Internet companies consolidate by bringing in fewer, but more highly qualified recruits, to cope with a slowing economy and global challenges.
As CEO of China's online car-hailing service provider Didi Kuaidi, Cheng Wei used to know the names of all of his employees, where they came from and their martial status.
He would take great pride in recalling the information. The company was launched in 2012. Before its rapid rise, it faced competition from main rival Uber Technologies Inc.
But times are changing. When Didi Kuaidi was in its infancy, the firm had a 200-strong workforce. Now, it employs 4,600 people and Cheng struggles to put names to faces.
Indeed, the breakneck expansion has prompted him to bring in a new policy of consolidation. That means the number of new job openings will be trimmed.
"We are worried that being an oversized organization will slow down our workflow and prevent us from running faster in the future," he said.
Cheng's decision is being replicated across the country's Internet sector as organizations consolidate by bringing in fewer, but more highly qualified recruits, to cope with a slowing economy.
Since September, online companies, including major players such as Alibaba Group Holding Ltd and Baidu Inc, have decided to reduce recruitment numbers.
Without revealing detailed figures, Alibaba has scaled back new job openings at its campus recruitments. Next year, it plans to hire 3,000 graduates, but that number could be reduced.
In October, Baidu announced a hiring freeze for people with work experience.
"We can only make exceptions for those who get the nod from our CEO Robin Li," the company said, adding that it will shift its hiring approach to attract top quality talent.
Baidu's news came on the back of disappointing economic data.
In the third quarter of this year, China's GDP growth rate shrank to 6.9 percent, the first dip below 7 percent since the global financial crisis in 2008.
At the same time, media reports described the hiring freeze as the "Internet winter", painting a picture of slowing growth after years of explosive expansion.
But that is only part of the problem. China's leading Internet companies have grown at a staggering rate in a relatively short time.
Alibaba, for instance, was set up in 1999, but its workforce had increased to 34,000 by June this year. In the past 18 months, about 15,000 people have joined its payroll.
Still, this new consolidation strategy is not a sign of an "Internet bubble" waiting to burst, according to industry insiders. Instead, the big online companies are shifting their recruitment drives from quantity to quality.
"I think they need to catch their breath after running hard for a long time," said Teng Bingsheng, an associate professor of strategic management and associate dean at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business.
Because of the way the industry has expanded, big companies have had to hire staff as online demand soared.
"In addition, there are a lot of inexpensive Internet workers in China on the supply side," Teng said, pointing to another reason for bloated staff numbers.
Another key reason has been the massive investment that has been pumped into the sector during the past few years. This, in turn, triggered a hiring boom.
Data from Lagou, an online recruitment site for Internet firms, showed that the number of new openings for Web-related jobs exceeded 1 million in the first 11 months of this year.
"The number of positions offered in 2014 only totaled 372,000," Lagou, which is based in Beijing, said.
Yet Lagou also reported that the number of new job openings on its site every month peaked in June with 148,000. By November, the figure had dropped to 77,000.
Zhang Jinrong, China vice-president of ManpowerGroup, a multinational employment agency, said that shrinking recruitment is in line with the overall employment situation here.
A Manpower employment outlook survey revealed that hiring sentiment among employers in China was the weakest in the fourth quarter since September 2009.
"(But) the Internet sector still has the strongest hiring intention," the survey reported.
For Justin Ren, an associate professor of operations and technology management at Boston University's School of Management, this trend could be just part of the cycle businesses go through.
Leading Chinese Internet companies are also looking to go global and that will require new highly talented staff as opposed to a large number of low-end engineers.
"It is just a matter of time when smart companies like JD.com (Inc) and Alibaba start recruiting more experienced talent on a global scale," Ren said.
Alibaba has already started the process by appointing former Goldman Sachs Group Inc vice-chair Michael Evans as president of the group in August. He will spearhead the company's international growth strategy.
"To become a globalized company, you need to build a talented team with an international background and a worldwide mindset," Wang Weiyi, senior director, human resources, Alibaba, said.
"It will be more and more difficult for fresh graduates to get entry-level job offers because we need more people with work experience," Wang said.
But David Yu, head of sales and operations at LinkedIn China, which is part of the largest professional network in the world, is still bullish about the Internet jobs market.
LinkedIn is often used by companies to build brand awareness and attract talented people with international backgrounds.
Yu mentioned that 61 percent of Chinese companies that use LinkedIn planned to hire more people next year with demand high among online firms.
"Big companies never stop hiring mid-to-senior level positions, especially with the uncertainty about the economy," Yu said.
"They either need high-end talent to lead their business out of difficulty or carry out new initiatives to expand into new sectors."
Cheetah Mobile Inc, the second-largest mobile application publisher in the world, has been going on a recruitment drive, and has doubled the number of vice-presidents since April. In October, the firm's Beijing-based team added 30 to 40 foreign employees.
"We expect to hire a lot more foreign talent for our overseas offices in the following year," Jasmine Lin, vice-president of talent and human resources, said.
But it is not easy to find the right people with the right skill sets. Cheetah Mobile often needs to build a new team in a new country within weeks.
"It is very difficult to do that when you hire across borders, and you know nothing about the hiring policy and rules of head hunting in a strange country," she said.
Glimpses of IT firms' recruitment change
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd
Staff strength: 34,000 by June.
Recruitment strategy: Announced plans to cut its campus recruitment quota in September.
Tencent Holdings Ltd
Staff strength: More than 24,000 with an average age of 29.
Recruitment strategy: Paused recruitment process for outside projects in October. But it has made offers to 2,000 new graduates this year and has more than 1,000 openings for people with work experience.
Staff strength: 46,391 as of Dec 31, 2014.
Recruitment strategy: Announced hiring freeze for people with work experience unless candidates are approved by CEO Robin Li.
Staff strength: More than 100,000 as of October 2015.
Recruitment strategy: The company announced in November it would create 40,000 new jobs in 2016. Apart from expanding its delivery team, JD will also hire people for its finance, technology, rural e-commerce and online-to-offline businesses.
Cheetah Mobile Inc
Staff strength: 2,300 with an average age of 26.5. About 10 percent of its staff are overseas employees.
Recruitment strategy: Will hire more people overseas as the company expands globally.
Alibaba Group Holding Ltd's booth received much attention and lots of applications at a recruitment fair at the Heilongjiang University stadium in November.Liu Yang / For China Daily
Jobseekers in front of Baidu Inc's booth at a job fair in Shenyang, capital of Liaoning province.Provided To China Daily
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