April and May are the busy season when it comes to people changing jobs. People have endorsed their bonus checks and sold their stock shares; it’s time to move on. One of my colleagues, also a good friend in the company, is preparing to start his own company. The business partnership is lined up, the money is in place, the office and lab space are rented, and of course, the name of the company has long been in his mind. The entrepreneurial move is a little risky and maybe not for everyone, but he is certainly not alone in making the leap.
Many other people opt for a somewhat more secure way to move their careers forward, by changing between companies. Last year, a senior scientist from our company became the CEO of an external company after six years’ collaboration. Another scientist on our project left the company to take a management role in a competing company. Even people in high management positions are moving around. Two department heads in two leading companies recently announced their plans to move. One will resign from the management position and move back to the United States while the other will fill the vacancy.
This may sound normal for any middle-class professional market in the world, but the unusual part of switching jobs for white-collar workers in China is the frequency. According to a Linkedin survey, the average stay for a professional in a position is about 1.5 years in Shanghai (the number in the United States is more than 4 years). This means a person lands on a job, gets warmed up, and then works less than a year before looking for the next job. Although the turnover rate is slower in pharmaceutical R&D, due to the often long project cycles, it still falls short of the global standard. In the developed countries, people may talk about the good old days when a person worked for the same company for 30 years before retiring with a lump sum pension. Even in Japan, once the land of shushin koyo, or job for life, transient employment is ever more common. However, China’s situation seems to be to the most extreme. Most tenured jobs have disappeared since China’s opening in 1979. The reasons for the accelerated job moving seem to be multifaceted. For my entrepreneurial friend, his decision is catalyzed by the recent countrywide propaganda aimed at increasing productivity through technology innovation and business venture creation. He was also likely influenced by his successful entrepreneurial friends, who helped him to secure the necessary seed money. The recent loosened IPO regulations, particularly in regards to high-tech companies, may just add more kindling to the fire. For job switching professionals, there are a lot changes and growth in China’s health care system and pharmaceutical industry. They may find it easy to locate more suitable positions with better salary. On the other hand, many Chinese companies do not invest as much to develop their internal talents as their western counterparts. Rather, they would like to hire talents with know-how and offer them high salaries. The situation forced many white-collar workers to take the attitude of “get something done and move on”. In addition, the cost of switching jobs is likely relatively low compared to the United States because most of the jobs for middle-class professionals are concentrated in China’s big cities. Landing in a different position may just mean walking into a building across the street from the previous one.
What does this mean? Companies may need to try harder to keep talent around so they can get things done. However, for the society as a whole, the fast moving jobs may better assemble the resources and knowledge, which is definitely good news for productivity increase. This is too much to calculate and it probably best if we leave the job market to economists. As for me, I do have mixed feelings about colleagues’ leaving. I am happy for them when they find more suitable positions or opportunities to help them work towards their professional dreams, but also feel a little let down to see a strong team member leave.
Quan Zhou has studied and worked in the pharmaceutical center of Boston and biotech center of San Diego for eight years. He moved back to China in 2014 and started his career as a drug discovery scientist.