Then, I realized we may be onto something here. I mean, China.
On one level, as one source wrote to me via e-mail, “There are many people who have been staying in Silicon Valley and seldom visit China [who] hold hostile views towards China (accusing China of pumping out cheap but low quality products).” On another level, “expats and those who have been doing business with China appear to think China used to be a manufacturing center for low quality stuff, their designs are now catching up together with their focus on product quality.”
While I hope to do a series of China myth-buster stories — hopefully in collaboration with my colleagues — I now see a pressing need to bring China, or things about China, down to a more human scale. China cannot remain just as “a concept” or a set of “talking points” to those of us who live outside China.
China — as indicated by its 53 different ethnic groups and several languages -- isn’t a monolithic nation. It’s full of lively people who often think very independently; some are funny and others can be more serious; and I dare say that even irony is no stranger to the Chinese. They all face their own daily challenges and struggles just like the rest of us.
Enter the world of M (I don’t have her permission to use her full name). She’s my new Chinese friend. I met her only a few days ago in Shenzhen, but I immediately liked her when I saw her beautiful smile and sensed her quiet determination when she talked.
She looks incredibly young – as though she’s fresh out of college. But it turns out that she’s far beyond her undergrad days. She has already experienced a few major career changes. Educated as an engineer, M initially worked as an embedded system designer. However, she wearied of engineering, and moved on to a short stint as an analyst in Shenzhen. But she left again. Now still in Shenzhen, she works for a Shanghai-based company with offices all over the world, as a marketing person.
When she described her first job, after college, as an engineer, she made it sound like an assembly job. Doing layout work on a board is generally considered the fate of the female engineer. Everyone sits at a long work bench, focused on the layout. An expat engineer I met in Shenzhen pretty much backed up what M was saying. He noted that many engineers in China aspire to something else, beyond boilerplate engineering, when they pass 30.
That reminded me of EE Times' own global salary survey conducted in the fall of 2010. Jack Ganssle, a columnist for our sister website Embedded.com, who saw the survey, wrote about a year ago: “In China everyone hates their jobs. Only 26% report being satisfied with their career and employer, and 41% are actively seeing a new career. I’m astonished, as one would think engineering a path out of abject poverty or an escape from manufacturing jobs in Foxconn conditions.”
Well, M pretty much confirmed what Jack saw, intuitively, in our survey results.
I asked M, “Why did you decide to become an EE in the first place?” Her answer was very clear. “It was my parents’ choice.” She said, “My parents thought it was a good way for me to earn money.”
But wait, you let your parents choose what you were going to become?
To her credit, M doesn’t blame her parents for choosing wrong. M adamantly defended them. “You must understand that China is still poor. We must first earn money to support our family.”
That’s when it suddenly hit me. Pursuing one’s dream (and interest) in a career must be regarded as an act of sheer dilettantism for many people living in the world today. Survival is the true priority. You have to make a living. In the eyes of M’s parents, turning M into an engineer was her ticket to a more prosperous life.
Luckily, M now loves being a senior marketing manager. Leveraging her experience as an analyst, she now gathers data, correlates it, adds her analysis, and sends reports to her big boss. She’s happy and that makes me very happy for her.
When M insisted on taking me out for dinner, I asked: “Are you married? Do you have kids?” Yes, M is married and has a young son. I said, “I know I would enjoy your company enormously, but you really don’t have to do this for me. You should go home and be with your family.”
But M said, “Don’t worry. My husband is taking my boy to swimming tonight.” M also shares quarters with her in-laws, who moved to Shenzhen to help take care of her son. Both M and her husband work to support the family of five.
M, during dinner, talked about how China has grown so quickly over the decade, and how the Chinese government – although this may sound a little intrusive – had to make choices in terms of what professions are more needed than others. Obviously, EE was on that list.
I know it’s not my place to pass judgment on someone else’s career. And I have to be careful about criticizing the choices made by someone else’s government. Luckily, I could leave that up to M. After a thoughtful pause, she rested her chopsticks, looked into the distance and said, “But one of those days, when my son grows up, I’d like to be able to tell him, ‘Choose whatever career you like.’”
When that happens, perhaps China can be said to be truly “prosperous.”
A female Chinese guardian lion stands in front of Pekin University gate. The lions are always created in pairs, with the male resting his paw upon the world and the female restraining a playful cub that is on its back (shown).
naive girly thought,
the world is not made to be easy, read Gen chap 3,4...
