Breaking Through the Great Wall

Manpower is now meeting with local employers, forging relationships in the market and educating potential clients as it begins shaping Chinese employers’ perception of temporary staffing.

November 28, 2007
It’s taken 13 years, but Manpower Inc. is finally seeing the dividends of its investment in mainland China after gaining government approval to become its first non-Chinese temporary staffing agency.

    "We are proud to be the first global organization to be awarded this privilege," says Jeffrey Joerres, chairman and CEO of the Milwaukee-based staffing giant. Financial terms and length of the deal, which was announced October 10, were not disclosed.

    Until now, Manpower was limited to providing executive placement services in China. The company is now meeting with local employers, forging relationships in the market and educating potential clients as it begins shaping Chinese employers’ perception of temporary staffing.

    Joerres says Manpower must convince employers that temporary staffing is not just a means to an end, whether it is filling a rush order for an important client or performing clerical tasks.

    "There is a precise science to selecting and assembling a group of people who can deliver the best possible results," Joerres says, adding that new clients in China need to know projects can still operate smoothly with a temporary staff. "We’re going to have to roll our sleeves up and educate the public."

    Manpower is bracing for significant volume during its inaugural year in China. Joerres believes the numbers can mirror those of India, where Manpower has operated for two years and averages some 15,000 people on temporary placements each day.

    Longtime HR executive Lucille Wu is head of Manpower’s Chinese operations.

    "She calls the shots," Joerres says of Wu, a former HR manager with UPS Taiwan. "We rely on her familiarity and expertise in the local market to help us reach our objectives."

    Manpower’s operations are extensive, with 62 offices in mainland China and 450 recruiters nationwide.

New era in China
   "A small door has been opened up within the Great Wall," says Richard Wahlquist, CEO of the American Staffing Association. "Manpower has the opportunity to create an industry that balances the business interests of corporations with needs of the individual."

    The initiative takes place within the broader context of China’s labor contract law—landmark legislation aimed at modernizing HR practices in the country that takes effect in January.

    China will begin dabbling in temporary staffing through a pilot program organized by the Shanghai Personnel Bureau under the authorization of China’s Ministry of Personnel. Only seven staffing agencies are participating in the pilot program, which begins January 1—Manpower and six Chinese firms.

    Accessing temporary staffers will revolutionize the way business is done in China, Wahlquist says. Companies will be able to maintain productivity rates when there is a spike in demand, he notes.

    "We all know that business volume has its ups and downs—new projects or seasonal events create variability," Wahlquist says. "Temporary staffing will allow companies to better manage these curveballs."

    Provided the pilot program goes well, Wahlquist anticipates temporary staffing will become a common practice in China. He says multinational staffing companies are eager to enter the Chinese market, given its potential.

    "I would be surprised if most of the big-name multinational staffing operators don’t have China on their radar screens," Wahlquist notes.

    No haphazard placements
Whether a company is hiring a nuclear physicist or a welder, Joerres says employers must realize that every position, regardless of rank or responsibility, requires a certain level of skill.

    "I have come across many companies that assume putting any random body on a manufacturing assembly line will do," Joerres says. "They are plain wrong."

    Factors such as manual dexterity and the ability to concentrate and follow instructions are important indicators of how an individual can perform—a message Manpower hopes to clearly convey to Chinese employers across all sectors.

    Joerres hopes to convince local companies that they can leverage assessment tools to make educated predictions of how well a worker will carry out tasks.

    "Our assessment tools can test just about anything," he says. Manpower can develop an on-demand assessment platform to gauge the skills required for a specific position, Joerres explains.

    Manpower may have its work cut out indoctrinating local employers on this front, according to experts. Though technical and credential testing is practiced in China, sophisticated assessments are rare, particularly when it comes to employees in a manufacturing or light industrial setting.

    "I would be surprised if local employers applied in-depth assessments when hiring workers for the manufacturing floor," says Janet Carmosky, CEO of consulting firm China Prospects.

    Carmosky believes Manpower may have an easier time engaging multinational employers such as Intel, Corning and General Motors, which have large manufacturing operations in China.

    "These are companies that are in China for the long haul," she says. "They are not there on a project-by-project basis and are therefore concerned with critical issues that pertain to manufacturing quality and stability."

    Consequently, they may be more attuned to the qualitative benefits of authenticated temp staffers offered by Manpower.

    Manpower can also find opportunity in the recent backlash against poorly made Chinese products, Carmosky notes. Having workers who have been screened by Manpower could help Chinese manufacturers ease the concerns of their clients regarding quality control issues.

    Joerres says getting the right fit for the job is particularly critical at this point for China, as employers set their sights on moving into more sophisticated industries.

    "There is a palpable change taking place in China," Joerres says. "We’re glad to be part of it."

Upholding workforce ethics
   Getting a license for temporary staffing services in China did not come easily. Manpower has had to demonstrate a sustained commitment and loyalty to the country for more than a decade, gaining the trust of the Chinese officials by establishing itself as its multinational partner.

    For the past five years, the company participated in the Shanghai International Partnership initiative, through which it helped the government assess the needs of employers across many sectors. This project entailed disseminating market surveys among employers and working with local technical schools to understand the relationship between market demand and workforce supply.

    "This has been a great place for us to grow," Joerres says. "We don’t intend to let the Chinese people down."

    Manpower plans to enforce the same level of employee protection measures in Asia that it practices elsewhere. Manpower will conduct thorough company environment surveys before sending workers on assignment to ensure that companies comply with appropriate safety requirements.

    Other measures include examining the number of breaks and overtime policies.

    "I wouldn’t place anybody in a situation where I wouldn’t want to be in," Joerres says.

    Getting employers to change their ways in a new system will be a challenge. He concedes that Manpower may turn down business as some employers won’t adapt higher standards.

    "We understand that our way of doing business is not going to appeal to everybody," he says. "That’s just part of the territory and we accept it."