Friday, January 04, 2008

Hiring Interns

As a follow up to my last post, we hired 11 students and they'll all be working at our vendors and (hopefully) soon to be manufacturing subsidiary. In mid December, I came out of the process of interviewing/hiring them a little shell shocked (and probably breaking every best practice ever taught). My China colleague apparently had maintained very good relations with his profs so we were talked up during classes. We came late to the process but we showed up not being told what to prepare (actually we were even told not to prepare anything) and then we had over 200 people come to our seminar and no forethought of how to sort them!

Imagine this: you're chatting merrily along, taken to an unremarkable door around a corner, you thank the escort and then when you turn around, you have 200+ pairs of eyes staring at you and the room is dead silent. After seeing them, the professor who kindly told you that you need not prepare, asks you - "oh by the way, do you have a power point presentation of your company that you could show"?

After I got over my wave of panic, over my inclination to take a picture of the red clothbound Communist book of Mao sitting on the prof's desk and finally incredulity that even here, in the middle of nowhere (probably a "small town" of a half million at least), Chinese professors are using Powerpoint on computer consoles, my time served in investment banking finally came up useful and I whipped up a presentation in 5 minutes. My colleague ad libbed droning on about what we did (quite impressive, though I guess he did also used to be class president). We ultimately sorted people by having them all speak and say a few sentences about themselves in front of everyone and what their expectations might be while collecting the standardized forms (which I confess we didn't have time to read) making remarkably subjective decisions on our picks. It was somewhat uncomfortable as I still haven't taken those Mandarin lessons yet so my colleague talked on pointing me who inevitably would stand from time to time with a forced smile waving like the Queen.

It's (almost) scandalous how little we need to pay these people. If you thought co-op students are cheap labor in the US/Canada, when we were discussing pay I suggested a number and I was scolded (yes, I get no respect) by my colleague as being crazy and how they were lucky they didn't have to pay us to learn! Given that these students must find placements for 6 months the starting number proposed by his former professor was 250-300 RMB/month plus room and board! (at today's dollars 7.4:1 that means $34-40 USD per month) .

Apparently we can be cheaper than average $400-500 RMB/month because we are foreign and not from Taiwan (apparently managers from China and - or as my China colleague might say quite indignantly - including - Taiwan can be quite the tyrants). I think they're sort of taken advantage of since these "kids" (my colleague in HK gets offended at my calling them this since I'm young enough to be her kid), have to have 6 months of experience before they graduate.

Fortunately, they do have choices. They can work for a larger company like Haier (company that tried to buy Maytag) or Huawei (company that's often referred to in China as "China's Cisco" or is more appropriately company that often "borrows" from Cisco) doing mind numbing but relatively well paid QC jobs (on the production line) for 2000+ RMB/month, or they can work for companies like us for diddles but get more useful experience with greater opportunities. It seems to work the opposite way in the West. For me, it was the choice between smaller companies that had to pay higher to attract talent of snot nosed arrogant kids like myself versus big name professional services firms that paid less but offered great training and a great name when you left (which I still think is somewhat bizarre).

Ultimately, seeing as I have little to no fear that they will be reading this, I decided that we ought to pay average (500 RMB/month) and in addition we will withhold an amount per month that we will give them when they leave (with the malicious intent that they will in fact be quite surprised and tell all their friends and we will have the pick of the litter next year). I have high hopes and am optimistic. Truth be told, I'm actually a little afraid of hiring more senior people in China. Because of things like this. Students, beyond being ridiculously energetic tend to also come uncorrupted. This internship process can be like a 6 month job interview (not fun for them but fun for us).

We also had quite a debate internally about how to properly welcome them. My China colleague, cheap bastard that he is (I say that affectionately of course), thought we shouldn't be too generous and nice to bring up expectations. Even making the decision to pay for the train tickets in sleeper cars no less was a debate since no one does that. (Side note: traveling on trains in China is an interesting experience especially with my colleague continually whispering in my ear not to fall asleep or else you will be robbed of everything. But it's sitting in this cramped room with 40-50 people that rumbles with everyone staring at each other suspiciously for however long the train ride is).

The train ride direct from the school is 18 hours and the cost of a sleeper car is only 15-20 USD (with seats in the hellish room about half that price)! The rationale of other companies is apparently that there's no point in paying for these kids when they haven't done anything yet (no, they wouldn't even pay for seats in that hellish little room). We also paid for them to have a a decent lunch and dinner, and to spend one night in Guangzhou to tour around before taking them to the factories the next day. I also suggested bringing them to go see a movie (and you should have heard the crap I got into for that - "what, you think these things don't cost money?" still echo in my head though I get that a lot). They ended up being too tired from their trip, but I think we will take them to karaoke and maybe an extra day in Guangzhou at the end of their internships.

I've come away from the process fairly excited and I think I will abscond a kid for a few administrative tasks to report directly to me within the next few weeks at our offices in Guangzhou (they're all currently with vendors now). In the future I hope to develop more of a strategy to hiring interns and cultivating a better relationship with that university through things like competitions, developing case studies, scholarships, and hiring over the course of a few days instead of one.

Oh, did I mention that we only need to actually pay for half of those interns and the other half plus the room and board for everyone get paid for by our vendors/subsidiary? Sure we will be spending a bit of money sending our managers over to train and work with them but any way I look at it, this is a definite score that even if it doesn't pan out, it will be a lot cheaper than many of my other mistakes.

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