HONG KONG — When Eileen Chen resigned from a respectable bank job three years ago, the then-25-year-old set her sights on a position at one of the top internet companies in China, keen on the industry’s growth potential and generous pay.

To increase her chances of being selected, Chen paid more than 10,000 yuan ($1,500) for a three-month online course that offered to teach everything from tweaking her resume in order to catch the eye of tech recruiters to negotiating a good salary. Also on offer: simulations of the written tests used by the internet giants, and mock interviews.

As competition for tech jobs intensifies, candidates are turning to a semi-underground network of insiders who offer to pass on the secrets of the intense recruitment process for jobs ranging from software engineers to product or marketing managers. These “job hunting coaches” — often recently departed executives or even current employees raising some extra income — hawk their services on Chinese social media sites, even as some employers express skepticism about whether they really add the value they claim. 

Chen was a satisfied customer. Most of the instructors at the program she used were full-time employees or even interviewers at well-known internet companies, she said, and the training helped her land a role as a product manager at a renowned internet company in Beijing within a month of graduating.

“Their tips are very helpful. Some even listen to our recorded interviews and help figure out where the problems are,” she told Nikkei Asia, asking that her new employer not be named. “If I hadn’t taken this class and studied on my own, my chances of success would have been much lower.” 

According to the latest income report of China’s National Bureau of Statistics, employees at private-sector internet companies again topped the charts with an average annual income of 101,281 yuan in 2020, up 18.7% from the previous year. That was higher than the income of the average finance industry worker — in fact, internet companies first started paying more than finance a decade ago. Internet company employees now earn twice as much as workers in the property sector, the survey showed.

Among the most sought-after employers are e-commerce giant Alibaba Group and its smaller rival Pinduoduo, the tech conglomerate Tencent Holdings and ByteDance, parent company of the global short video sensation Tik Tok. Employees report that they have to go through up to nine rounds of interviews to land a position, and the selection process at top companies is getting more arduous and complicated as the pace of hiring slows.

The popularity of job-hunting coaches makes for a lucrative second career for those with experience and an entrepreneurial streak.

Zoey, a former product manager at Baidu who did not want to give her full name, quit her job last year and became a full-time coach. She shares her experience with small groups of people through livestreamed classes and provides one-on-one tutorials.

“The internet industry in China is developing very well, and a lot more people want to enter the industry now,” she said. But most people, especially fresh graduates, do not know how to prepare for interviews, and universities do not have relevant training, she said.

Zoey and her partners — also former employees of internet companies — sell a wide range of programs costing from 2,000 to 20,000 yuan, according to the online store she set up on Taobao, China’s largest e-commerce platform. One marketing poster claims that more than 500 people — 70% of its students — have successfully landed jobs at top internet companies.

The coaches can be picky who they take on, reflecting internet companies’ own preferences. Some say they are suitable only for applicants who graduated from “top 100” universities in China or the top 200 schools on the QS World University Rankings.

Last year, Cindy Chu, a 29-year-old software engineer, quit her job at a Hong Kong retail company because she thought she was not learning enough.

Like many, she wanted to join one of the top internet companies in China instead. But Chu soon realized that a master’s degree at a top university in Hong Kong and five years of experience were not good enough to secure her the job she wanted. For example, to be a software developer at Tencent, she needed to pass a technical examination testing skills ranging from the fundamentals of program design to the ability to write code on the spot.

“It’s like a university examination. You won’t use 90% of what is tested at work, but you need to have the knowledge to pass the interview,” she said.

Chu spent 8,000 yuan on an online course designed to prepare applicants for such tests. After months of study, she passed and got the Tencent job after six rounds of interviews.

“It’s getting more difficult to get a job at the internet companies. They keep raising the bar,” said Su Jiankuan, a product design manager at Zhiqun, an online vocational education startup specializing in the internet industry.

While Chinese internet companies have passed their period of fastest growth, “There are still a lot of people trying to enter the industry,” he said.

Recruiters at the big companies are not sure that the programs necessarily increase everyone’s chance of being selected.

“Personally, I don’t like those ‘offer-driven’ training programs,” said one recruiter at a top internet company, who posts tips for job applicants on the video site Bilibili under the user name Tai Fenyan. Offer-driven programs focus on getting candidates through an interview and getting a job offer, rather than teaching the skills actually needed for the job, she said. “They deal with the symptoms, not the underlying problems.”

Tai said it would be more helpful if interviewees spent a few months to a year on skills programs or gaining relevant experience through managing a real-life project. “What the top internet companies need are those who can quickly spot and solve the problems,” she said, something that cannot be coached in days or weeks — although she acknowledged that interviewees might be more confident in an interview if they received some good advice from senior people in the industry.

It remains to be seen how serious an effect the change of tone in Beijing might have on competition for jobs at the big tech companies. Not only is the central government piling on new regulations, President Xi Jinping has also started to emphasize “common prosperity” over the get-rich mentality prevalent in some quarters in tech.

While jobs at internet and IT companies remain the preferred choice for fresh university graduates in China, there are signs that more are seeking out jobs at state-owned companies and in government. According to a survey conducted by the recruitment company Zhaopin this year, only 19% of 2021 graduates said they would prefer to work for private enterprises, down from 25.1% last year.

For now, though, internet giants can still pick from a pool of strong candidates and competition remains intense. “Graduates from Peking University and Tsinghua University are very common nowadays,” Tai said, “so our criteria have also become higher.”

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