Finding a good job proves to be a testing period

08:19, November 01, 2010      

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Unless one's heart is made of stone it is difficult not to feel a degree of sympathy for today's young adults.

They have survived an education system so demanding that in order to shine they have had to spend evenings and weekends receiving extra tuition (and the associated guilt over the additional money it has cost their parents).

They look at a property market so out of kilter with earnings that they would be lucky to be able to buy just one square meter of a residence in a first-tier city with their entire first year's salary, before tax.

If they want to marry, the price of an automobile also has to be factored in. And then there is the job market.

Finding work with the right prospects to fund a happy and successful life is now as challenging as trying to stay dry while long-distance white-water rafting, and just as arduous and treacherous.

Currently, thousands of Year Four students aged 22 or so are awaiting the outcome of a drawn out selection process which will determine whether they will be successful in achieving their ambitions of starting to work for one of the big four accountancy firms: Ernst & Young (E&Y), PwC, KPMG or Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu.

E&Y this year is looking to add 2,000 graduates in China to its global workforce of 141,000, who together brought in revenues in the region of $21 billion over the past year. Those are big numbers and with big numbers come big responsibilities, so the pressure on the human resources department to select the right candidates is enormous.

The number of recruits is twice last year's figure so some comfort can be drawn from the auditor's confidence in the economic outlook. If no job is forthcoming with E&Y, at least there should be others out there.

As the first wave of potential recruits arrived on the 21st floor of the utilitarian-sounding E&Y Tower E3 at Oriental Plaza off East Chang'an Avenue in Beijing on Oct 13, there was a palpable feeling of tension in the air. The company's slogan is "Quality in everything we do" and each and every one of these young men and women knew that their quality was going to be tested to the limit by the latest in selection procedures at E&Y's disposal.

As many as 20,000 applied for jobs with E&Y this year. Only 10 percent of them would make it through the October trials, where academic success alone is insufficient. The task of what used to be called "personnel" has become a highly sophisticated subject that can now be studied at university.

As an example of the subtleties employed, the United Kingdom's most prestigious academic institution is All Souls, one of Oxford University's colleges.

It awards two scholarships a year to recent postgraduates. Famously, until this year, part of the selection procedure after six three-hour tests over three days, was a formal dinner during which cherry pie was served in rimless bowls.

The test was to see how candidates dealt with the fruit's stones. The British historian A.L. Rowse, who passed the test, recalled that he swallowed them but added many years on he still didn't know whether that was the right thing to do.

E&Y's selection procedures are by no means as arcane or eccentric but they are rigorous, said its head of human resources, Michael Wong, whose official title is partner, people leader in China.

He said: "As long as these kids are suitable for us, we are not too concerned what they learned at university. We have our systematic training programs."

The company offers careers in auditing, advisory work, transaction support and tax. "Typically we would receive 10,000 to 20,000 applications every year, sometimes more than that. Then we will go through a screening process to identify the people we will invite to attend the interviews. Then we have a couple of rounds of interviews at assessment centers," said Wong.

At the assessment centers, candidates look at case studies, engage in group debates, are grilled by a partner and undertake an English test. Face-to-face interviews are considered important at E&Y. "People with excellent CVs do not necessarily mean they are suitable," added the human resources veteran.

"The first thing we want these kids to have is a genuine interest in this profession: They apply to Ernst & Young not only because we are one of the big four firms, not only because of our brand, but because they are genuinely interested in being an accounting professional and want to develop their career along these lines.

"We want them to have very good communication skills because these people need to deal with clients, need to deal with their supervisors. When they become a senior manager they also need to be able to deal with their peers, their staff. Communication or interpersonal skills are very important.

"Number three is teamwork. None of the work can be done by themselves alone. They should like working with people. I also need them to have a reasonably good academic background. All of these are important. We consider all of them when we shortlist them," said Wong.

He said E&Y had advantages over its rivals when it came to recruitment. "We are the most globally integrated firm."

As a result, "We offer much greater opportunities. They will have more opportunities to work in our overseas offices, more opportunities for cross-border assignments. These are attractive things to Generation Y. That is number one.

"Number two is our leading people culture. One thing we are promoting globally is to have a culture of diversity and inclusiveness. Nowadays, these young kids, they are more global, more diversified, and we need to create an environment so that people with very different backgrounds can have an equal opportunity to work in E&Y.

"We have more and more Generation Y people here who were born in the 80s. These people are very different from those who were born in the 60s or the 70s. They look for early responsibility. They want more flexibility, more mobility, more communication.

"We need to understand them and focuses on creating a culture that they feel comfortable working in. To us staff engagement is very important. We want our people to be highly engaged. We achieve that through continuous communication.

"Number three is our staff development program. We have an holistic framework we call E&Y and You. This is a staff development framework. When a student chooses his first job, it is not only about how much you pay. A lot of the time it is about how much he can learn, how far he can go, how much he can develop.. In addition to telling people what we expect them to do, we also try to help them by strategically scheduling their assignments," Wong said.

He set an example: if a person has the need to work on some IPO (initial public offering) project because he has not had experience in the past, in the coming year E&Y will purposefully schedule it.

"We have staff rotation. They do not specialize until after two to three years. We give them sufficient experience to help them further develop. Learning and experience only become effective when they receive feedback, when they receive coaching, when their supervisors have meaningful conversations with them.

"So we encourage and we request our partners and managers to give on-site, prompt, instant feedback to their staff during an engagement, not wait until the end of the year to write a report, a performance review, but instant feedback: what they have done right, what they should improve, et cetera. In addition to that we have formal mid-year and year-end (sessions) when we can have a more systematic review of their performance so we can help these people to further improve their performance in the coming year."

New hires in China receive more than 5,000 yuan ($750) but less than 10,000 yuan a month in China, a far cry from the $50,000 a year their US counterparts get, but Wong said the salary structure is different. In China, "their salary increment will be doubled every two to three years. In the US the starting pay is very high but the increment is much smaller. Let me give you a specific example. A kid two years after graduation gets promoted from staff to a senior. Here the average increase is over 50 percent. We do expect those high-performing talents eventually to become a partner of the firm but, to be realistic, if I hire 2,000 people it is impossible to have 2,000 or 1,000 partners after 10 years."

Wong said people move on for all sorts of reasons but "attrition is well under control".

Wong said this year's recruitment drive began with a summer leadership program to which hundreds of students were invited. After a presentation the day involved team-building games, 20 to 30 partners sat with them to observe the participants and rate them. Good candidates received job offers on the spot. "We think this is more effective than a 30-minute interview," said Wong.

"At this point of time, compared with 10 years ago, these kids have more opportunities. While going through such a long process made them feel pressured or a bit nervous, by going through this process the company can choose the right person, the individual can choose the right job. I don't think it is that unacceptable or that annoying."

By now, the selection process for next year's intake is likely to be over and those that succeeded can relax at least until the 16-hour workdays kick in and they find that the world of work is just as testing as the world of academia.

Source:China Daily


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