China: Glut of unemployed graduates
The BBC's John Sudworth talks to the director of the world's biggest
genome mapping company.
In a former shoe factory in China's southern city of Shenzhen, the
noise of hammering and stitching has long gone. In its place is
something much quieter, the hum of laboratory machinery and the click of
But listen extra carefully and you might just pick up another sound:
the deep, seismic creaking of the world's second-largest economy moving
forward. At least, that is what this country's economic planners would
like to hope.
BGI has grown from nothing a little more than a decade ago to become
the world's biggest genetic sequencing company.
Almost 3,000 people work at the plant in Shenzhen, decoding DNA data
on behalf of global clients in healthcare and agriculture.
Gone are the low-skill, low-wage shoemakers. In their place are high
skill, hi-tech brainpower.
BGI has just decoded all of the varieties of the chickpea and is now
attempting to determine the genetic components of human intelligence, to
give just two examples of the sort of work being done here.
"You have to have more young people, crazy people, who can work day
and night to figure out what the data represents," one of the company
founders, Wang Jian said.
"We have thousands of people working in this field, so lots of
countries ask us for help. We charge them a reasonable fee and we get
the money to feed ourselves."
The company, which came into being as part of the international
collaboration to map the human genome, has quickly made use of one key
resource: China's abundant supply of cheap graduates.
In some ways, genome sequencing, producing the complete DNA sequence
of a particular organism, is the easy bit. You need some very expensive
sequencing machines and a lot of computing power.
The hard bit though is decoding or mapping the genome.
For that, you need a lot of careful analysis, looking for similar
patterns and sequences in the long strings of letters, so that you can
then identify the parts of the genome responsible for particular
biological functions. And that is where the cheap graduates come in.
The floors of the old shoe factory are now divided into hundreds of
small cubicles, and inside each one sits a technician at a computer
terminal, pouring over data out of the labs.
BGI can do this kind of work on a bigger scale than anyone else
because elsewhere in the world, it would cost much more to hire all this
So China now finds itself at the forefront of the important effort to
find genetic components to things like autism and obesity, both projects
that BGI is working on, for international clients.
The country currently has a glut of unemployed graduates, part of the
reason, of course, that they are cheap to employ. Could BGI therefore
offer a glimpse of the next stage of China's remarkable economic
transformation, with more companies drawing on this army of educated
workers to become world leaders?
Before those aforementioned economic planners get too carried away
and toast the arrival of the future, BGI's founder has a warning for
"Our education system has to be changed fast," Wang said. "We need a
more challenging, more creative education system. Otherwise we still,
for most Chinese companies, are followers, following the UK and the
States to try to catch up."
In fact, so unhappy was BGI with the quality of the Chinese education
system that it set up its own college, in the hope of replacing the
traditional learning methods with more creativity and innovation. But
the college has not been allowed to award its own diplomas and now Wang
is appealing directly to the government.
"Give people more chance to build up their own schools. We don't want
to change the whole system, but give us a chance to try our own way," he
Some outsiders have suggested that, rather than a break with the
past, BGI is simply following a tried and tested model. A bit like
China's giant computer assembly plants, only this time producing DNA
sequences rather than gadgets. The trick is the same; do the job just as
well but cheaper than it can be done elsewhere.
Wang's concern is for the next phase, for BGI to move beyond data
processing and analysis to become a real innovator and leader in
biotechnology. He is certainly not the first person to criticise China's
education system as not being fit for that purpose.
BBC News, Shanghai