The Huang sisters sat down at a factory recruiting desk, exchanged a few words with a human resources manager and quickly moved on.

“With overtime, I already make Rmb1,500 [$220, €147, £132] a month at a computer components factory,” Xiaoxiang, 22, said as she walked through an open-air jobs fair hand in hand with her younger sibling. Xiaodao, 17, has another year of school before she follows her big sister from their village in Guangdong province, China’s largest ex­porter, to Dongguan, a manufacturing centre an hour’s drive north of Hong Kong.

On a recent weekend morning, there were more company recruiting tents than workers as the sisters strolled through the Dajingli Talent Market, set up on a plaza outside Dongguan’s main railway station. Blue skies, balloons and triumphal music added to the relaxed atmosphere and mood of cautious optimism, as China’s export sector shows signs of flickering back to life.

It remains to be seen if the worst is over for China’s exporters. But if so, the sector will be stronger for the cull that eliminated smaller, inefficient producers, especially in low-value industries. The country’s leaders will also count themselves lucky to have escaped the global financial crisis without widespread industrial unrest, despite official estimates in February that 20m migrant workers who went home for the Chinese new year holiday did not have jobs to return to in the country’s coastal manufacturing zones.

While China’s exports are still falling year on year, the rate of decline slowed sharply in September compared with previous months.

Guangdong’s exports, for example, fell 12 per cent year on year last month to $34.68bn – in line with a 15 per cent decline nationwide. Both the provincial and national figures represent a marked improvement over the 20-25 per cent falls recorded earlier in the year, and look even better on a month-to-month basis. Compared with August, the value of Guangdong’s exports increased 11 per cent last month.

Performance also varies considerably by sector. Guangdong’s so-called “export processors”, who assemble imported components and add relatively little value, have suffered the most. Over the first three quarters, their shipments declined 21.5 per cent year on year.

By contrast, the provinces’ high-tech exporters fared comparatively well. Their shipments have fallen just 13.2 per cent this year, and the sector appears to be recovering rapidly. Guangdong’s high-tech exports plummeted 37 per cent year on year in January. In August, they improved 1.3 per cent.

Ample anecdotal evidence suggests that factories are receiving more orders and hiring more workers, giving Xiaoxiang her first opportunity to shop around for better wages and conditions since Lehman Brothers collapsed in September last year.

Speaking this summer, Wang Yang, Guangdong’s senior Communist party official, said there were more jobseekers in south China than there were jobs until late June, when the overall balance shifted back in favour of labour. He added that there remained a chronic shortage for skilled technicians, with as many as 700,000 positions unfilled.

From his seat behind a recruitment desk at the Dajingli Talent Market, Yang Xiaofei was among those who thought they could see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Chart: Guangdong's exports

His employer, a rubber and plastics factory, was looking for five quality-control inspectors on wages of about Rmb1,700-1,800 a month. Posted requirements incl­uded “a healthy body, [an ability to] eat bitterness and work hard and [a willingness to] obey ­superiors”.

“We’re only a small company, so we’re not looking for too many workers,” said Mr Yang, who was also offering a monthly wage of Rmb1,500 for “several dozen” line positions. “Larger factories are ­looking for thousands of ­workers.”

This race for talent was evident in Dongguan last weekend. Across the road from the Dajingli jobs fair, the Changping Labour Market competed for business. Both charged companies a daily rate to set up their recruiting desks.

Changping, which occupies a permanent site, also charged jobseekers an admittance fee of Rmb10. Idle men reluctant to pay for a ticket loitered outside and approached anyone they thought might be a factory manager, including the odd journalist, with a discreet whisper: “What kind of workers are you looking for, boss?”

“Each ticket is valid for four days – if they don’t find a job they can come back,” said Xu Yongji, a manager at Changping. “It has been relatively busy because factories have more orders now. But business still isn’t nearly as good as it was in 2006-07.”

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