be too expensive. But young workers are necessary to maintain continuous productivity.

“Our products are really heavy and we need people to transfer them from one process to another. It’s very busy in hot temperatures and it’s difficult for us to get the processes a,” he said.

Brett, a manager at a factory that makes video game controllers and buttons in Dongguan, said orders have halved in recent months, and many of his peers are moving to Vietnam and Thailand.

He is just wondering how he will survive this time, adding that he expects to lay off 15% of his 200 employees even though he still needs young muscles on his assembly line.

CONFLICTING ASPIRATIONS

The competitiveness of China’s manufacturing and export sectors has been built over decades with state investment contributing to production capacity and low labor costs.

Preserving the status quo is contrary to the desire of a generation of Chinese who are better educated for a comfortable life than the daily work-sleep for tomorrow’s food that their parents endured.

Instead of settling for jobs below their academic level, a record 4.6 million Chinese applied for postgraduate studies this year. There are 6,000 applications for each city job, state media said this month.

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Many young Chinese also follow a low-key lifestyle known as “lying”, doing well to get by and reject the China Inc. rat race.

Economists say market forces could force both young Chinese and manufacturers to curb their demand.

“The unemployment situation for young people may worsen before the crisis can be resolved,” said Zhiwu Chen, a finance professor at the University of Hong Kong.

By 2025, he said, there may not be such a large labor shortage “because the demand will go down.”

‘You are free’

Zhu’s first job was to put fake diamonds into a wristwatch. After that, he worked in another factory, molding color boxes for mooncakes, a traditional Chinese bakery.

Co-workers shared horrific stories of workplace injuries involving sharp pieces of metal.

Realizing that he could avoid living his father’s life, he stopped.

Now selling and delivering, he earns at least 10,000 yuan ($1,421.04) a month, depending on how many hours he spends. That’s almost double what he would get at the factory, although some of the difference goes to the home, like most factories. have their own residence.

“It’s a tough job. It’s dangerous on busy roads, with wind and rain, but for young people, it’s better than the factory,” said Zhu. “You are free.”

Xiaojing, 27, now earns 5,000 to 6,000 yuan a month as a busker in the upscale Shenzhen area after spending three years at a printing company where he earned 4,000 yuan a month.

“All my friends who are my age left the industry,” he said, adding that it would be a big order to get him back.

“If they pay 8,000 before the deadline, sure.”

($1 = 7.0371 Chinese yuan reminbi)

Editing by Marius Zaharia and David Crawshaw

Our principles: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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