I hate my job even when I am basically web surfing all day long, cause I hate to sit in a office.
'Choose whatever career you like.’” that sounds more like communism or utopia...
A new and unusual defination of communism. A free society get to pick their careers (based on money or interest, who cares). A more restrictive sociery uses "senority". But governments in communist countries used to pick your career for you.
My previous job was, until the new manager arrived, probably the best job ever. I did look forward to each day as a new adventure. I was supporting a research scientist as we were developing a new product, and I got to do all kinds of things. It was a job that I loved, and it paid what I thought was fairly well. Then I read one of those salary surveys. Do those folks really make that much? How about if you ask for copies of their tax returns? Or does every other part of the country make more than Southeast Michigan?
You may call it naive girly thought. But the basis of any reporting should come from meetings with actual people. It's easy to generalize; knowing individuals matters. At least, that's the first step to get to know another culture and another country.
This is an interesting article, but it is misleading to take one person's miserable views and extrapolate from those.
I knew a Western girl who became a doctor because she was mad about horse racing and wanted a high income career that would allow her to buy a race horse.
Now would it be useful to use this doctor's career as an example of all female doctors? Not at all. Most of the other doctors I know got into the profession because of their interest in helping people.
These small stories are interesting but do not really tell us about the industry.
They do not reveal the big picture unless you get many of them and link them together.
It's an article not a social statistical research paper. People knows Chinese social image will agree with the story's representativeness.
Making a living as #1 priority, even so true for us Chinese engineers living in North America. Although a lot of time priority has been over targeted, but don't see much Chinese risk taker.
I had made a survey in my colleagues. I ask how they choose their major in college. There are a lot of different answers but there is no choice base on their interests. Some of them didn't know what they like, so they choose the hottest major they could; Some choose that major for fight against parents' arrangement; Of course some give up and follow the "suggestion" from their teacher, relative or friends...
So I believe M's situation is typical in China. And I think the source of it is the education system in China.
All education is for examination, College Entrance Examination is the most important testing in their life.
Education recourse allocation injustice. Compare with the entered probability of Peking University between GuangDong and BeiJing, GuangDong students' probability is only 1% of BeiJing students'. Not to mention those more poor area. There are also a lot of children in China even can not finish their nine-year compulsory education.
Although I'm not sure if everyone is cut out to be a rice farmer, that's very true. M believes this:
“You must understand that China is still poor. We must first earn money to support our family.”
Because she has been told that it's true. But it isn't true at all. There is NO reason why China had to follow the same path of industrialisation that we did, with all its attendant problems. They simply lacked the imagination or the talent to do anything different - sadly, because anyone capable of thinking had been killed, imprisoned, beaten-down, or ostracized. China was rich, and they made a voluntary decision to become the vassals of the world.
Almost exactly the same could be said of the USA and other western countries too.
There is absolutely no reason why any Americans could not give up their city lives and go live on a quarter acre farm in a one-room hut and turn their backs on the problems of city life while wondering where the next meal will come from.
Living the agricultural life of a small farmer is not champagne and roses. It is no wonder that Chinese, just like Americans, are drawn to more material lives. They too would like to own a car, have vacations and get good education for their children.
America was once rich too, but have also made the voluntary decision to go into such debt that the world owns them.
You're quite right. But this is not an either-or. America was built around the technologies and ideas that existed a hundred years ago; now it's stuck with them. China had the benefit of hindsight, and yet decided to ignore all of it.
My company had a design center in Xi'an about six years ago. The management structure had a very strict hierarchy. Engineers were not expected to challenge decisions by managers. Sometimes engineers would get harsh criticism during meetings by management. This environment was very toxic for the creative development they were trying to do, and their performance reflected this. Of course, China is changing very rapidly, and some regions of the country may have more "enlightened" work culture than Xi'an.
Thanks for sharing your story from ground zero. Yes, I am hearing a lot of similar stories -- engineering work environment in different regions in China seem to vary. And indeed, things are changing quickly -- especially in China. I will keep looking and hope to report more on those differences later...
It boggles my mind that so many people hang on to the idea that China only makes cheap, low quality products. Undoubtedly much of the PC I'm typing this on was made in China and it seems to be a pretty high quality device. Certainly cheap low-quality product do come out of China and at times it seems like their product safety regulation is way short of our standards here in the U.S.
