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China’s young trust their country’s tech firms. But that’s not enough to recruit and retain them

Ginny Wilmerding writes that even after a year of crackdowns, China’s tech sector is still an appealing destination for talent. But trust might not be enough to actually get young Chinese to work in tech.

China’s tech sector may have a youth problem.

Whether it’s limiting the amount of time children can play video games or stopping private tutoring companies from turning a profit, China’s tech regulators appear to be partly motivated by a wish to protect the country’s young from the influence of Big Tech. China’s tech sector also faces a major reputational issue with the “996” phenomenon—the perception in China that the tech sector expects its people to work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week. Some struggling tech firms, like Baidu and Kuaishou, are reportedly downsizing parts of their workforce as the strict regulations limit their growth, leading some young graduates to seek safety in state-owned enterprises.

But are these image problems preventing young people’s willingness and readiness to join China’s tech sector? China’s tech sector will need talented young people, especially as it tries to pivot away from consumer technology and towards “hard” tech like semiconductors and biotechnology.

Rather than lecture or predict, our research tried to go straight to the source to determine what Chinese people age 19 to 26 actually think.

First, we found that young people in China trusted the technology sector: 91% of young Chinese in our recent survey viewed the impact of China’s tech sector as “more good than bad.” This is a far greater percentage than their peers in the U.K., the U.S., and Germany. While trust in the tech sector rose across all markets during the pandemic, the increase was again far more notable in China at 83%, versus just 35% in the U.S.

Eighty-two percent of young talent in China show a significant interest in working in the sector, and about the same number are confident that the sector aligns with their own personal values. This is, again, in marked contrast to youth in the U.S. and the U.K, who saw reduced numbers of those who think the tech sector matches their personal beliefs.

Thus, despite concerns that China’s tech sector may be under long-term threat from Beijing’s regulatory crackdown, the sector still remains a very attractive and appealing destination for China’s youth—at least in theory—and gives some positive indications of its long-term sustainability.

But while China’s tech firms may not have suffered the same reputational damage afflicting Western tech firms, trust may not be enough to put them on a path to long-term growth. China’s young may find the tech sector trustworthy—but actually joining it, or believing it would offer them job security, is an entirely different matter.

Young people in China pointed to work/life balance—or the perceived lack of it—as a major barrier to pursuing a career in the tech sector. In fact, China’s youth were more concerned about this question than their counterparts elsewhere: perhaps not surprising, considering concerns around “996.” This presents an opportunity for China’s companies to change what it means to work in the tech sector—starting with greater flexibility, reduced working hours, and making weekend work the exception, rather than the norm.

In fact, the research highlighted the importance of practical factors in general, over more values-driven attributes. Young people have confidence in their own worth, and how that aligns with the values of the company they work for. Across all markets—in China and elsewhere—this age group expects a company to pay them well, offer good benefits, and respect a healthy work/life balance.

Over half of the young people we spoke to also felt they hadn’t studied the right subjects to prepare them for a career in technology, and that it was “already too late” to pivot. These feelings were stronger in China than they were in other markets. That indicates a problem that China’s tech sector needs to solve, in early engagement with the prospective talent pool in schools and universities to share what skills young people need to best perform in the tech sector—and in developing a culture of lifelong learning so that any person feels they can pivot into a tech career.

Nor should China’s tech firms rest on their laurels when it comes to trust. Two-thirds of our young respondents in China are already starting to have reservations that technology companies hold too much power. Even when young Chinese overwhelmingly think a technology like A.I. will be good for society, they have concerns about how companies may track them and use their data. Despite these misgivings, roughly half of those we spoke to see government regulation as the way to keep these challenges in check.

Regulatory crackdowns aside, China’s tech firms are perhaps better placed than their Western counterparts when it comes to public trust. They now have an opportunity to build on that foundation, align with young people’s priorities, and address their concerns. The good news is that most young people—if they can be persuaded not to self-select out of the sector—would still very much like to acquire the skills needed to work in tech.

China’s youth are eager to take part in this dynamic sector. The question now is whether China’s tech firms can bring them into the fold.

Ginny Wilmerding is a partner with Finsbury Glover Hering in Hong Kong.

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