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Friends, what kind of person do you want to become? That is all up to you. If you never dare to want to succeed, then you will never succeed ... What is important is that you must dare to think, dare to want ...

Wu Chunming, from ‘Factory Girls: Voices from the Heart of Modern China’ by Leslie Chang

It is 11am in a large boarding house in Shenzhen where young migrants bunk six to a room. The balconies are suddenly crowded with young men and women pulling their uniforms off washing lines as they get ready for work, as if an alarm has just gone off.

Unusually, however, the uniforms are not the coveralls of factory workers but the waistcoats and jackets of restaurant workers.

The washing line is a banner of sorts heralding the increasing popularity of jobs in the service sector among the young Chinese migrant workers who staff the factories that dominate the manufacturing heartland in southern China.

Two men, aged 17 and 20 and wearing only the basketball shorts they slept in, say that when they arrived a few months earlier they did not even look for factory jobs. “Our friends told us working in factories is repetitive. The working hours are very long,” says the older one.

Instead, they both decided to work in a restaurant despite pay that was 20-25 per cent less than that offered by factories. Most of the residents of the boarding house have made the same choice, which explains the queue for toilets at 11am.

Manufacturers across China in labour-intensive industries such as garments and shoes complain that recruiting is more difficult than it has ever been, in large part because the cohort of entry-level workers is becoming smaller every year after three decades of the country’s one-child policy. Guangdong, China’s most industrialised province, is estimated to be short of 1m workers.

Double-digit wage rises every year and promises of birthday celebrations for employees have not eased the shortages. This year sign-on bonuses, once the preserve of Wall Street, were offered at many factories across southern China. Newly recruited workers in leather businesses in Dongguan, a city with more factories than traffic lights an hour north of Shenzhen, received “travel money” of Rmb400-600 ($63-$95) from grateful factory owners just for joining.

The problem for factory owners is not just that China’s demographic dividend has been cashed. Many of today’s younger generation find working in factories stultifying and aspire to jobs in the service sector or even to white-collar jobs. This is a marked change from their parents, who had migrated from farms and paddy fields and did not consider working on an assembly line to be drudgery.

In a video-games parlour in the southern Chinese town of Xintang, known as the world’s jeans capital, Zeng Guang, a 23-year-old migrant from Hunan wearing a bleached T-shirt with a Union Jack across the front, explains why he quit his job sewing the seams on jeans. Mr Zeng was working 12-hour days and could only take one day off a month. When his boss refused to give him extra time off to deal with an illness in the family, Mr Zeng quit. “There were so many reasons I didn’t want to work there,” he says.

Mr Zeng has the training to be a bartender and is considering seeking work as one, despite pay that would be Rmb400 less a month than the Rmb2,000 he was making. “I just want a job where I can work eight hours a day, but I cannot say what job can give you this,” he says with an awkward laugh.

Mr Zeng regrets having left school at 14 because he feels trapped by his lack of qualifications. “My father died when I was 14 and my mother remarried. I didn’t want to study any more and moved to my grandparents’,” he says. “I regret leaving school. Without education, I can’t find decent jobs.” He pauses to reflect. “Factory work is useless and meaningless,” he says finally. “For a long time, I have learnt nothing.”

But back from his month looking after his grandparents, Mr Zeng steels himself to work in a garment factory to help pay his grandfather’s medical bills. Bartending will have to wait another year, he says, as he hurries to a car park where recruiters wait to bus workers to interviews at factories.

His friend, Chen Jinguo, 22, sews belt loops on to jeans and wants to study but he works a 12-hour day from 8am until 11pm with breaks for lunch and dinner. “We don’t have enough energy to study,” he says.

Across southern China, human resource managers and workplace psychotherapists say young men and women are switching jobs at an ever more rapid rate. Liu Kaiming, a labour consultant with the Institute of Contemporary Observation, says that the generation born in the 1990s has driven turnover rates at some factories in south China to 15 per cent a month. “The first generation of migrant workers were very clear; they were working to build a house in their village,” says Mr Liu. “The new generation feels there is no future in the village. They go to the city where every day they look at television and newspapers with stories of new wealth that does not belong to them.”

In the workplaces of southern China, dreams quickly crash into reality, however. In the car park outside a shopping mall in Xintang, 25-year-old Liu Xinjiang is taking stock after his first morning working in a Chinese fast-food restaurant. He had spent the morning preparing ingredients for the chefs and looks exhausted.

He left a garment factory job a year ago to set up a restaurant with a friend in a nearby town but the business subsequently failed. With a salary of Rmb2,000 and rent to pay because the fast-food restaurant, unlike most factories, does not provide dorm accommodation, Mr Liu says he will need to moonlight. “The garment factories do not follow labour laws [limiting overtime] but the restaurant is a big company. They have to follow the law,” he says.

In an alley on the outskirts of Shenzhen, near the Foxconn plant that assembles Apple’s iPads and iPhones, the workers’ housing near the plant is still draped with long safety nets that look like funeral shrouds, a morbid reminder of a string of suicides by young workers who jumped to their deaths in the summer of 2010. A 24-year-old called Hu says that after three and a half years at Flextronics, which makes Microsoft’s Xbox games console, and a year working at Foxconn, he has decided electronics processing, with its rigid routines, is not for him.

He admits many workers would envy his monthly salary of Rmb4,500, but he wants work that engages his mind. “If you can do work that is interesting and make money from it, you can be the most happy person in the world. That is what Steve Jobs had,” he says.

Additional reporting by Zhou Ping

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.