The Lure of China's Public Sector
It's generally assumed that the top graduates of China's universities will want to work for multinational corporations and that foreign employers can have their pick of the best and brightest. But that's no longer the case — especially for some of China's smartest women.
More than 6.4 million university graduates entered the job market in 2010, up from one million in 1999. The number of high-skilled, high-paying jobs has not kept pace. As a result, the "iron rice bowl" — the Chinese nickname for a government job with guaranteed security and benefits — is looking increasingly attractive. China's news services reported that in 2009 a record 1 million people took the national civil service exam, up from 775,000 in 2008 and 500,000 in 2005. Especially telling: 57% of the Chinese women university graduates surveyed for our book Winning the War for Talent in Emerging Markets rated the public sector as an attractive job option.
But this trend isn't limited to recent graduates. Government jobs are luring experienced workers with the qualifications to succeed at multinational corporations. What's going on?
For much of the past 15 years, almost anyone with a spark of adventure was eager to leave a career in a state-owned enterprise (SEO) for the chance to get rich, travel, and innovate. One Chinese woman we interviewed — we'll call her Marilyn — explained the allure of MNCs when she entered the job market in the mid-1990s: "MNCs paid more. They're located in the most beautiful buildings in Beijing. You feel good that you're working in that atmosphere." Topping off her enthusiasm, in her first year, her employer sent her to its headquarters in Germany for training, a trip she would never have been able to afford by herself.
"High-quality talent and people who are ambitious want to see the world and the business management systems of the U.S. and Europe," Marilyn concluded. "I talk a lot with people working in government-owned companies, and there's a head-and-shoulders difference."
But career success on the MNC fast track involves 70-hour-plus workweeks, our research found, with nearly one-third of Chinese women reporting that they put in 18 more hours per week than three years ago. Travel is often a necessary component of increased responsibilities, but nearly three-quarters of Chinese women said they faced family and societal disapproval of women traveling alone on business trips. The rewards were there, but they came at a high price.
Government jobs generally offer shorter hours. More important, amid fears that China's super-heated economy is cooling down, they offer more security than the corporate world, even providing subsidized housing and education. The latter are serious factors in cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where high living costs strain even a two-salary family budget. Among the women in our survey, 87% cited the benefits of a government job as its major lure; 79% liked the job security. "Most of my female friends prefer to work for the government because the workload is not heavy, and they have enough time to spend with their families," said a participant in one of our focus groups.
Surprisingly, 63% noted the professional opportunities. Contrary to popular perception among MNCs, government agencies are not peopled by uncreative, obstructionist drones. A significant amount of China's green technology and scientific research is conducted within the public sector. Another attraction: "The Chinese in general have a good sense of nationalism, so being part of the public sector addresses the Chinese desire to continue to help their country be more successful," says Edward Tse, Booz & Company's chairman for Greater China and author of The China Strategy.
The public sector's new allure isn't limited to China, our research finds. For many of the same reasons, 51% of Indian women and a whopping 65% of Brazilian women rate government jobs "very desirable."
MNCs can no longer assume they are the first choice for the best and brightest talent in emerging markets, especially among women. The good news: They have a great opportunity to create and implement programs that will help them attract and retain top female talent. Not acting, however, is not an option.