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China’s Electric Car Factories Can’t Hire Fast Enough

Xing Wei graduated from a vocational high school in northeastern China in 2003 and went to work as an electrician in an auto parts factory in the country’s south. The only set of wheels he could afford was a black, three-speed bicycle.

He earned $1,150 a year and shared a sweltering dormitory room with three other workers. “There was air-conditioning, but because we had to pay the electricity ourselves, we basically didn’t turn it on,” Mr. Xing said.

Two decades later, Mr. Xing, 42, makes close to $60,000 a year. He works as a senior electrician installing industrial robots at electric car factories for Nio, a Chinese automaker. Last winter, he bought a $52,000 Nio ES6 sport utility vehicle.

China’s electric vehicle market is the world’s largest and fastest growing. A frenzy of construction and expansion of factories has made electricians and robotics specialists a hot commodity.

“If you want to recruit people with relevant experience, there are relatively few people in this industry,” Mr. Xing said.

More than 1.5 million people now work at dozens of electric vehicle companies in China and their suppliers. The largest of them, BYD, has 570,000 workers, compared with 610,000 worldwide for Detroit’s Big Three combined.

As parts of China’s economy slow, Beijing needs to shift workers to sectors that are still growing fast, most notably electric vehicle manufacturing. But Beijing faces a shortfall in vocational training, as well as a surplus of young people with university degrees who aren’t interested in factory work.

Most in demand are skilled technicians and engineers like Mr. Xing. Assembly line workers at automotive plants earn less than half his salary.

Beijing estimated in 2021 that the country had more than twice as many jobs for skilled technicians as the actual number of qualified workers.

A report issued last year by the Shanghai government found that the highest-paid 10 percent of senior factory technicians earned at least $51,000 a year. Workers with these skills change jobs frequently: Before moving to Hefei in central China two years ago to work for Nio, Mr. Xing set up a stamping line in nearby Ningbo for Zeekr, a division of Zhejiang Geely.

Fueled by loans from state-owned banks and assistance from municipalities, Chinese automakers are building electric car factories faster than sales are rising, prompting a price war that has left most companies losing money. That has caused a shakeout in the industry. Nio, for example, announced in November that it laid off 10 percent of its employees. None of the cuts were in manufacturing, Nio said.

“We are already very concerned about the shortage of hands,” said Ji Huaqiang, Nio’s vice president of manufacturing.

The seeds of the labor shortage were planted years ago when the Chinese government’s economic planners failed to see the scale of the electric car boom and to train enough workers for it.

In 2016, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology predicted that the electric car industry would need 1.2 million workers in 2025, and warned that China had only 170,000 people then with the necessary skills.

To be sure, more than two-fifths of the country’s 11 million college graduates each year study topics related to science and engineering. That is double the proportion in the United States, which also has a shortfall of welders, electricians and other industrial workers.

But many of those college graduates aspire to work in white-collar jobs at internet companies and the civil service, not at factories.

For several decades, factories in China could count on a constant flow of farmers’ sons and daughters who arrived in cities and would take practically any job, no matter how dull.

One of them was Mr. Xing. He was determined as a teenager to leave his hometown, Hongshi, near China’s border with North Korea. He attended a vocational high school, where his teacher said he should look for work in southeastern China, near Hong Kong. As soon as he earned his high school diploma, he packed his bags.

In Guangzhou, he found a job at a factory that stamped out car body parts for a nearby Honda assembly plant. Whenever new equipment arrived, foreign experts connected it to laptops and made all the decisions on test runs. Mr. Xing understood little.

“I could only look at them like a dummy,” he said.

It left a mark on him. He lived on free cafeteria meals at the factory and saved his pay, $100 a month, to buy a $1,195 IBM laptop. He studied automation on weekends through an adult education program.

The training would help set him up for a career in the electric vehicle sector. By 2019, he had bought a nearly 1,100-square-foot condo in an outlying suburb of Ningbo, 800 miles from Guangzhou. Today, his parents are living in the condo while Mr. Xing and his wife and their two sons pay $350 a month to rent a 1,300-square-foot apartment in Hefei.

The Chinese government has tried to train a generation of workers like Mr. Xing, with mixed results.

In 2014, Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, exhorted government and Communist Party officials, as well as businesses, to “cultivate hundreds of millions of high-quality laborers and technical and skilled personnel.”

But that goal has collided with the rising aspirations of Chinese parents who have shown less interest in sending their children to vocational high schools to learn the skills of an electrician, a machinist or another technician.

The number of teenagers entering vocational and technical high schools plummeted 25 percent between 2010 and 2021, the year with the most recent data. At the same time, the number of students attending academic high schools barely changed.

“Factory jobs are often associated with the ‘three D’s’ — dirty, dangerous and demeaning,” said Minhua Ling, an associate professor specializing in China’s vocational education system at the Geneva Graduate Institute. Younger Chinese “find it demeaning,” she said. “Feeling like a machine is not meaningful to them.”

About 60 percent of the Chinese population turning 18 enroll at a university. In 2000, it was 10 percent.

Companies in China have been slower than those in some countries, like Germany, to set up long-term apprentice programs to train future factory floor leaders.

“The demand rose so quickly that the education system was caught flat-footed, and it takes a few years to adequately prepare and train top-notch technicians,” said Gerard A. Postiglione, an emeritus professor of higher education research at the University of Hong Kong.

A steepening decline in birthrates adds to the urgency of the challenge.

The number of young people turning 18 each year in China has dropped by more than 40 percent since the mid-1980s. Based on the number of babies born in the past few years, the number of 18-year-olds will halve in the coming years.

China, and particularly the electric car industry, is trying to use automation to address its shortage of willing hands.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, businesses in China installed more industrial robots in 2022 than the rest of the world combined. It exceeded its biggest manufacturing rivals, Japan, the United States, South Korea and Germany.

By 2027, Nio plans to replace half its managerial positions with artificial intelligence and a third of its factory workers with robots, said Mr. Ji, the company’s vice president of manufacturing. One of Nio’s factories makes 300,000 E.V. motors a year and has a mere 30 workers.

“All of these companies have a hard time to find blue-collar labor,” said Zhou Linlin, the chief executive of Principle Capital, a Shanghai investment firm with stakes in numerous Chinese factories. “That’s why all the companies are looking for automation and robotics solutions.”

But robots can make up for only some of China’s growing demand for factory technicians.

Volkswagen is hiring for a new research center near Nio, in Hefei, that will staff 3,000 engineers to develop electric cars, and it is preparing to build electric cars there.

That means even more demand for specialists like Mr. Xing, who already has trouble filling his own team of electricians. “We are also constantly recruiting,” he said, “and we are not able to recruit suitable, relevant personnel.”

Li You and Joy Dong contributed research.

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