China's Millennials Are Hustling for Part-Time Gigs Instead of Traditional Jobs

  • DouMi’s part-time work is luring students, displaced workers
  • Trend captures fading aspiration for steady government jobs

With a fur-lined jacket and a Miu Miu shoulder bag, Zhang Chen isn’t your traditional Chinese migrant worker. She huddles with about 40 others in the frosty, polluted air of North Beijing, waiting to apply for a two-day job guiding visitors at a sporting goods convention.

“The money is little,” the 21-year-old accounting student said of the short gig that pays about 240 yuan ($35). “But I want a more interesting life.”

Chen was lined up for the work through DouMi, a startup that focuses exclusively on part-time positions and blends elements of a temp agency with an internet jobs board and marketing service. With backing from web giants Baidu Inc. and Tencent Holdings Ltd., monthly active users have doubled to 20 million in just six months as China’s youth warm to short-term employment and bloated state-owned enterprises trim their labor force.

For around 130 yuan a day, DouMi users can sort crates of milk at a supermarket or hand out pamphlets on frozen sidewalks. Those considered “beautiful women,” and between the ages of 18 and 28, can make four times as much plus tips by working as live-streaming models to keep mostly-male viewers entertained. Many of the roles run for mere days or weeks at a time, a flexibility that suits those juggling social lives and university studies.

“Every month we have between 300,000 and 400,000 jobs,” said Chief Executive Officer Zhao Shiyong. “There are a lot of younger people who say they don’t want too much job security because they may not need it, because often they don’t plan to stay in any one city.”

Hopping from one short-term stint to another isn’t the sort of aspiration an earlier generation had in China, where the middle-class dream has long been university degrees followed by a stable job -- preferably one backed by the government. In a 2016 poll of 13,000 college students, 48 percent said they didn’t want to enter the traditional labor market. Almost half of DouMi’s job seekers are students while 90 percent are 35 or younger.

“Those born after 1990 are no longer as hardworking and uncomplaining as their parents," said Bai Peiwei, an economics professor at Xiamen University. "They value freedom and leisure, and hate being restricted by superiors in traditional jobs."

At its Beijing headquarters, DouMi’s corridors are filled with brightly-painted advertising banners of other brands. The company, which is named after a colloquial expression for building vast wealth one cup of rice at a time, works with established employers like Starbucks and KFC to find labor on demand. For an extra fee, DouMi will run entire marketing campaigns -- printing pamphlets while training the sales staff that will pound the pavement to sell a product.

The company has raised more than $80 million, including a $40 million Series B round in October from investors including Hillhouse Capital, Banyan Capital and Blue Lake Capital. Money from the latest raising will be spent on improving its technology systems, boosting recognition in the market and finding more sales executives who can work with employers.

At the current spending pace, DouMi has enough cash to last three years and an initial public offering could come within five years, probably in the U.S., Zhao said.

As DouMi’s own workforce has exploded to 1,000 employees, most of them full-time, the startup has adopted some special measures. One office, resembling a supplies closet, is lined on three sides with bunk beds, where sales staff can nap when exhaustion takes hold.

While part-time work fits in with the desires of the nation’s newest workers, it’s also winning favor from an increasing number of older ones. China is going through its slowest economic growth in more than 25 years and the underemployment rate jumped to more than 5 percent last year from near zero in 2010, according to at least one estimate.

Workers at unprofitable state-run steel mills and coal mines face bleak scenarios. Many have had their pay cut and shifts reduced while others are forced to take unpaid leave. The number of manufacturing, mining and construction jobs have been shrinking since 2012 while more workers flock into a gig economy that tends to hire with more flexibility.

"We’ll see more people forced to take part-time jobs," said Zhou Xiaozheng, former professor of sociology at Renmin University in Beijing. "Who doesn’t want stable, traditional and easy jobs at state-owned companies? But those jobs are no longer available, at least not available to college graduates or migrant workers who don’t have any privilege."

Despite its growth, barriers to entry for rivals remain low. Ken Xu, a partner at Shanghai-based Gobi Partners, said DouMi was a good business with a solid management team at risk of being targeted by smaller rivals focused on specific sectors and geographies.

“It’ll be tough to do things across all sectors because there will be guys who are more experienced, professional and more focused,” said Xu. “When you get bigger and bigger, the margins get leaner.”

DouMi was spun off from 58.com, commonly referred to as the Craigslist of China, which remains its biggest shareholder and a vital source of referrals. 58.com users are automatically redirected to DouMi when they search for part-time work. Even if that doesn’t end up being through DouMi, the need to find part-time workers isn’t going away.

“This is an old industry but there’s a revolution here driven by technology,” said Harrison Xiao, head of strategic investment M&A at New Hope Group and a backer of DouMi. “We see a trend that as more and more people use the internet they’re going to use it to find part-time jobs."

— With assistance by David Ramli, and Xiaoqing Pi

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