Talent Tribulations

It is boom times ahead for the architecture and design sectors in China, but talent shortages remain one of the biggest hindrances to the industry reports Sophie Loras.


Having won not just one contract at World Expo in Shanghai, but now co-ordinating two projects for the high-profile US and Australian pavilions should be a blessing for Shanghai-based interior design firm iaction. But for the business’s 40 or so staff, accommodating the sudden boom in business post global financial crisis has not been without its trials.
“We’ve maintained staff levels and certainly [with the additional expo contracts] we’ve been busy the last few months and everyone is working harder than they have before,” says the company’s Australian founder and Managing Director, Stephen White who established iaction in 1996.
In addition to the business’s commitment to its two expo projects, iaction continues to service its existing blue-chip clients, some of whom are now expanding as they move out of the financial woes of 2009. The big problem now for Mr White and the many other foreign design and architectural firms in China, isn’t so much finding business but finding the right staff to accommodate the boom.
“It’s not easy to find good quality technical staff,” says Mr White. “The market is still developing and skill levels which we need for more demanding projects are not easy to source in China,” he says.
“It has certainly improved over the years but when you are looking for detailing technicians they are often not available in China,” says Mr White, who in the past has recruited from the US, Canada, Australia and Hong Kong to find the right employees with the right level of experience.
Mr White says his business is adjusting to the reality but workloads at a management level have increased to oversee results.
It is a sentiment echoed by recruiters in the sector.
Richard McCooey, the HR Director for building and construction fit-out consultancy ACT Link China says the building and architecture sectors continue to experience a shortage of well qualified people in China. Act Link’s clients are predominantly western firms looking for good local talent to fill roles for new building projects.
“The market needs talent with solid technical skills and attention to detail but also with strong creativity,” says Mr McCooey. “And we are finding this mix hard to find.”
Thomas McKinley, Architecture and Design Consultant for Hays recruitment firm, says it is a very exciting time to be an architect in China as the country’s 100 or so tier-two and tier-three cities undergo rapid urbanisation programmes.
“There is a big need for urban planners and designers to respond to the rapid urbanisation of China’s tier two and tier three cities – especially in western and central China,” he says. “Currently there are not a lot of these people around.”
MNCs continue to seek staff with commercial design experience as they tend to focus on commercial, hospitality and retail design projects over residential. And while other industry sectors have swiftly moved to localise senior management positions – a trend exacerbated by the global financial crisis – the architecture and design sectors have not followed this tendency.
“There always has been, and still is in middle to upper level positions, a need for people with overseas education experience, overseas work experience, China work experience, bilingual in English and Mandarin and ideally someone who will work for a Chinese salary,” says Mr McKinley.
“Usually you can find four out of five. China experience counts as the most important with most firms,” he says.
Mr McKinley attributes the lack of localisation trends in the sector to an industry which has dictated a preference for western designers and architects.
“There seems to be a perception that Chinese developers want to see a foreign face if they are paying foreign prices to a foreign firm,” he says.
In addition, China not only has a shortage of internationally skilled local architects but a shortage of qualified local architects in general – many of whom take up positions with government LDIs (local design institutes) where they have a good job and salary and there is a constant flow of projects, but where they lack opportunities to improve English language skills and gain international experience – making them less ideal candidates for foreign firms.
Jason Marriott, Managing Director Architecture – AECOM, agrees that there is still a high demand for foreigners, and an expectation that international companies will have international employees in China. Mr Marriott, an Australian architect from Adelaide, has worked in the Chinese architecture sector for the last seven years and says some aspects of the industry haven’t changed at all in that time.
“It has always been, and still is, difficult to find staff in China. You look for China experience, but a lot of foreigners come and go, so the big challenge is finding the right foreigners,” he says.
“The hardest thing is finding talent. Someone with natural talent is hard anywhere – but someone with artistic flair and a good eye – you can’t learn that at uni.”

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