The IT sector offers good prospects and wages, but many aspiring entrants fall short of standards. Li Hongyang reports.
The walls of a corridor at a computer programming school in Beijing are covered with messages from tech companies offering jobs for the establishment’s graduates.
The posts－including for online retailer Suning and internet security expert Qihoo 360－come with monthly salaries ranging from 8,000 yuan to 20,000 yuan ($1,238 to $3,096), regardless of the candidate’s educational background.
On its website, the school, a private company called Beida Jade Bird Vocational Education, claims “We change lives” and “Becoming a programmer can help someone with a middle or high school education find as promising a career as someone with a bachelor’s degree”.
Dong Shaoze, a 17-year-old who quit high school before graduation, is studying programming at Beida Jade Bird.
During a break between classes, he and four teenage classmates were chatting outside the building in which the school rents rooms. When asked why they chose the course, most of them said they wanted to improve their financial situation.
They all believed that if they could get a job with a big company in Beijing, they would earn at least 20,000 yuan a month.
“The supply of programmers falls far short of demand. The growth in the internet industry during the COVID-19 epidemic (as online shopping boomed and more people used the web to contact each other) has boosted my confidence in the future of this career,” Dong said.
A report released last year by the China Internet Network Information Center showed that as of June, the number of internet users in China had reached 940 million, a rise of 36 million from March.
For the past seven years, the country has been the world’s largest online retail market, with the digital economy accounting for 35 percent of national GDP.
Moreover, a 2018 report by the Qianzhan Industry Research Institute, a think tank, showed that the revenue generated by China’s information technology sector rose from about 2 trillion yuan in 2012 to 6 trillion yuan in 2017. However, the talent shortfall was estimated at 1 million people a year.
Dong left Handan, his hometown in Hebei province, and moved 440 kilometers to Beijing after a 23-year-old friend who works as a programmer in the capital persuaded him to join the industry.
“I love playing computer games and am interested in the internet. When I finish creating a webpage, I feel so fulfilled,” Dong said.
Students at the school can choose a range of courses. They include learning Python and Java, programming languages that instruct computers to follow set orders, such as displaying search results or showing the number of likes under a social media account after users click the “thumbs-up” symbol.
Dong chose not to study those languages because he said they are so hard to learn. Instead, he is learning Hypertext Markup Language, which enables browsers to display internet content.
When he arrived in Beijing, he rented a room and his parents paid the tuition fee of about 20,000 yuan for the five-month course. Despite the cost, the school cannot guarantee to land him a job, so he will have to find one himself.
Zhang Xiaohe, a former owner of programmer training schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen, Guangdong province, said the internet industry can offer young workers high salaries.
“Fresh graduates can earn 10,000 yuan a month, and both they and the sector have a lot of room to grow later. Unlike in traditional sectors, internet companies can substantially increase profits if they accumulate a certain number of users at an early stage and perform well,” he said.
However, high salaries mean tough recruitment thresholds. “Nearly all the medium-sized or large internet companies only hire people with a bachelor’s degree or higher, while tech giants like Baidu and Alibaba only employ graduates from the top universities,” Zhang said.
In February last year, Proginn, a part-time job platform for programmers, released the results of a survey of 400,000 programmers across the country.
The survey concluded that about 76 percent of programmers have a bachelor’s or higher, while the remainder attended vocational or technical schools.
Zhang said some training schools enroll students from vocational or high schools purely for profit, regardless of their career potential.
“Compared with university students, they haven’t received good educations and they have no programming experience. Most of their resumes will be eliminated in the first round of recruitment,” he said.
“Even if they are hired by software companies, it is common that after two or three years they will find it hard to improve their skills. Landing a job doesn’t mean they will be able to stay in the industry, because the dropout rate is high among these young people.”
Han Xiaoda taught himself coding by reading textbooks, but he couldn’t see a clear promotion path so he quit his job as a programmer three years ago.
After graduating from the engineering major at a technical college in Wuhan, Hubei province, in 2013, Han found a job with an outsourcing company in Shenzhen.
It provided services such as making webpages for clients and developing mobile phone applications and other internet tools.
His salary rose from 2,000 yuan a month in the first year to 10,000 yuan, but then it plateaued.
Han said he admires Ma Huateng, CEO of tech giant Tencent, because he turned himself from a programmer into an entrepreneur.
He wanted to join one of the internet giants to experience a higher level of work, but his educational background meant he wasn’t invited to any interviews.
“What we did at my former company had nothing to do with cutting-edge technology. When we worked on difficult internet functions, we didn’t write the code ourselves－instead, we searched the web to find mature codes that had been expertly written by leading industry players,” he said.
He was never worried that customers would demand the impossible because they understood the company’s operating ceiling and only ordered items that could be produced via widely used technologies available on the open market.
Disillusioned, Han quit his job and opened an online travel agency with friends.
“Before, I thought programmers could change the world and earn a lot. Later, I realized that my technical skills made no difference to the world, so I turned to running a business,” he said.
The COVID-19 epidemic meant Han’s tourism company couldn’t make ends meet. He and his friends closed the business and he is now running a short-video account and producing films to teach people how to use visual effects in movies.
“My videos haven’t attracted any advertising contracts, so I haven’t made a profit. I am using my savings to support myself. Before, I thought I owned the world, but the world has abandoned me,” he said.
The story of Sun Ling has inspired many people who lack a college degree but want to make a mark in the programming industry.
About a decade ago, Sun quit her job as a worker at a battery factory in Shenzhen and studied at a programming school for a year.
From 2011, she worked for a tech company that calculated salaries for civil servants in the city. In 2017, she applied for a paid internship in the United States and later received a job offer from EPAM Systems, a software engineering company that provides services for Google. Her annual salary was about $120,000.
“It is not easy to copy Sun’s career path,” Zhang Xiaohe said. “She worked so hard that she got a well-paid job in the US, but not everyone has such determination at such a young age and without the benefit of higher education.”
He added that before 2015, most non-graduate students at his training school could find jobs with competitive internet companies, but now things are much harder.
“The development of the technology has seen large companies rise up in the past five years. The gap between the large operators and other companies is widening,” he said.
“Large companies offer higher salaries and better working environments, but they demand much more from their programmers, including better educational backgrounds, fast learning ability and even experience of working for other big outfits.
“Programming schools shouldn’t sell people dreams of success and attract those who aren’t interested in researching technologies and are really not at all suitable for this career.”
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