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China's tech sector is losing its shine but remains top career choice for young talent

China's tech sector is losing its shine as a career choice for the country's best educated and most entrepreneurial amid widespread headcount cuts, subdued growth and intense regulatory scrutiny, according to jobseekers and workers in the sector.

Evan Liu, a 28-year-old with a master's degree from the US, did not foresee that job hunting would be this hard. He started looking for work in the internet industry soon after the Lunar New Year in February, a period known as "golden March, silver April" for jobseekers in China.

Yet, despite a stellar resume that includes work experience at Big Tech firms as well as an entrepreneurial stint, Liu only managed to get one second round interview after sending out 100 applications.

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Compare that to 2019, when "all Chinese tech firms, no matter big or small, were expanding" and every potential employer talked about an IPO plan in Hong Kong or the US, Liu said.

A lot has changed in the macro-environment since then. Beijing's crackdown on Big Tech that started late 2020, delisting risks for Chinese companies in the US, and poor consumer sentiment amid the global pandemic created the perfect storm for the once booming industry.

Starting around 2010, tech became the top choice for Chinese jobseekers because "a lot of industries, from food and clothing to housing and transport, were becoming digitalised," said Ryan Hu, founder and CEO of career consultancy Togo Career.

In the following years, success stories like on-demand food delivery provider Meituan and ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing created excitement and job opportunities in the sector.

The wave of tech entrepreneurship received a big boost in 2015, when the Chinese government threw its full backing behind the country's tech giants and encouraged their efforts to raise capital for expansion, said Hong Yu Liu, a doctoral researcher at the Department of Sociology, University of Cambridge.

However, the mood started to change in 2019 when signs of over competition emerged, and the infamous 996 work culture - 12 hours a day, six days a week - began to turn some people off, added Hu, who has studied job conditions in China's tech industry.

In the annual job survey published by 51job.com after each Lunar New Year, new openings in the field of "internet/e-commerce" had topped the list for the past five years. However, this year that category of jobs fell to No. 4 on the chart.

Signage for Tencent Holdings atop an office building in Shanghai, China, March 22, 2022. Photo: Bloomberg alt=Signage for Tencent Holdings atop an office building in Shanghai, China, March 22, 2022. Photo: Bloomberg>

An employee at Ant Group, who requested anonymity, said that after living a typical 996 schedule for two years, he is now looking for a job with a better work-life balance. The employee joined the fintech giant when it was preparing for an IPO in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but that was put on hold at the last minute in December 2020, on orders from Beijing.

"When growth hits a bottleneck, the people who keep doing this are just burning themselves out. This is something I did not expect," he said. Ant Group is an affiliate of Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post.

Another 27-year-old jobseeker, currently working for an internet content company, said he is trying to avoid joining firms that "impose a 996 schedule" by doing due diligence on each prospective new employer. But after finding that the current job market was extremely tough, he has become more flexible. "If the role is especially ideal for my career development, then I probably would not insist on [the work-life balance]," he said.

The contraction in number of new hires comes at a time when China expects to see an unprecedented 10 million new graduates this summer, on top of the many experienced workers who find themselves back in the job-hunting market.

"This is a particularly difficult year for experienced hires but not so much for graduates," Hu, the career consultant, said. "Even with the massive lay-offs, campus recruitment headcounts have not been reduced. I think they are replacing the workforce above age 35 with cheaper and more hard working labour," he said.

Liu, the Cambridge researcher, agreed, adding that tech firms are still hiring new graduates as a means of "budget control".

Yan Meng, who only agreed to speak using a pseudonym, graduated from the prestigious Peking University last year and did a summer internship at TikTok owner ByteDance. "Everyone is in involution," she said, using a term for "competition" that is popular on social media - known as Nei Juan in Chinese - where people feel compelled to overwork because everyone else is doing the same.

Meng has also done internships at Tencent Holdings and Kuaishou Technology, where she was surprised at how competitive younger colleagues were. "I have seen some college students setting their goals in their freshmen year, and by their senior year, they already have two or three work experiences in Big Tech."

While Meng is not yet sure about her long-term goals, older women in the Chinese workforce face different obstacles than men in their career development.

Liu said that once women are over 30, they may want to find a job where they "can have a life" because they face societal pressure to start a family sooner than men.

Two female internet industry workers who spoke to the Post confirmed this general mindset. A 28-year-old data analyst at a Big Tech firm said she is thinking of becoming a civil servant so she can spend more time with family.

"There aren't many people above 35, especially female, around me," she said, referring to the so-called "age glass ceiling" for tech industry workers.

A Chinese student from Renmin University of China holds a flag as he takes a selfie after his graduation ceremony at the school's campus on June 30, 2020 in Beijing. Photo: Getty Images alt=A Chinese student from Renmin University of China holds a flag as he takes a selfie after his graduation ceremony at the school's campus on June 30, 2020 in Beijing. Photo: Getty Images>

Another woman over 30, who spent more than five years at Tencent and joined a small internet company last week, said in general the internet industry is harsher on women as they are expected to prove themselves more than males.

But that sentiment is not restricted to the tech sector. "[Chinese] society overall has a lower tolerance and less room for trial-and-error for women," she noted, having seen her previous team leader at Tencent marginalised after returning from maternity leave.

Despite complaints of over work, age discrimination and the overly competitive environment, none of the jobseekers or internet industry workers interviewed by the Post are ready to leave the industry, at least not now.

"It was a harsh reality for jobseekers when the development of the internet industry slowed, and it may not be able to offer [salary] bonuses as good as before," said Liu, the Cambridge researcher. "But it still has its merits compared to other industries."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.