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China’s electric car factories aren’t recruiting fast enough

In 2003, Xing Wei graduated from a vocational high school in the northeast and worked as an electrician in an auto parts factory in the south. The only wheel he could afford was a black three-speed bicycle.

He earns an annual salary of $1,150 and shares a stuffy dormitory with three other workers. “There is air conditioning, but because we have to pay the electricity bill ourselves, we basically don’t turn it on,” Mr. Xing said.

Twenty years later, Mr. Xing, 42, has an annual salary of nearly US$60,000. He is a senior electrician installing industrial robots at Chinese automaker NIO’s electric vehicle factories. Last winter, he bought a NIO ES6 sports utility vehicle worth $52,000.

China’s electric vehicle market is the world’s largest and fastest-growing, and a rush to build and expand factories has made electricians and robotics experts in hot demand.

“If you want to recruit people with relevant experience, there are relatively few people in this industry,” Mr. Xing said.

Currently, dozens of electric vehicle companies and their suppliers in China employ more than 1.5 million people. BYD, the largest, has 570,000 employees, while the Detroit Three have a total of 610,000 employees worldwide.

As the economy slows in parts of China, Beijing needs to shift workers to still-fast-growing industries, especially electric vehicle manufacturing. But Beijing faces a shortage of vocational training and a glut of young people with university degrees but no academic qualifications. Interested in factory work.

What is most needed are skilled technicians and engineers like Mr. Xing, whose salary as an assembly line worker at a car factory is less than half of his.

Beijing predicts that by 2021, the number of skilled technicians employed nationwide will be more than double the actual number of qualified workers.

A report released by the Shanghai government last year found that the top 10% of senior factory technicians earned at least $51,000 a year.These workers change jobs frequently: Before moving to Hefei, central China, two years ago to work for NIO Technologies, Mr. Zeekr near NingboIt is a division of Zhejiang Geely.

promoter State bank loan With government help, Chinese automakers are building electric vehicle factories faster than sales are growing, triggering a price war that has left most companies losing money. This caused a shock to the industry. For example, NIO announced in November that it would lay off 10% of its employees, but the layoffs did not come from the manufacturing industry.

“We are already very worried about the manpower shortage problem,” said Ji Huaqiang, NIO’s vice president of manufacturing.

The seeds of the labor shortage were sown years ago, when Chinese government economic planners failed to see the scale of the electric vehicle boom and train enough workers for it.

In 2016, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology predicted that the electric vehicle industry would need 1.2 million workers by 2025, warning that China had only 170,000 people with the necessary skills at that time.

To be sure, more than two-fifths of the country’s 11 million graduates each year study subjects related to science and engineering.This is twice the rate in the United States, which also has brief fall Welders, electricians and other industrial workers.

But many of these college graduates aspire to white-collar jobs in dot-com companies and the civil service, not factories.

For decades, China’s factories could count on a steady stream of farmers’ children arriving in cities to do almost any job, no matter how boring.

Mr. Xing is one of them. As a teenager, he decided to leave his hometown of Hongshi, near the border between China and North Korea. He attended a vocational high school, and his teacher said he should look for work near the Red Market in southeastern China. As soon as Kong received his high school diploma, he packed his bags.

In Guangzhou, he found a job at a factory producing body parts for the nearby Honda assembly plant. Whenever a new device arrives, foreign experts connect it to a laptop and make all decisions during a trial run. Mr. Xing knows little about this.

“I could only look at them like they were dummies,” he said.

This made a deep impression on him. He ate at the factory’s free buffet and saved $100 of his monthly salary to buy a $1,195 IBM laptop. He studied automation through an adult education program on weekends.

This training laid the foundation for his career in electric vehicles. By 2019, he bought a nearly 1,100-square-foot apartment in an outer suburb of Ningbo, 800 miles from Guangzhou. Today, his parents live in Hefei. Mr. Xing, his wife and two sons pay $350 a month to rent a 1,300-square-foot apartment in Hefei.

The Chinese government has tried to cultivate a generation of workers like Mr. Xing, with mixed results.

In 2014, China’s top leader Xi Jinping warned party and government officials and businesses to “cultivate hundreds of millions of high-quality workers and technical and technical personnel who are members of the Communist Party.”

But that goal conflicts with the growing desire of Chinese parents, who are less interested in sending their children to vocational high schools to learn skills as electricians, mechanics or other technicians.

From 2010 to 2021 (the latest year for data), the number of teenagers entering vocational and technical high schools plummeted by 25%. At the same time, the number of students studying in general high schools has barely changed.

“Factory work is often associated with the ‘three Ds’ – dirty, dangerous and degrading,” said Lin Minhua, an associate professor at the Geneva Graduate School who specializes in China’s vocational education system. Young Chinese, she said, “find it degrading. Personality”. “It doesn’t make sense for them to feel like a machine.”

About 60% of China’s population aged 18 and over are enrolled in university, compared with 10% in 2000.

Compared with companies in some countries such as Germany, Chinese companies have been slow to set up long-term apprenticeship programs to train future factory floor leaders.

“Demand grew so rapidly that the education system was caught off guard and took several years to fully prepare and train top-notch technicians,” said Gerard A. Postiglione, a professor at the University of Oxford Emeritus Professor of Higher Education Studies. Hongkong.

Sharp declines in birth rates have heightened the urgency of this challenge.

The number of young people turning 18 in China each year has dropped by more than 40% since the mid-1980s, and based on the number of babies born in the past few years, the number of 18-year-olds will decrease by half in the next few years.

China, especially the electric vehicle industry, is trying to use automation to solve labor shortages.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, Chinese companies will install more industrial robots in 2022 than the rest of the world combined, surpassing its largest manufacturing rivals Japan, the United States, South Korea and Germany.

By 2027, Nio plans to replace half of its management positions with artificial intelligence and one-third of its factory workers with robots, said Mr. Ji, the company’s vice president in charge of manufacturing. One of NIO’s automobile factories It produces 300,000 electric vehicles annually and has only 30 workers.

“It’s hard for all these companies to find blue-collar labor,” said Zhou Linlin, chief executive of Shanghai-based investment firm Principle Capital. “That’s why all companies are looking for automation and robotic solutions.” “

But robots can only partially compensate for China’s growing demand for factory technicians.

Volkswagen is hiring for a new research center near NIO in Hefei that will staff 3,000 engineers to develop electric vehicles and prepare to produce them there.

That means there will be greater demand for experts like Mr. Xing, who is already struggling to fill his own team of electricians. “We are also constantly recruiting,” he said, “but we can’t recruit the right relevant people.”

Li You and Joey Dong Contributed research.

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