Yuan Yandong is a Guanzhou factory worker who is saving to open a hotel management company. The New York Times recently followed him through a night on the Foxconn hard drive assembly lines.
The New York Times article asked “is an unlimited supply of Chinese workers waiting to migrate from the poorer provinces”? Joseph F. Coughlin, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab, points out this isn’t the case and China has a demographic hump far bigger than our own baby boomers.
Recognising their workforce problems, China is beginning to move up the value chain as we see with Yuan’s ambitions and the recent strikes in Guangdong factories challenges our assumptions that China will just be the world’s centre for cheap T-shirts and electronics. These changes in countries like China and India were among the topics discussed by the speakers and attendees at last weekend’s X Media Lab in Sydney, in fact X Media Lab itself relocated from Sydney to Shanghai a few years ago.
China’s aging population though is tomorrow’s problem; Japan has this problem today and Western Europe isn’t far behind which means it’s going to get far harder to find workers anywhere in the near future.
For Australian businesses, this means we can’t rely on importing young workers to overcome skill shortages as we have since World War II. The Big Australia idea of using immigration from South Asia, Africa and the Middle East to fix our workforce shortages ignores the competition we’re going to be in with other nations and regions facing much bigger challenges than ours.
In that competition, we don’t offer a great package; traditionally we’ve ignored all non-British qualifications and expected new immigrants to drive our taxis regardless of their skills. Unless we recognise the contributions professional arrivals bring, we’ll struggle to attract those workers.
As businesses, this means we need to be investing and training and making sure our own workplaces and the nation’s workforce are as productive as possible. The first step on an individual business level is to understand what is happening in your sector and how technology is changing it. Regardless of what your industry is, technology is changing your supply chain, customer and supplier behaviour and you need to be understand those changes and how you can profit from them.
Your competition is no longer down the street, it’s around the world and there are millions of young, hard working people like Yuan Yandong looking at your industry right now and thinking how they can do it better. How is your business going to deal with competition like that?