Blockchain technology in China is now regarded as a core national strategy. Political leaders, including Xi Jinping, have been touting it. Regional governments have also enacted policies to foster its growth.
But a shortage of blockchain talent, in part due to a lack of blockchain education, is casting a shadow on China’s ambitions for this emerging technology.
To seed and nurture more blockchain human capital, China’s public and private sectors are now providing classes, building research institutions and creating new university initiatives focused on this technology. The latest attempt so far is the launch, scheduled for this fall, of China’s first blockchain bachelor’s degree program at Chengdu University of Information Technology (CUIT).
Despite these efforts, industry insiders expect the number of high-quality blockchain talent in China to remain small, and for Chengdu’s future blockchain graduates, employment prospects remain uncertain.
As much as Chinese companies say they want and need more blockchain-educated young people in the workforce, China’s blockchain labor supply seems constrained by a cultural trait common to many societies, but especially pervasive in East Asia: education snobbery.
According to industry insiders, blockchain companies prefer hiring graduates from the mainland’s top-tier universities. Or candidates with work history at famous American companies like Google.
But it’s not clear that the alumni of elite Chinese education or brand-name Silicon Valley firms want to work in blockchain in China. In the aftermath of China’s crackdowns on crypto, blockchain got tarred with a shady reputation, and much of the existing tech labor force continues to disdain Chinese blockchain jobs.
High-quality blockchain talents lack trust in and feel uncertain about China’s current blockchain industry, Helen Yu, Co-founder of HHJ Consulting, a headhunter and advisory company based in Beijing, told Forkast.News.
See related article: China’s blockchain education shortage curbs its global ambitions
High salaries, but few takers
The Chinese blockchain industry can’t find enough of the talent it wants despite offering high salaries and perks.
The average salary of entry-level blockchain-related positions is around 16,320 yuan per month, or about $2,330 USD, according to Blockchain Talent Report 2019 published by Zhaopin.com, one of Chinese biggest recruitment companies. That’s more than 35% higher than a regular entry-level computer science job and twice as high as the average salary around the nation. Average salary of senior blockchain software engineer positions is about $3,383 per month.
The pay for blockchain talent in China is high because there is a shortage of candidates who meet high employer expectations.
“Mismatch of requirements vs reality. Candidates may lack all the skills in the job requirements. Sometimes, too many technical skills are listed in the job posting,” Daniel Cheah, director of recruiting at the executive search firm PowerSkill Group, told Forkast.News. “Clients are looking for both business-specific industry knowledge as well as strong technical skills. There is a limited talent pool of this.”
Helen Yu pointed out the blockchain companies often want to recruit employees from internet giants like Google and Amazon.
“Most of the blockchain companies in China are small, some even only have three to five staffs, hence they have extremely high standards for technical talents,” Yu said.
But in China, the tech talent is not very interested in blockchain work.
China’s blockchain industry has grown rapidly overall in the last few years, but with ups and downs. In early 2017, China occupied 90% of global bitcoin transactions — the daily bitcoin transition was $147.8 million on January 1, 2017, of which China’s three largest exchanges accounted for more than $100 million, according to an analysis with data from bitcoinity. Back then, a lot of tech talent from large companies were intrigued by the novel and profitable new market and joined blockchain startups.
However, China started putting strict regulations on blockchain and effectively outlawed cryptocurrency trading and initial coin offerings in 2017. In mid-2018, the state began shutting down bitcoin mining and more than 2,000 blockchains companies closed as a result. Many who worked in blockchain lost jobs and went back to work at internet giants that provided a stable salary.
“Nowadays, [there is] a huge bias against the blockchain industry in China,” Yu said.
Even when blockchain companies offer high-title positions, provide high flexibility and promise 1 to 5% in bonuses in the form of tokens, blockchain jobs are not considered by the people who are already doing well and have good jobs, she added. The workers whom the blockchain industry would love to hire are usually not willing to risk their job security and professional reputation to join the blockchain industry.