But, you can also buy low-quality product built here in the U.S., as well as pretty much anywhere. You don't have to look very far back in time to find examples of this country, and every other "first-world" country pumping out lead and sulfur laden pollution.
I like to think that as a whole, everyone is environmentally smarter and more safety conscience this day and age, but all of our societies have been through the period of bad pollution, unsafe products, low-quality, poor working conditions...
That being the case, I still do worry about the economic future of this country and I want the U.S. to be competitive in a fair world economy.
I was thinking the same thing. But hearing that many engineers in China do monotonous, uncreative work and that there is a often a strict management hierarchy where engineers are not supposed to question anything, I can't say I blame them for not being thrilled with the profession.
I would have thought that any engineer ANYWHERE would love his profession. What was revealing about Junko's piece was when she described what an engineer there does.
That sort of production line repetitive work is hardly what engineering has been in my experience. So perhaps we have different definitions of the same word.
My biggest source of professional irritation comes from having to deal with management edicts. Of course, I'm speaking of the edicts that make no sense to me.
Imagine a supposed EE career where that's all you ever did? And then you wonder why there isn't much creativity?
(OOps. I just realized I more verbosely said most of what Frank already experessed!)
That's what stood out to me as well. What a waste of tallent. Engineers on a production line? Maybe only long enough to figure out how to do (x) more efficiently, but no longer
I think this is just another unfortunate by-product of central command/control. But it could be a positive in the long run. How many of us engineers say about management, government types and many other professions "What they really need is an engineer in that position!" Well...
Very good article, Junko. It is refreshing to hear the details of an engineering career in another country. I don't see a lot of difference from the careers in the US at this point in time. Many of the engineers here start in positions that are not much fun and work their way up to more interesting work. Not many get to start in the position they want.
I have observed that many a engineers who immigrate to US from India to do their Masters in Engineering, finally end up taking positions in Finance related jobs as business analysts.
Is it because they don't find engineering jobs or it is just that the finance career is more lucrative?
Is the situation similar in China?
For engineers who leave/left for finance, it's all about money. But it requires gaining a level of insight into the technology industry, which makes you stand out versus those without a background in tech.
To an extent, yes. I met several young Chinese with an EE degree left the engineering job, and now doing market analysis/financing. Many I talked to them went that route for money.
Engineering jobs in China seem to come in several different levels; but the entry-level seems to be always boring (true in the U.S.?), the pay sucks, and many end up leaving...
As an engineer I find it hard to imagine that one might be really unhappy about his/her job. There are better and worse days of course, but it is usually a blast. I also acknowledge that engineering is a tough job, and it requires passion to enjoy it, otherwise you will not endure its challenges. It is my feeling you cannot force engineering to someone, one has to be born an engineer and then he/she really has no other happier choice in life. That could probably explain why there are so many unhappy engineers in China, since people are not really choosing engineering.
I'm an EE, I love my major, but I hate my daily job, even with a great pay benefit package...wait, I don't really hate my company, I think I hate to be here 9-5 after so many years working in a cubic cell.
Either I'm getting lazy, or bored.
For my Chinese peers, we're in the same boat.
A typical Chinese career path is like M's. After the graduate work as an engineer. And later, we don't have many choices as those engineers in here in Canada. As an experienced engineer, the future path can be technical(system analyst, architect), marketing(product manager) or management(project manager). In my opinior we chinese engineers lack the 1st route, being techinical. Everyone (hope) switches to be a manager. If you see an old techinical guy, he must be laughed at by the constantly influxing fresh grads. Management seems to be the ultimate goal.
EE is not a wrong choice parents made for her. This just a typical, and good, start, which has a potential to stem multiple pathes.
When I was young, fresh EE I worked for a US medical device company that contracted with a manufacturer in Shenzhen and Panyu China. I spent a LOT of time in both those places 1994-1998. Based on my observations, I predicted that China GDP would surpass our own by 2020. (Current predictions put it at 2016... amazing actually). I guessed this based on my experiences with the young Chinese engineers I worked with. Many, like M, were doing jobs they voluntarily transitioned into - not related to their degrees. One guy - nicked name "Fish Head" because he would eat everything on the fish, including the head! - was trained as a mechanical engineer. His first job out of college? Hammering fenders in a car factory! He had bigger dreams and taught himself computer programming at night. He then got permission to move to Shenzhen, where talked his way into an electronics company. The Chinese are hungry to join the rest of the world and are willing to work their tails off to get there. I don't see this same zeal in the US any more.
