Sunday, April 22, 2007

Chinese Hiring @ the Factory

I’ve been working in China for 7 months now. It’s weird how fast the time has flew by.

When I arrived at Toy State, I worked with 2 other project engineers, working and maintaining all of our new/old projects. In December, one of those engineers was fired. Within one day of being told that this was going to happen, Thompson had already cleared off his desk and left our company. It was a pretty quick turnover.

After Thompson left, I took on more and more responsibilities. Instead of hiring a new person, I wanted to work with my partner, Rosson. I believed that we could handle the work load of our fired colleague. As I got into gear what exactly the job needed, I was able to create different processes and make our efforts more efficient. Within a couple of weeks, we were completely up and running…effectively doing a 3 person job with 2 people.

In the past month, something interesting has happened. After the Chinese New Year, the toy industry effectively starts preparing for the next selling cycle. We have begun a large marketing campaign to develop tons of new projects. This year we were projecting to do130 new projects compared to only 45 last year. This effectively means that the 2 of us have to not only manage a 3 person job, but are now doing 3x the amount of new projects as before. Quite a challenge, ill say.

Realizing the potential need for extra man-power, our higher up management told me in early February that we were going to add 2 project engineers into my department. More than 2 months later, we still don't have any extra people hired. In turn, I’ve been juggling more than 2x the amount of work I’ve had previously.

Human Capital

A week ago, we had a few people go through the interview process. A female graduate student and a male college graduate came in. I was mostly ignorant of the whole thing. For some reason, I had been no role in their interview process or decision of future project engineers (even though I was going to be their boss…???).

After being somewhat confused and having a feeling of disrespect, I approached our COO (a relatively Americanized Chinese with good English skills who used to did my job a year ago) who was spearheading this search: This interaction was spoken in Chinese

Me: Hey [COO], what’s going on with the search? We’re getting swamped over here with all of the increased work load.
COO: It’s going. We interviewed a couple of people last week and really liked a girl. She came in, did the interview thing and we liked her. Before we could sign all the paperwork, we got hung up with her salary requirements…so we didn't hire her.
Me: Oh really? Do you think it will be resolved?
COO: I don't really know…we’ll see.


Me: I was wondering, for future interviewees, can I have an opportunity to sit down and talk to them for a while. Since the members of this department are going to work extremely close with any future hire, I want to have a feel for the abilities and personality before they are hired.
COO: 不用了, 要不行就让他走. (Translation: No need, if he/she is not good, we’ll just ask them to leave [aka fire him/her])

Our factory boss’s response surprised me incredibly. I originally had the notion that there was a sense of disrespect towards me in not letting me have a say of who I was going to have work under me. Instead, by his statement, all feelings of disrespected disappeared. It was replaced with amazement.

When I went through the job search as a senior in college, I developed (what I think is) a pretty clear perception of the relationship between the employee and the company. I feel that companies look at their hires as investments, or human capital. These individuals, with their skills and potential have the capabilities to help the company with their knowledge, ideas, know-how, ect. with proper training from the company. Since a lot of time, energy and money is spent on training these people so they can succeed in the future, companies try their absolute hardest to make sure the candidate is as strong as possible. This is why there are multiple rounds of interviews and extensive review processes at most places.

I admit that our company isn’t the big corporation with tons of resources for hiring people. I do think, however, that there are a lot of small things that can be done to do a thorough job of whatever we can to make sure anyone new will be successful here. If it is so easy for the company COO, who is relatively westernized, to say…hey, if it doesn't work out, we’ll just let him/her go, then he definitely has a different understanding of what human capital is.

Colleges and its Graduates

A couple of weeks have gone by and still nothing. The previous candidates who were possibilities were not able to resolve their contract negotiations…meaning I’m stuck with an overflow of work in a relatively quiet time in product development.

Seeing a potential for “disaster” if we didn't get someone in here soon, I have recently made a revived push for locating new hires. I have talked to the HR department, their boss, my boss, the COO of the factory, just about everyone I can think of to help in this pursuit of someone new. If we don't get this person soon, we won’t have enough time to train him/her for the next round of high demands and tight deadlines.

After talking to the HR department, I realized that we could change our description of skills/requirements so that more people would apply. Currently, we’re requesting college graduates who have backgrounds in engineering and a high aptitude in English. As an Mechanical Engineering graduate, I can say that technical knowledge and background isn’t as essential to the job as English skills are. I think that if we found anyone with a good English background, they could successfully learn the more technical stuff on the job.

I approached the COO about this and he said he would consider it and see if we could find more people to come in for interviews. We then had an interesting conversation about the state of the Chinese job market. Again, this conversation was spoken in Chinese.

COO: Did you know that we have been trying to find good candidates for project engineering jobs consistently for the past 2 years? It is really difficult to find good prospects.
Me: Wow. Is that true? What about the millions of jobless college graduates I keep reading about in the media?
COO: That population isn’t reliable. Colleges and Universities are everywhere and more and more people are going to them. However, it is hard to judge what these students learned when they were there. While these graduates have questionable academic backgrounds, they are also demanding higher-paying jobs and more respect from possible employers because… they graduated from college and they spent a lot of money there. We’ve interviewed 50 people since December. As you can see, none of them have been hired.
Me: I guess we’ll see what happens with the change in job requirements then. Hopefully we’ll have more people coming in for interviews when we change it.
COO: I don't know if it will be successful. If someone is good in English, they have a higher likelihood to work for one of the big western corporations that are expanding into China.

