China awash with graduates - but are they any good?

2007

China may be churning out graduates by the thousands, but serious questions are being raised about the quality of their education and whether they have the skills to turn the nation into an economic world-beater.

A study by The Conference Board has concluded that the "learning by rote" culture of the Chinese education system means its graduates often lack the practical experiences and softer creative and leadership skills required in the modern business world.

China's educational system, it argued, relied too heavily on "memorization", meaning that skills such as creative writing, public speaking, teamwork and leadership were not being taught well in most of China's universities and graduate programmes.

While educated Chinese workers were generally young, bright, urban, eager to work, ambitious and dedicated, multinationals also reported a range of common problems.

These included poor foreign language skills (especially spoken English), education that was often too theoretical rather than practical, a lack of experience accompanied by an expectation of high salaries and rapid advancement and frequent job-hopping, with some firms reporting their annual talent turnover to be as high as 30 per cent.

China's rapid economic growth – the fastest in the world for the past quarter century – was now fuelling extensive foreign investment, with many companies setting up branch offices, regional headquarters, and factories in the country, the Conference Board study pointed out.

One effect of this economic transformation was that demand for highly talented employees in China, especially people with local and international managerial skills, now exceeded supply.

This in turn was driving up some of the compensation packages for top talent and managers to global levels.

"Making the talent search more difficult is the fact that the more experienced managers are in short supply and command high salaries," said Judith Banister, director of global demographics at The Conference Board.

"For multinationals, it is now a challenge not only to recruit the best people, but also to develop and retain them," she added.

Much as in the West, China's population was aging rapidly, yet the expanding number of people aged 40 and over was not generally well educated and did not constitute an adequate pool of talent for companies, the study argued.

But, while the number of people in their 20s and 30s was shrinking, the country's steep fertility decline – in part the result of strict "one child" laws – had been accompanied by a sharp rise in the quality of children in terms of improved health, chances of survival and levels of educational attainment.

These young people were often hungry for responsibility, position and the trappings of success in order to support not only themselves but also their aging and large extended families.

"A lot of young Chinese managers bear this burden and will readily move between employers in order to get a bigger salary, more status and more opportunities," said Banister.

"This is one of the reasons why staff turnover rates are often very high in China," she added.

The fact that a lot of young people now wanted to work for multinationals, mainly because of the high status it gave them, had persuaded some multinationals to forge links with universities to bring about change.

In some universities, this approach has been well received and multinationals were reporting success in getting whatever skills they want. "It is an approach that should be mutually beneficial because it allows students to be trained in a way that is useful to the multinational," said Banister.

"Those students then have a fast track into a job with that multinational when they graduate," she added.

However, multi-nationals still often felt hampered by the university system's reliance on learning by rote techniques.

"Teamwork and creativity are qualities still in short supply among Chinese managers," warned Banister.