Shenzhen Considers its Talents

Shenzhen’s never-ending quest for modernity produces regular bouts of soul-searching, which are often reflected in commentaries published in official media. One of these, by an experienced writer, Fu Jingyi, which appeared recently in the Southern Metropolis Daily, focused on the city’s talent policy. It determined that the challenge of “optimizing” Shenzhen’s human resources was perhaps greater than many realized, and that creative solutions were called for. 

This was brought into a clear public view recently by a job fair that attracted 35,000 fresh university graduates, mostly from outside Shenzhen, to apply for just 491 new teaching posts in the Longhua district. The reason for the overwhelming demand was the salaries on offer: bachelor degree-holders starting on 260,000 yuan (annual); post-grads getting 280,000 yuan. Moreover, these candidates would be given priority for talent housing and subsidized long-term rental apartments. And, being teachers, they would be entitled to an annual paid vacation of over 165 days.  

In the end, only master’s degree-holders need have bothered to apply. The only successful applicants that didn’t have one were 23 with PhDs, including six from Peking University and five from Tsinghua University. Their jobs were to teach primary and secondary students. Nothing special: just regular teaching posts. 

Needless to say, the city’s Weixin chatrooms lit up at the news. 

There was more to come. On October 25, the Shenzhen Health and Fitness Commission announced through its Weixin (WeChat) official account that Shenzhen would start the “largest recruitment in China’s medical history”, aiming to hire 5,873 doctors, nurses, and other medical workers in one go. 

For these people, the city is prepared to pay a one-off signing bonus, the same way Manchester United would pay up front for a talented midfielder. Doctors working in the city’s health clinics would be given, according to their qualifications, up to 350,000 yuan as a “one-time extra allowance” for choosing to live and work in Shenzhen for five years. 

Paying such incentives is not, on its own, news. More noteworthy is that it shows there has been a strong mismatch between supply and demand in the basic yet crucial job sectors of education and healthcare. 

How to improve the city’s ability to forecast and manage its talent requirements is being given a lot of attention at the top. This was evident during a forum of 50 senior academics held to discuss the state of the economy on November 17. A highlight was the speech given by Cai Fang, a member of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, who noted that the city had reached its “Lewis turning point” back in 2004. The phrase refers to the moment when a city’s demographic dividend is fully spent, and a labor surplus turns to a shortage.  

In Shenzhen’s case, labor shortages and a sharp jump in wages had exposed the city’s dependence on a labor-intensive economic development model. Ever since then, Shenzhen has needed to focus on industrial upgrade policies that required better planning in how to match labor resources with output goals. 

The effort to bring in talent that would lead Shenzhen’s climb up the industrial value-added chain has had some success. Speaking at another event last year, a local official quoted data showing that a relentless focus on bringing in “peacock” teams – groups of talented people working overseas, who could boost innovation and entrepreneurship – had resulted in the introduction of 135 such teams, comprising 3,555 “high-level talents”, an effort that was unmatched anywhere else in the country. 

However, top-down approaches like this have created their own challenges, too. As the commentary’s writer, Fu Jingyi, points out, this policy has been good for the city’s leading companies but not so good for its smaller firms, known as SMEs. It had prompted a suggestion from Zheng Dake, a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) of Longhua district, that the city government not only aim to recruit high-end talent, but also middle and low-end talent. In fact, it might want to consider getting out of the selection process altogether. 

Zheng’s opinion was seconded by a private-sector company executive, Wang Sichong, CEO of Paojiao, a local developer of mobile games. He said Shenzhen has clearly created an imbalance between large tech companies and its traditional manufacturing businesses, resulting in talent bottlenecks for smaller companies in the course of their growth. It is difficult to find the “middle talent” needed to grow because the city has become a magnet only for high-end talent, he said. 

How did it get to this point? 

When the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone was founded in 1979, it had only 312,600 registered residents, among whom only 4,000 had an educational qualification above junior high school. By 2008, there were 900,000 permanent residents with college degrees or above, or around 10% of the total population. That percentage has continued to grow to where it is today, around 22.67%. The city’s average age is just 32. 

However, it is in the bottom half of the population, which still has only a junior high school education or below, where official concern still rests. 

Further compounding the city’s challenge is the difficulty of properly measuring the talent pool. Shenzhen is an open city, and has a sizeable transient population. Recent research has suggested that Shenzhen’s officially registered population of 13 million is nearly matched by its unofficial population – those without a local hukou – of an estimated 9 million. Moreover, it has a large number of visitors, both regular and irregular. 

A representative of the Shenzhen People’s Congress, Wu Bin, has called for “further scientific research” on the population issue to promote what he calls “urban refined wise management”. As the city continues to attract new residents – it was the fastest-growing city in China last year, adding more than 400,000 residents – the hukou system was in a “serious upside down” situation. How many people there are in Shenzhen has become a “riddle that no one can solve”. 

The city government is aware of the challenges. It is known for having pioneered “Talent Day” and “Entrepreneur Day” events, which have fostered an image of the city as a place that respects knowledge, promotes the growth of talent, is warm to entrepreneurs, and encourages innovation. This has been reflected in the city’s housing policy, overhauled in 2011, which guarantees that apartments are set aside and subsidized for talented people who might not otherwise be able to afford to live here. There is even an official ratio: 4-2-2-2. That means no more than 40% of the city’s housing can be commercial, while 20% each must go to social rental housing, subsidized ownership housing, and, yes, “talent housing”. This policy is not only skewed toward high-end talent, but also people across a broad range of skill sets and salary levels. 

The qualification process for these incentives has also been continually adjusted. In 2017, a big change was made to skills assessment criteria, dividing targeted workforces into senior, intermediate, and elementary levels, as well as taking account of those areas which were facing acute shortages. 

The city’s bigger challenge remains in its shortage of higher-education institutions, many analysts have pointed out. This has made efforts at local talent cultivation more difficult, as the city’s broad base of residents with lower qualifications is a stumbling block. Compared with Beijing and Shanghai, Shenzhen’s corporate sector simply has to spend more effort attracting and retaining talents from outside. 

Shenzhen is on the case. While making use of its “young” advantages, the city is building universities and attracting prestigious ones to set up ventures here. The latest was opened recently: Tsinghua University Shenzhen International Graduate School offers customized training of engineering PhDs and engineering master’s degree-holders. Meanwhile, the Chinese Academy of Sciences Shenzhen University of Science and Technology was unveiled at the China Hi-tech Fair on November 13, which will start recruiting students next year. 

“Population is not just about numbers,” the NPC delegate, Wu Bin, said. “It involves all aspects of urban management, such as urban development and population needs; stratification and proportion of population quality. This presents a series of challenges, such as the limitation of natural resources on population carrying capacity, the control of urban population size, and the improvement of population quality. All needs to be studied professionally to guide the finer management of the city.” 

If there is any city in China capable of demonstrating that a scientific approach to resolving its challenges can work, it is Shenzhen. The evolution of its talent policies, and its population-management policies, will be key to watch in the coming years as the city commits itself wholeheartedly to being a Pioneering Zone for Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.   

Read more (in Chinese) 

Tell us what you think