“Only those who are not able to get a foot in giant companies and are entrepreneurial enough might be willing to join blockchain companies,” Yu said.
China wants and needs more blockchain education
Another factor that contributes to the difficulties in blockchain hiring is China’s current lack of blockchain knowledge across disciplines, industry insiders say.
For example, “the Engineers may need to get additional insights from courses using Coursera, UDEMY, edX, etc.,” Cheah said. “Know the differences and risks between building a public blockchain and private blockchain systems.”
China’s first blockchain-related course started in 2016 at the Central University of Finance and Economics (CUFE). At first, the optional course was only for undergraduates in the School of Informatics. In 2017, it opened to all students and became a mandatory course for certain majors.
“We believe blockchain is a technology that will have huge impacts on the area of finance and economy,” said Zhu Jianmin, a professor from the School of Informatics at CUFE. “It is suitable for financial-related majors’ students to learn.”
Following CUFE, other mainland universities began providing blockchain courses for certain undergraduate majors’ senior year as well as graduate students. The list now includes Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Zhejiang University in Hangzhou and Fudan University in Shanghai.
But those kinds of blockchain courses are not necessarily what the industry needs. Courses open to the entire university are always at an introductory level. At the same time, advanced blockchain coursework limited to certain majors means a smaller number of students. Also, there is only so much knowledge that can be imparted within a single class that usually offers 48 or fewer total learning hours.
Intensive blockchain courses are also provided by universities and blockchain companies. However, they don’t usually target current students but are generally intended for professionals and entrepreneurs who have been working in the industry for years. Professional-level classes also almost always charge much higher tuition than classes for university students, which puts them out of reach for most young people.
For example, Peking University launched a blockchain lab in 2018 under the Guanghua School of Management. The lab offers a course every year called “Blockchain and Digital Finance Advanced Training Class,” which is aimed at CEOs, entrepreneurs and investors. The instructors included well-known economists, CEOs and investors like Cao Heping, the Dean of the School of Economics at PKU, and Zhao Changpeng, the CEO of Binance. The cost of the 18-day intensive blockchain training class is ￥88,000 yuan, or $12,443 USD per semester, for monthly workshops that last half a year.
Tsinghua University, in cooperation with Liankuai Blockchain Education Institution, provides a similar course — “Blockchain Industry and Applications” — for entrepreneurs in x-lab, the Tsinghua-owned startup incubator that mostly serves Tsinghua’s current students, alumni and staff. The class, which includes 28 instruction hours, is taught every weekend and charges a fee of ￥9800 yuan, or $1,386 USD for the public, and ￥4900 yuan, or $694 USD for x-lab members.
Huobi University, the education branch of Huobi, one of the biggest crypto exchanges in China, offers a Global Blockchain Leaders Programme. Taught in a rotation of different places including Huobi headquarters in Hainan, Beijing and the Silicon Valley, the trans-Pacific study-tour includes 25 instructors, including Don Tapscott, Co-Founder and Executive Chairman of the Blockchain Research Institute and Li Lin, the CEO of Huobi. This program costs ￥158,000 yuan, or $22,390 USD. The most recent course started in November 2019 and is its fifth class.
Here and there, governmental agencies have also tried to provide blockchain learning opportunities.
Mu Changchun, the Deputy Director at the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) made an online audio course about Libra and digital currency last August that attracted more than 41,000 online learners. The course, intended for the general public, cost ￥19.9 RMB, or $3 USD to access on De Dao, a popular Chinese education app.
Crypto exchange giants Huobi, OKEx and Binance have created their own online education system, maintain WeChat learning groups and host webinars on blockchain from time to time. But industry insiders say they offer limited value in terms of incubating the talent that China really needs.
“It is more like a marketing strategy for crypto companies, rather than an education program,” said Helen Yu, the HHJ Consulting recruiter.
In the hinterlands, one university gets serious about blockchain education
Far from China’s glittering coastal megacities and established high-tech hubs, a university in Sichuan — historically one of the mainland’s most impoverished regions — is trying hard to provide just the kind of blockchain education that companies say they so desperately need.