Higher education in China has become a big business. New schools are popping up all over the country…many of them without any good faculty or educational standards. Some of these schools have formed alliances with more brand name schools. The new school requests to be a separate campus of the well known school. This means that the new school will have a good name (ie. Beijing University in Shenzhen) and their students (at some schools and not at others) get the same diploma as students at the regular campus.

Affluent students who don't score high enough on the national college entrance exam to get into the school on merit can then go to a good university. They are considered “private” students and pay higher tuition. Through all of this, it is still unclear if there is an academic standard of the separate schools or a governing body who monitors and accredits it. Of course, not all of these schools are bad, but the current practices are chaotic without conformity in standards.

I don't know who knows about this in the western media. I do know that there are countless and reoccurring stories about college students not finding jobs. This is probably one of the causes.

With this understanding in the questionable quality of the Chinese graduate, I think it’s even more important to push them through a detailed and involved interview process. I don't know if the other managers see it that way.

That being said… what matters is that I still don't have another project engineer working under me. Therefore, it is becoming more and more apparent that I will be overloaded at work for the foreseeable future.


China Law Blo said...

Interesting post. That is amazing how the company seems so willing to just jetison someone if they do not work out. How much time does one actually have to prove onself before risking the boot?

Wang said...

It is interesting that hiring is done this way. Conversely, I'm not sure how our companies outsourcing is done, but we have retention problems at our facility in Malaysia. Employees stay for 2 years, add it to their resume and bounce to a new higher paying job. I guess it's only natural given that workers aren't hired for fit in the first place and if they aren't a good fit they can just be fired later on.

Mike said...

CLB - In my previous experience, people have atleast a few months to show what they can do. However, things can turn at any second.

Mike said...

Big Wang - I think it's ok for people to stay for 2 years and leave. If another company comes to you with much more money, much more benefits, much more opportunities, you'd definitely go. I think that's natural ... right?

Rene Patnode said...

There are still plenty of English majors to go around... trust me, I teach them. If you'd like some for your company, I'm sure they'd work for cheaper than a local hire. :)

But what your COO said about the quality of students coming through is very true. I teach at a school that does not have great renown but is still "legitimate," and to some extent some students can still buy a degree if they have the money or the right connections.

The New York Times had an article about a year ago about student protests that were caused because their satellite school didn't quite give them the degree they expected. I believe it happened in Shandong, but I'm not positive.

Wang said...

Mike, I think it's good for the worker, it's bad for the company. I'll give you an example, at my work we are trying to leverage our Malaysia facility to design and manufacture phones for the Asia market. While it would be ideal for them to function as an autonomous design center, it's been impossible. When you have a crappy job retention rate (one that I speculate is just part of the culture of building a resume and bouncing around for money), it's difficult to run a business when you have to re-train engineers all the time.

To me it's starting to feel like a burden that hasn't shown a substantial return of investment yet. I don't know if this is typical of other companies operating in China, but if it's just a source of bleeding money, maybe foreign investment in overseas work will suffer. ?

Mike said...

Rene -

I definitely saw that article. Funny times in the life of Chinese university life right?

I dont know if my company would be that great of a choice... too much politicing and bs. blah blah.

My question is: what's the quality of the teachers and administrators at those schools??

Mike said...

Steve, I think your right. People do want to hop from one place to another, either to build his/her resume or to earn more money. It could very much be the case in the developing countries...since more and more Western corporations are coming in and giving better packages.

The thing is, I dont think that's true for all of the people who leave though. I've seen different examples where the company did not do a good job in trying to retain the human capital. When you dont give pay raises, better benefits, more respect and responsibility to the people who are good and loyal... they're going to leave.

Rene Patnode said...

About standards: I had intended to mention this in my previous comment, but I had forgotten to write it.

I do know some foreign teachers at private universities, and as far as I know they do still need to meet certain legal requirements (such as the same politics classes that all university students have to take regardless of their major). As for the quality of the teaching, it's not necessarily worse than the lower end of the public school spectrum. Perhaps the most difficult aspect is that reputations are not well known for the private schools, particularly the newer ones.

Which brings me to an important point: school reputation in general. For all but the best schools, the reputation of even a well-known school can't be trusted. The standards that schools in other countries employ, such as for hiring teachers, publishing research, awarding tenure (or its Chinese equivalent) or graduating students do not hold in many of the schools. But still there is a lot of bureaucratic hoops to go through that don't necessarily relate to the academic environment. And that's an unfortunate weight that can bog down the promise of a school.

Ultimately, this is why examinations come to be considered as crucial because they are seen as the only objective measure for the ability of students. But even ignoring the validity of that assertion, their effectiveness is hampered by rampant cheating, which is sometimes unofficially sanctioned by the individual schools because they know that the one tried and true measure to increase their reputation is to boast higher scoring students.

Jeremy said...

Yeah, employees jump very quickly in China... I've had two engineers I have been working with (different company) up and leave without informing us.

Hey Mike - want to do a link exchange? with

Take care