Business style matchmaking: How recruitment is changing

Tracy Li
On the 40th anniversary of its opening up, China is now a fertile ground for entrepreneurs and professional talent to advance their careers or start up their own businesses.
Tracy Li

In 2011, Wang Yi, a Chinese product manager working at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, told his wife that he wanted to move back to China.

Wang, who received his doctoral degree in computer sciences at Princeton University, brought home with him some keen insights about why so many Chinese who go to the US don’t achieve their ambitions there.

 “There is something wrong with our traditional English teaching model,” he said.

So, in 2012, he set up a technology-driven education platform called Liulishuo to try to help remedy the problem.

For entrepreneurs and professional talent like Wang, China is now regarded as fertile ground to advance their careers or start up their own businesses. On the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up to the outside world, the nation has produced the second-largest global economy and become a global leader in innovation. With that progress, demand for specialized talent has become a pressing concern.

Market landscape 

About 20 years ago, when executive search firm Bólè Associates was established, its main aim was to recruit professionals for multinational companies doing business in China, according to David Chan, chief executive officer of the company.

The headhunter was looking for people with international backgrounds, who could “culturally” assimilate into global firms.

Today, that strategy has radically changed. Chan told Shanghai Daily that the firm is recruiting more Chinese who were educated and worked abroad but now want to return to the motherland.

Jeff Yang, team leader for technology, media and telecommunications at Bólè, said the firm’s clients include the likes of Xiaomi, a Chinese mobile phone maker that ranks fourth in the world in terms of shipments, and Toutiao, a popular news-gathering provider.

The new buzzword in personnel recruitment is “growth hackers”, a term coined in 2010 to describe people who cut across traditional business operations like development, marketing and sales to help companies, especially startups, achieve the fastest growth possible.

Zhu Yuhuan, Bólè’s senior marketing manager, said growth hackers are in high demand, particularly in technology companies.

Pete Chia, president of BRecruit, a firm specializing in jobs for middle- to senior-level professionals in the Asia-Pacific region, said the speed of development in China and the focus on “made for China” are changing consumer habits and pushing multinational companies to adapt to new trends.

 “This is quite different from my own homeland, Malaysia, where most people still take pride in buying imported goods,” he said.

Recruitment efforts mirror changes in the Chinese economy.

Ten years ago, when the Chinese government was trying to create as many jobs as possible to weather the global financial crisis, BRecruit was mainly focused on recruitment for lower-cost industries. The name of the game back then was outsourcing.

“Everything was outsourced,” said Chia, noting that Zhangjiang Town in Shanghai and the northeastern city of Dalian were two popular hubs for that business.

When China was still an export-driven economy, Chia’s team mostly helped companies like Siemens and ABB recruit junior workers and more entry-level engineers.

In 2012 and 2013, as China’s economy stabilized, companies began looking to value-added services. “Localization” was the watchword across almost every industry, Chia said. Companies were looking for people who understood the local market and had a research-and-development mindset.

Take the retail fashion industry as one example. It formerly sought employees who could smile at customers and take their money. Now it needs people who can connect with local consumers, tell them the stories behind niche brands and give advice on what fashion trends would suit a particular customer.

“This kind of hiring is different,” Chia said. “The industry needs people who are passionate about their job, know the market and can manage customer relationships.”

The battleground for recruitment has shifted online in the past two decades.

Guo Tao, general manager of’s Shanghai branch, said their firm first went digital in 1997 and was able to ride the dot-com boom. Today, it is one of the top three online recruitment platforms in China.

Guo said the employment landscape in China changed dramatically after the “iron rice bowl” or lifetime job security system in China was broken. That created tremendous movement in the job market.

Recruitment has broadened from newspaper ads and job fairs to online sites. Guo predicts that mobile phones will be the dominant job search engine in the future.

Still, online recruitment activity remains low. Only 20 percent of the 430,000 companies registered with Shanghai Administration for Industry and Commerce report that they look for new employees via the Internet, according to Guo.

Many companies still rely on internal referrals and headhunting agencies, said Guo.

The talent gap

Last July, China unveiled an ambitious plan to build a 1 trillion yuan (US$157.3 billion) artificial intelligence industry by 2030. To do that, the nation needs to fill a huge talent gap.

Artificial intelligence is one sector where demand will grow significantly, Bólè’s Chan predicted. But about 70 percent of China’s talent pool for advanced technology industries is now residing in other countries, primarily the US and India.

The State Council, China’s cabinet, unveiled a guideline this month to promote the development of “Internet Plus healthcare.”

Zhao Huili, vice president of human resources at We Doctor Holdings Ltd, a leading technology healthcare solutions platform in China, said the online health services industry is about to “enter the fast lane.”

She said the industry is in dire need of talent that crosses the line between traditional medical management and Internet operations, big data and artificial intelligence.

Overseas credentials

Bólè’s Chan said Chinese who have studied or worked abroad are needed to fill employment gaps on the mainland.

Chan himself is something of a returnee. He was born in Hong Kong but grew up in Australia. He came to work on the mainland in 2011.

“We tend to have a bit of ‘glass ceiling’ in terms of very senior-level Chinese people,” he said. “If you look at those occupying very senior positions, most of them tend to be non-Chinese internationals.”

He added that the decision whether or not to return to China for professionals working abroad, as in California’s Silicon Valley, often revolves around lifestyle considerations.

“Government is on the right track,” said Chan, noting that big cities like Shanghai have incorporated lifestyle incentives into recruitment programs for overseas talent.

As a father of two boys, Liulishuo’s Wang admitted he was concerned about lifestyle and schooling for the children. Then he learned from a classmate that the Yangpu District in Shanghai was sponsoring a very supportive environment for returned overseas Chinese.

With the help of that program, Wang moved into a nice three-bedroom apartment earmarked for professional talent and received preferential treatment for his sons’ education. He also received venture capital to help get his business started.

In terms of hiring professionals, Chan said Chinese firms get high marks for their willingness to adopt incentives and other benefits to attract talent. But when it comes to retaining talent, their success rate is less stellar.

“This all comes back to culture, expectation, strategy and commitment,” he said.

He advises Chinese companies that are expanding very quickly to improve their internal organizational structures and focus more on the nurturing and career development of executives.

BRecruit’s 2018 Salary Watch survey shows that the top three reasons people in general industries change their job are the platform, the culture and the salary.

In a break from the past, many job candidates are now willing to work for domestic companies if they are given the right incentives, said BRecruit’s Chia.

To compete, global firms also are changing their strategies for retaining talent, he added.

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