The Chengdu University of Information Technology (CUIT), located in the capital of Sichuan province in the southwestern part of China, will offer China’s first “Bachelor of Blockchain Technology Engineering” program starting in fall this year alongside its new Bachelor of Supply Chain Management and Bachelor of Cyberspace Safety programs. The Chinese Ministry of Education approved all three programs on February 25 this year.
The Bachelor of Blockchain Technology Engineering program is under CUIT’s Qidi Faculty of Technology, which recently changed its name to the Faculty of Blockchain Industry.
“The administration of the faculty of blockchain industry will be partly independent of other faculties and departments in CUIT,” said a person who answered the phone for CUIT, when a Forkast representative called as a member of the public to inquire about the new blockchain program. “Some of the professors of the faculty of blockchain industry are from Tsinghua University, and CUIT’s teachers will have chances to take further education at Tsinghua University as well.”
In CUIT’s new blockchain-degree curriculum, the first two years will focus on providing a foundation in computer science, including high-level mathematics and C programming, while the third and last years will focus on blockchain technology.
“We integrated courses of computer sciences and courses of blockchain technology scattered in multiple majors into one major, the Blockchain Technology Engineering Program,” the CUIT employee said.
The program plans to recruit 80 students for its inaugural class this fall semester. Following Chengdu’s standard public-university tuition rates, its blockchain bachelor’s degree program will cost ￥4,900 yuan, or $692 USD for each academic year, or $2,767 USD total for the four-year program.
But even before the first CUIT blockchain student has stepped foot on campus, recruiters who work with China’s blockchain companies are already handicapping the employment prospects of the program’s future alumni.
“A bachelor graduate majoring in blockchain can only fit in an entry-level position in a blockchain company,” Yu said. “We rather prefer hiring graduates from elite universities who majored in computer science or other disciplines.”
Cheah agreed with Yu’s assessment. Employers prefer IT or engineering degrees from “proven” universities, he said.
Companies prefer candidates with degrees from universities on the list of the National Blockchain Committee, Cheah said. The committee, which includes scholars, government officials, and executives from China’s most elite tech companies, is tasked with setting standards for the nation’s blockchain technology.
The national Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) recently announced that professors from Tsinghua University, University of Science and Technology of China, Peking university and five other highly selective universities — which collectively also happen to be China’s equivalent of the Ivy League — are on the list of the National Blockchain Committee, which suggests to the public that those universities have the best teaching and resources for blockchain education.
CUIT, which is nowhere near being a top-tier school in the estimation of China’s elites, is not on this list.
But blockchain employers might consider CUIT graduates with a blockchain degree if they jump through additional education hoops.
“If the course[work] is very in-depth and technical, it could be a good second degree for students with either IT or engineering degree qualifications,” Cheah said. “This will surely increase the blockchain talent pool.”
Even though recruiters — who after all, only represent the dominant views, preferences and hiring practices of China’s blockchain companies — do not see a particularly bright future for CUIT’s blockchain students, perhaps this could offer the hinterland youths more hope:
Some of the most successful, visionary, creative and path-breaking business and tech leaders in the world did not attend elite universities.
This holds true even in education brand name-obsessed China. Alibaba’s founder and former CEO Jack Ma attended Hangzhou Normal University and Tencent’s founder and CEO Pony Ma graduated from Shenzhen University, neither of which cracks the list of China’s top 50 institutions of higher education.
Tencent as well as Ant Financial, the fintech arm of Alibaba, are not only among the world’s most successful companies but also now major players in China’s blockchain scene. Graduates from China’s Ivy League can only wish to be like either Mr. Ma (who aren’t related) some day.
Chengdu’s program may be a test of Chinese blockchain education and also how the industry treats the next generation of blockchain talent.
It could also open the door for other universities to offer deeper coursework in emerging technologies. Top-tier universities getting involved in blockchain education is perhaps another way for China’s labor market to overcome its current bias against the blockchain industry.
But, Yu said, “it takes time for more elite universities to want to participate in” blockchain education.