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Ailing Northeast Struggles to Keep Young Talent

(Beijing) – The three northeastern provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning, have seen an exodus of young workers as the region’s economy continue to have some of the lowest growth figures in the country.

Officials are trying to wean the regional economy off coal and heavy industry after years of sluggish growth, but the slow pace of restructuring and the lack of well-paid jobs for skilled workers are driving out educated young people.

« The salary is not good, and the working environment does not allow young people with potential to spread their wings and pursue their ambitions, » said Zhang Chongwei, a 25-year-old from Heilongjiang, who works as a property agent in Beijing.

« I have no intentions of going back home any time soon. It’s just not the place I can realize my ambitions. »

This attitude is typical among twenty-year-olds from the region that Caixin interviewed. The latest national census shows that net migration per year from the three northeastern provinces grew from 360,000 in 2000 to 1.3 million by 2010.

The loss of these « mid-to-high-level talents » is being acutely felt in this industrial region, Zhou Jianping, head of an office at the National Development and Reform Commission dedicated to « revitalizing the northeast, » said at a press conference in August.

Official data show that the number of young workers in the region between the ages of 19 and 34 was almost half that of the 35-59 group. This gap was is nearly twice as big as the ones in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, the preferred destinations of young workers.

In the past, China’s northeastern provinces could be counted on to help the economy expand by double digits. The region’s economy was dominated by steel production, equipment manufacturing and resource extracting, and experienced a housing boom in the mid-2000s. Between 2008 and 2012, the region grew at 12.4 percent per year – above the national average – and graduates were vying for positions in large state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with deep pockets.

« In those days, SOEs were on the rise like boats that went up together as the river swelled, » said a 33-year-old engineer who worked at China FAW Group Corp., a state-owned automaker in Changchun, in Jilin, for over a decade. « If you were employed by one, you could relax for the rest of your life. »

But things have change. « Nowadays, young people want to go and work for Internet companies like Alibaba and Baidu, » said Jin Baolan, a 24-year-old Korean-Chinese from Hegang, in Heilongjiang, who is working at an online health care company in Beijing. « You don’t see so many of those in the northeast. »

Jin’s observation points at a major problem of the northeastern economy – the lack of jobs in services and high-end manufacturing. « In my hometown, most people are either farmers or government workers, » she said.

SOEs in heavy industry like coal, steel and auto production still account for about half of the region’s economic activity, said Liang Qidong, the vice-president of Liaoning Academy of Social Sciences. That’s much higher than the national average, where state-backed companies contribute to less than one-third of the country’s GDP, he said.

The northeast has been hit hard by the plunge in commodity prices abroad and the slump in property markets at home since 2014. In the first half of 2015, Liaoning had the worst growth rate of the mainland’s 31 provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities, at 2.6 percent. Jilin and Heilongjiang, where growth rose by 6.1 percent and 5.1 percent, respectively, are also in the bottom five.

A saying common in the northeast sums up its predicament: « The northeast was the first region to enlist for the centrally planned economic model, and the last to get out of it. »

South Bound

Stagnating wages and a shortage of jobs for skilled workers are driving out young people from the region.

« For someone who has just graduated, the salary in the northeast is 2,000 yuan per month on average, » aid Tao Yang, a 24-year old from Heilongjiang. « That’s nowhere near enough if you want to be financially independent. »

In Beijing and Shanghai, pay starts at over 3,000 yuan per month, official data from 2014 show.

A 2015 survey by Biaozhun Paiming Research Institute, a data survey company in Beijing, found that nearly 40 percent of the graduates from the northeast’s top universities headed to mega cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou to find work. One-third of the graduates from Dalian University of Technology in Liaoning headed south, while almost half for those who studied at Harbin Engineering University in Heilongjiang and Jilin University have left the region.

Dissatisfaction with the working culture in companies in the area is another top complaint among those who choose to go elsewhere.

« Enterprises over there don’t care about your abilities, » said Jin, the 24-year-old Korean-Chinese from Hegang. « Having connections with the right people is more important if you want to be promoted. »

Big City Dreams

Others head for the east coast in search of the « big city lifestyle » that they have seen on television and the Internet.

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« On TV dramas, you always see these white-collar workers with nice clothes, sipping on coffee in an office that looks out in to the Huangpu River (in Shanghai), » said 26-year-old Liu Jiayao, who left Changchun to attend university in Shanghai. She is now working at the Shanghai branch of Rural Commercial Bank.

« You never get to see a sight like this in small cities like Changchun. »

Jin echoed this, saying « a lot of people just want ‘that kind of lifestyle’ in the big cities, » citing concerts or bars. « These places don’t exist back home. »

News source: http://english.caixin.com/2016-02-06/100907755.html