While much has been made of China’s recent slowdown, most hiring managers will tell you that there are still severe talent shortages. Some of the most dramatic effects are felt in production and operations, where positions such as engineering, the skilled trades, and technicians are consistently understaffed.
Implications of this shortage can be easily observed in wages where the hourly manufacturing pay has increased an average 12% per year in China over the last decade. While detailed statistics are less available, our clients report that increases for white-collar workers are even more dramatic. Even now that industrial growth in China has slowed down, domestic consumer demand is fueling the service sector which puts a higher claim on the limited talent pool.
To further complicate matters, China is not immune to global trends that are rapidly changing the categories of talent in demand. While deep skills specialization and long experience were once highly valued virtually everywhere, employers around the world increasingly seek knowledge workers with high technological adaptability. That’s partly in recognition of the skills that now—or soon—can be replaced by robots or code.
A forthcoming report by McKinsey, estimates that 45% of job activities fall into this category, which will again alter the talent landscape. And contrary to expectations, significant portions of today’s “high-skill” jobs can and will be digitally outsourced—even up to the C-suite. The same study projects that up to 20% of a CEO’s functions can be automated.
You may be thinking, “Shouldn’t increases in automation free up more talent?” Not exactly. Certain skills will experience a significant demand increase while remaining difficult to automate—such as those involving high levels of creativity or emotional intelligence. Additionally, people who can bridge the digital and physical worlds—whether by translating large data sets into insights or teaching a robot how to walk—will likely enjoy demand growth and job security.
Luckily for employers in China, several institutions are taking action to increase and improve skilled-labor supply in the face of this demand volatility. For instance, Tsinghua University’s graduate business school has created a new MBA specialty in e-commerce and supply chain management—historically considered niche topics, but now seen at the same level as finance. High-tech companies such as Huawei have invested in proprietary training programs and teamed up with universities to integrate their rapidly shifting requirements into curricula. And HR departments are increasingly relying on data-driven approaches to improve their searches and measure the success of those searches. These are exciting developments which should speed changes in universities and corporate recruiting programs.
Three additional factors will deliver employers some relief in the supply of Chinese white-collar and knowledge workers. First, in the face of overall demographic decline, the Chinese senior management talent pool is on the rise. The next decade will see a significant step-up in the number of Chinese nationals moving into the most senior management positions at MNCs. Several leading search firms say that these executives’ rare combination of international experience, adaptability to key macroeconomic trends, and deep understanding of Chinese markets will make them among the most valuable talent in the world. A second, related factor is due to China’s strong dual-income culture: at 70%, Chinese women’s labor participation rate is higher than that of their counterparts in mature economies including the U.S., France, and Japan. And third, on the demand side, the recent economic slowdown has chilled the frenetic pace of job switching. The combination of these factors means that our clients now report employee quality is steadily increasing and the rate of white-collar wage growth is slowing.
Therefore, consistent with other trends, China may be leading the globe in establishing a winning talent strategy. Rising “local” upper management and graduate schools’ focus on international trends may further feed demand for knowledge workers. Meanwhile, the increasing adoption of automation could offset the demographic decline in the service and manufacturing sectors.
This leads us to the “winners”. With the drivers outlined above, women at all levels, workers experienced with automation and digitization, and Chinese senior managers with international experience will probably fare best. In addition, companies and academic institutions that are flexible enough to adapt to rapid change will see steadiness and even growth in the volatile talent market.
Karel Eloot is the co-leader of McKinsey’s Asia Operations Practice, and he leads the Operations service line in McKinsey’s Global Energy and Materials Practice. His work centers on operations transformation, manufacturing strategy, plant design, product development and launch, purchasing, commercial and organizational improvement and strategy development. If you would like to learn more about McKinsey Operations, please visit: www.mckinsey.com/client_service/operations