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Small cities bet BIG on talent
Last Updated: 2018-06-25 07:23 | China Daily
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Low-profile towns vie for young professionals and graduates as economic recast spawns China-wide industry upgrade

Earlier this year, Chen Hongyu, 28, received his doctorate in transportation management from Northwestern University, Illinois, the United States; but little did he imagine he would pick Guiyang, a relatively low-profile city in Southwestern China, as his career launch pad, steering clear of the world's bustling metropolises that most of his classmates gravitated to.

Guiyang is the capital of Guizhou province, one of the poorest regions in China-and definitely not what Chen might have aspired for, compared to career-minded Chinese professionals' preferred destinations such as first-tier city and innovation hub Shenzhen.

Guizhou may be poor now, but, like many other backward provinces, it is rich in novel ideas and policies for attracting talent to its local enterprises, which, in turn, appear intent on transforming its economic fortunes.

Guiyang-based company Truck Alliance, a lorry-hailing firm in the mold of Didi and Uber, is one such company. A Northwestern PhD professor convinced Chen that Truck Alliance should be his natural first port of call.

"I researched the company and had extensive talks with its executives before deciding to work for Truck Alliance. I never expected Guiyang to be the home of such a promising company," Chen said.

Last year, Truck Alliance merged with its arch rival to form Manbang Group, which is now China's largest truck-hailing firm.

Chen started to work as an algorithm researcher in Guiyang in January, soon after receiving his PhD. Like him, thousands of talented Chinese professionals are enthused about the prospect of landing their first job outside of metros and big cities.

In other words, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are no longer the only destinations for young jobseekers seeking to make it big and strike it rich. That marks a tectonic shift in Chinese professionals' mindset.

Experts attributed that shift to China's deepening economic restructuring. Smaller cities across the country are scrambling for talent that can help upgrade their corporate landscape, particularly high-tech industries, they said.

At a simplistic level, it's a trend of demand for talent outstripping supply. Latest data confirm that jobseekers command competitive compensation and respectable positions in smaller cities.

In terms of influx of talent, seven of the top 10 Chinese cities were second-tier ones in the first quarter of this year, according to online recruitment website Zhaopin, which claims it has over 140 million users.

To be sure, Beijing remained at the top spot, but Chengdu overtook Shanghai and Guangzhou to emerge as the second-most competitive destination for careerists.

Li Qiang, senior career development advisor at Zhaopin, said that in the past, imbalances in regional development in China had led to concentration of talent in big cities.

"As smaller cities scramble to upgrade their industry, they are in desperate need of talent. Meanwhile, megacities are also concerned about possible brain drain, which will erode their edge," Li said.

"Scramble" should mean just that. Changsha, the capital of central Hunan province, for instance, offered as much as 30,000 yuan to 60,000 yuan in subsidies to master's and doctoral degree-holders seeking to buy their first home in the city. It is also offering rent and living allowances to graduates for the first two years once they settle down in Changsha.

For its part, Chengdu is revamping its talent policy to give permanent residence to graduates and others with higher educational qualifications. It has also promised seven days of free accommodation for graduates who visit the city to look for jobs. As a special offer, the local government even pledged specialist researchers and entrepreneurs free visits to its panda breeding research base.

Not to be left behind, Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province in Central China, is launching an even more aggressive campaign. Home to several well-known universities, Wuhan had trouble in luring graduates. To reverse the situation, the local government announced in February that it aims to have a million graduates from its universities and colleges working and living in the city within five years.

Its pro-talent policies include allowing all former students who graduated within three years and working in the city to apply for its hukou, or local household registration, which entitles denizens to good education for children and medical services.

"Cities are vying for talent because people don't frequently change cities and jobs. Slow movers will likely miss a great future if they don't make the most of the current opportunities," said Lian Tao, co-founder of Xiaozhu, a Chinese homesharing platform.

According to him, with technologies such as mobile internet playing an increasingly big role in driving economic growth, opportunities abound in 15 new first-tier cities, including Hangzhou, Chengdu, Wuhan and Changsha.

"Internet applications are less driven by technological breakthroughs than by efficient operations. Companies don't necessarily have to be based in megacities to get a chance to succeed. Instead, the key is well-coordinated businesses operating in multiple regions," Lian said.

That is also why the company opened its second regional headquarters in Chengdu in April, where its business is growing at the fastest rate. It is confident of netting top-grade talent to meet its business needs.

But mounting competition among cities for talent is creating a few concerns. Emphasis on quantity rather than the quality of jobseekers may not be the best strategy for economic transformation, experts said.

When Tianjin, a city bordering the national capital Beijing, announced it will allow graduates under age 40 to obtain hukou, more than 300,000 people applied on the first day alone, which caused the local government's mobile app to crash. Tianjin had no choice but to swiftly amend the policy by raising the qualifying mark for applicants.

Experts said more efforts are needed to lay a deep foundation for industry. If smaller cities raise expectations but fail to offer hopedfor jobs and lifestyles to all newcomers, and if they fail to attain sustainable development, influx of people could quickly become a burden.

"It is impossible for a city to create hundreds of thousands of jobs for newcomers overnight. In the short term, huge spending on subsidies and tax breaks will put pressure on local government finances. A city's talent policies should demonstrate foresight and prudence," said Lin Bao, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In the long term, if newcomers help cities to achieve breakthroughs in technologies and business, it would create more jobs, drive consumption and boost tax revenues, Lin said. But local governments may have to beef up their public services and products in the first place, and bolster the business environment as well as talent assessment systems.

Chen, the Northwestern University PhD working with Truck Alliance, agreed. "On top of offering strong policy support for industrial development, a competitive city should also feature an efficient government, open culture, quality healthcare and top-grade educational system (for children). That's the kind of city I'd want to settle down in."

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