Thanks for your great response here, it gives us some insight. Our kids don't want to go into EE. Too hard to do the job of 10 years of college & university. They see the director of our elder home: He brings home a EUR 210000.- a year (no joke ! ) and then our kids ask us: Why do a EUR 50000,- a year job? There is a kind of clan in our society who are protecting each others in their jobs and their successes. They are directors of banks and other large institutions, high up managers and such. I think they brought our society to the edge of destruction. I am not at all a left wing person, but this greed brought us all where we are now. Only for THAT reason China will win. My 1 person small engineering company cannot do anything about that...
50k a year is not a bad option (at least here in Ireland). What is most important for me is that it is sustainable (for me it is - even if I have go to another country). The director of the elderly house can loose his job as well and then what? Will he get another one for 210k?
Engineering jobs are somewhat "boring" and "non-posh" for general public but they do pay bills and give satisfaction. And the paycheck is way bigger than for supermarket job.
Thank you for the informative (albeit somewhat sad) story.
On the matter of perceived low quality of Chinese products, there are some forces that push Chinese products into low quality. Much of Chinese production focuses on lowering costs. With such a focus it is easy to justify reductions in quality that do not seem likely to proportionately impact perceived value. In addition, I receive the impression that China is struggling with cultural issues of lying and bribery, which seem to be more common in poorer and less free cultures (not just countries, companies can also encourage lying and bribery by lower pay and less freedom [enfranchisement--having a say--might be included in freedom]). Quality control is more difficult in a culture in which honesty does not seem to be the best policy.
It is generally problematic to look at a culture/society through the eyes/values of another culture/society.
Jack's comments on "Foxconn conditions" are uncalled for. Sure, Westerners might think they are horrific, but those are great conditions in China. As for the much-lambasted Foxconn suicides... the rates are lower than the Chinese population in general.
It isn't just the Chinese that pressurize their children into careers they don't like. My Western parents tried to force me into medicine but I refused. A Western friend was given no choice in becoming a farmer to continue running the family farm. He always wishes he had done something else and puts absolutely no pressure on his children.
Westerners seem to forget that having choice is a huge luxury.
In the 1930s, when USA was digging itself out of poverty and rebuilding itself, things were not much different. There were worker dormitories. People did what they could and few had any choices.
On the contrary, I think that it's almost impossible to observe your own culture without input from someone else's. I've lived in Taiwan for ten years, and it's only the experiences I've had here that have thrown into sharp relief the problems with my own culture, sometimes by observing or listening to alternatives, and sometimes by watching 'western' techniques warped and misapplied.
This is a problem throughout much of Asia, not only China. Most people choose a course of study without too much thought.
They end up being disgruntled workers. I've met many smart people who went through 4 years of engineering studies. They're capable and good at the work, but they have no love for it. Most of them would love to jump out at the first opportunity they get.
Sometimes ,even if they love what they do,they have to quit their jobs ,because the jobs they love pay sucks,they can barely make livings for it. And then ,they will try to find civil-service jobs, work for the goverment.Survival first. Sonuds like a living tragedy,isn't it?
Admittedly, it was a long time I have been in China. Every time I was there though regardless if it was the old Beijing airport (the "proper" communist style) or the spanking new one right of the plane I started picking the "smell" of the system. I am pretty much sensitive to it as one born and grown up under The System (somewhat more lightweight version of it, not much though: tanks vs. people exercise was included). Until that changes there is not much which can prevent another bloodbath any given moment, since there is always a chance that some group will find it convenient to proclaim themselves more "communist holy" in order to get the power. Power is everything in this system and if the economic gains are to be lost so it will be ... Have they stopped printing religiously in every paper in every issue on the front page that the Taiwan will be brought to the fold with the following punishment for the traitors?
I am also engineer from china in shenzhen.
Make a living is first.
The CPI here is very high,one month salary can't support one square meter house in shenzhen.
If your one month incoming is very low, you even can't make friends with the girl that you loved.
I once worked in famous plant and factory that come from usa, that the manufature center in china.