The Pressures of the Golden Pig

Researcher Darryl Andrew

By Published on .

SHANGHAI--For years now, managers in China have been coping with the challenges of balancing huge growth and potential with an insufficient talent pool. It's slowly getting better, but the growth in supply is not keeping pace with demand as more international companies want a greater share of the China rice bowl. There simply are not enough internationally-minded employees to go around.

As the head of Synovate in China, I have not been immune. Over the last few years, we have had to find on average 180–200 people each year to fuel the company’s expansion, and replace those inevitably lost to further their careers elsewhere (thankfully, the majority went to our clients rather than competitors).

To slow the drain, we looked at the four themes that came out of our Employee Commitment Survey: communication, investment, improving supervisory skills and training. Things seem to be working out. Our employee retention improved over 10 percentage points by 2006.

Then came the Year of the Pig, one of the feistier animals in the Chinese zodiac. Hundreds of millions of Chinese (and a few million westerners) place considerable weight on the importance of Chinese astrology.

It is not that uncommon for marriage partners to be deemed acceptable or unacceptable depending on the compatibility of their animal sign. For instance, people born under the sign of the Rabbit (1963) and the Rooster (1969) would not create happily married couples. But a Rabbit and Sheep (1967)…well, that’s a whole different story. Meddling Chinese grandmothers would predict marital bliss.

(For U.S. election pundits, Barack Obama is an Ox and Hillary Clinton is a Pig. According to Chinese astrology, these two animals are very compatible. Perhaps they would make better running mates than adversaries?)

Just like in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, some animals are more favored than others. Dragon and Pig years are considered the most auspicious. It is believed those born under these years will be blessed with better luck and good fortune.

Indeed, the study we conducted around Chinese New Year proved this. When asked which year they would prefer their child to be born under, the Dragon and Pig years won trotters-down, getting 20% and 15% of the vote, respectively.

2007 was a Golden Pig year, meaning it was even more auspicious than normal Pig years. It was a very, very good year to be born—but also a very bad year to be a human resources manager in China. Staff taking maternity leave surged in 2007, rising 400% from the year before.

Exasperating our manpower planning efforts were the generous maternity leave conditions granted to new mothers. Since married couples are still only allowed to have one child, there are a number of policies in place to try and ensure the experience of childbirth is a quality one. If the expectant mother opts for a Cesarean birth, then the maternity leave is even more generous. On average, we are looking at new mothers being away from economic production for six to eight months.

Employers’ loss certainly is a gain for the economy, as the new baby surge is a catalyst for growth in a whole range of industries. Look for strong results from Dumex, Wyeth, and Nestle as the demand for infant milk formulas surge.

Paper prices may also rise, due to a rapid increase in demand for disposable diapers that are needed to keep the bottoms of the Golden Pigs clean and pristine. Procter & Gamble and Kimberly-Clark, with their Huggies and Pampers brands, will be grinning in cherub fashion.

Satiating these Golden Pigs will create a mountain of treasure for other companies a few years down the track, as demand for toys, leisure activities and educational aids for kids escalates dramatically. Astutely, Mattel is planning to open a House of Barbie in downtown Shanghai, and Walt Disney is negotiating for land to set up a theme park outside the city.

For everyone else though, start planning now for the Year of the Dragon in 2012. As China’s economy continues roaring ahead, it will likely create an even bigger staffing hiccup than last year’s Golden Pig.

Darryl Andrew is Shanghai-based CEO, China of Synovate, an Aegis-owned market research company based in Hong Kong.
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