Monday, March 15, 2010

The Innovation Gap

Chinese parents put a lot of pressure on their only child to perform well academically because good grades means higher chances of getting into a good university. If they manage to pass the gaokao (高考) or college entrance exam, then four years of study, it's the pressure of finding a job.

The New York Times recently held a discussion about the employment situation, particularly for fresh university graduates. Entitled "Educated and Fearing the Future in China", five China experts were asked to give their own reasons why these young people were having a tough time breaking into the work force.

The five gave a range of reasons, from the problems of getting a hukou or household registration in big cities, as university students who study in major cities are entitled to a hukou, but it is difficult to get; a greater demand for manual labour than brains and not enough vocational schools; more job opportunities in less developed areas than major cities; and universities not giving graduates the skills and knowledge they need in the real world.

I can most associate with the last reason since I have been working with young people, many of them fresh grads on a daily basis for almost three years.

As Professor Yasheng Huang of political economy and international management at Sloan School of Management at Massachusetts School of Technology says:

The Chinese educational system is terrible at producing workers with innovative skills for the Chinese economy. It produces people who memorize existing facts rather than discovering new facts; who fish for existing solutions rather than coming up with new ones; who execute orders rather than inventing new ways of doing things. In other words they do not solve problems for their employers.

It's this skill of critical thinking which is not taught in universities, or most young people do not inherently have. In my line of work it is important for people to look critically at things and question them, and then find the answers to these questions.

However, many of these young people take everything they read as is and don't even stop to question anything or consider other perspectives on the topic or issue. When you point out other possibilities or concerns, this is a revelation to them, but this unfortunately doesn't turn on the light bulb to further develop their critical thinking skills in the near future.

This quick acceptance of the way things are has been ingrained since they were born and through the school system. Students are expected to obey and not question anything. Then when they get to work, they are again expected to follow their bosses orders. However, once in a while these superiors will throw them a problem they themselves can't answer and expect their underlings to solve it. That's when they are thrown into a tizzy and start dredging up things that were done before.

Another is the surprising laziness of many young people I have encountered. While they are not the majority, there are a good many who don't seem to have any kind of work ethic and expect to be able to tag along instead of complete what was assigned to them. There have been many instances where I have had to chastise young staff about paying more attention to detail and being more on the ball -- many times over. I feel like a parent or a teacher having to tell them the rules of the game of life, when their own parents should have instilled a kind of work ethic in them years ago.

So for people to think all Chinese are industrious is not true, especially the younger generation.

But that's also partly because they see how the world is mostly run by guanxi or relationships based on who you know rather than merit. That leaves them with either a strong sense of determination to make it their own way, or in most cases, a sense of hopelessness.

It is this generation that is most worrying, as in about two decades from now they will start leading the country's companies, start their own businesses or have civil service careers. This lack of ambition will reflect poorly on China and in turn lead to an unproductive country.

If today's leaders want a brighter future, putting an end to corruption would show its young people that getting an education, academic or vocational is worth something, and reforming the hukou system to make it easier for people to transfer around China so they can start working towards a better life.

Then last but not least, promoting freer thinking or at least critical thinking will bring about innovation and productivity. If President Hu Jintao is calling for more innovation, it has to start from the beginning.


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