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Gung Ho: Beijing business battles to keep staff

Young workers in Beijing like Chu Mingying face family pressure to return home Photos:BBC

Gung Ho Pizza delivery boys do not walk when they are heading out the doors onto the streets of Beijing: they run.

As urban China develops a taste for pizza, business is booming for the rapidly expanding delivery chain: three locations are already busy and another two will soon open.

There is just one hitch: a labour shortage in China's major cities makes it difficult to hire enough low-level workers to fulfil the daily rush of orders.

In a country of 1.3 billion people, you might think hiring entry-level employees would be the last problem companies might face.

But as the cost of living rises in China's wealthy eastern hubs, it is difficult for employers to lure young workers away from developing centres in the country's interior.

Meet the parents

More than a decade ago, the Chinese government unveiled a "Go West" campaign to boost economic development in the country's interior.

Billions of dollars in infrastructure spending, and a massive propaganda campaign convincing workers of the benefits of low-cost living in second and third tier cities have paid off.

Beginning in 2009, many migrant workers found themselves without a job when their factories closed due to the global financial crisis.

Many who returned to their home provinces realized they could find new jobs much closer to home, without having to travel all the way to the coast.

"These kids don't want to leave home now," explains Gung Ho Pizza's co-owner, Jade Gray. "There's no longer a need to leave home to get rich."

He has come up with novel ways to entice his 200 staff to continue working in Beijing: every time an employee reaches their five-year anniversary with the company, the New Zealand native travels back to that person's home village.

Chu Mingying's family spent days preparing dishes to welcome her boss

After a few years of adventure in the big city, Gung Ho's young workers face family pressure to return home to settle down. Mr Gray hopes to convince their parents otherwise.

"Until I engage them and pitch to them why I think it's in the interest of the family for their child to stay with me, then I'd never get a retention rate that's going to allow me to grow," he explains.

"So now I go back to their home town, and a huge part of it is really to get the buy-in of the family."

Next in line for this treatment is assistant manager Chu Mingying. She left her childhood village of Daxiwan in Beijing's neighbouring Hebei province when she was just 18, hoping to earn money in Beijing.

Ms Chu earned good grades when she was young, but she dropped out of secondary school when she realized her parents would never be able to afford college tuition.

Soon after arriving in Beijing, Ms Chu found a job with Gung Ho, and she is proud to have worked up the ranks.

"My boss, a foreign boss, is travelling home with me," she smiles. "That will reassure my family I'm in safe hands."

Envelope of cash
Mr Gray, a nervous Ms Chu, and two of Gung Ho's senior managers drive for hours through mountains in China's central Hebei province to reach the tiny village of Daxiwan.

Ms Chu's parents rush to shake Mr Gray's hand. They are beaming, clearly thrilled that the company's big boss is visiting their small dairy farm.

After everyone files into the family's two-room farmhouse, the feast begins. Ms Chu's mother serves the special noodle and fish dishes she has been preparing for days. Usually, the family only eats this way during Chinese New Year.

In return, Mr Gray hands over an envelope filled with money - a sign of respect for the proud parents.

"It would be impossible for my daughter to return here," admits Ms Chu's father, Chu Fengsheng. "Living in the countryside has no future."

Chu Mingying's father Chu Fengsheng has stayed in the small village of Daxiwan

Walking through the village, it is clear that it has seen busier days. For the past few years, no one under the age of 40 has elected to stay in Daxiwan.

Many young workers are not staying in huge urban hubs on the coast, but they are not heading back to their tiny villages either. Instead, many are settling in developing towns in China's interior.

Life skills courses
Ms Chu's sister-in-law, Liang Qiuli, once worked in Beijing as a supermarket cashier. But she quit earlier than planned.

"The salaries are low, but the living costs are high. Even buying food every day was expensive. I had no savings, so I decided to come home," she shrugs.

Now, she lives with her husband, Ms Chu's older brother, in a town just two hours away from Ms Chu's parents.

Many others are making the same decision. After this year's Chinese New Year holiday, factory bosses in China's southern manufacturing belt were forced to offer extra perks and pay to entice workers back to the assembly lines.

Gung Ho Pizza goes one step further, providing English classes and life skills courses.

Just like a trip home to meet the parents, it pays to get creative to keep employees, including eager delivery boys, from leaving for good.

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