China’s cooling economy hits hot chip sector start-ups and workers

Fresh from six months of training courses to build up his skills for a job in China’s talent-starved semiconductor industry, civil engineering graduate Frank Jiang has sent his resume to more than 20 chip companies since July.

Not one has responded with an offer.

In China’s Covid-ravaged economic climate, workers have been looking to switch careers to an industry being prioritized by Beijing, only to find that it too is suffering in the downturn and job prospects are dimming.

“With lay-offs almost everywhere, the jobs at chip companies are at least stable with decent payment,” said Jiang, who is struggling to replicate a friend’s earlier success of switching from teaching maths online to becoming a chip verification engineer.

An inability to boost hiring should be alarming to China’s leadership — it appears to push further out its goal of self-sufficiency in semiconductors. It is also a major concern of young jobseekers like Jiang as they discover the once-hot job market in chips is cooling. The topic entitled “The pessimistic situation of recruitment in the IC [integrated circuit] industry” has received more than 1mn views on Zhihu, a question-and-answer website in China.

“We only plan to recruit half of the number we did last year, but we have received more CVs this time,” said one human resources executive at a prominent chip company based in Shanghai, who asked to remain anonymous.

China’s semiconductor sector has suffered from both the deteriorating macro environment and a redirection of industrial funding. “Investment strategy has changed as market demand weakened, particularly for those focusing on consumer markets,” said Ethan Qi, a senior analyst at research firm Counterpoint.

Start-ups have been particularly hard-hit and are cutting costs to try to ensure survival. So far this year, more than 3,400 Chinese chip-related companies have collapsed, already surpassing the total number in 2021, according to business data provider Qichacha.

“It makes it more difficult for them to hire extra people if they have to streamline,” said Szeho Ng, managing director at financial firm China Renaissance. He added that many of those funded in 2020 would have to be producing working products this year or they would struggle to attract more investment from private equity funds.

China has been trying to accelerate the growth of its homegrown semiconductor sector in order to decrease its reliance on imported chips. Investment and financing for chip companies in China exceeded Rmb200bn ($29bn) in both 2020 and 2021, and nearly Rmb80bn has been raised in the first half of 2022, according to data released by ITjuzi, a research company.

“The country will still keep investing in the chip ecosystem but, for start-ups or those without any proven track record, it’s tough,” said Ng, adding that the government and private equity would still back companies showing promise in new areas.

Surveys show that semiconductor talent is in short supply as the domestic industry expands swiftly. According to the China Semiconductor Association, the shortfall in the number of chip workers required will exceed 250,000 this year, and reach 300,000 by 2025.

Attempts to close the gap by lowering barriers to entry appear to have created more problems than they have solved. In the recent past, chip companies have taken on job seekers without related backgrounds. “The industry did recruit many underqualified R&Ds in the past few years, with lay people switching through crash courses,” said the human resources executive.

“They could only do minimum work,” said Jerry Wu, a veteran chip design engineer who received hundreds of queries about careers in the chip sector from his active WeChat blog. “It is becoming increasingly difficult to change careers through months of crash courses now.”

At the other end of the scale, industry veterans are still highly prized, but hard to attract. One semiconductor-focused headhunter in Shanghai said companies remained keen on experienced chip experts with overseas backgrounds, but few suitable candidates were willing to relocate to China because of increased geopolitical tensions and the strictures of the zero Covid policy.

Large, well-funded state-owned enterprises (SOEs) remain in the best position to expand and are even scaling up campus recruitment this year. Such moves are in step with President Xi Jinping’s recent call for a focus on leading-edge technologies.

The SOEs are also benefiting from improved training courses and more suitable applicants after the expansion of semiconductor-focused schools and departments in China’s universities. One talent acquisition manager from a leading state-owned chipmaker said it was busy hiring more engineers for new manufacturing lines and factories. “I am glad that the overall quality of candidates this year has improved a lot,” they said.

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