Zhu Beibei has his own company with a team of 30 drone pilots and he pulls in 3 million yuan (US$45,000) a year helping farmers in China spray weed killer. Demand for agricultural drone pilots has risen as the technology matures, enabling a skilled operator to cover more acreage than human effort ever could. It is also driven ironically by the shortage of manpower in the countryside.
An estimated 287 million people in China are migrant workers. To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of the entire populations of Germany, Britain, France and Italy leaving their homes in search of work elsewhere.
Many Chinese migrant workers leave their homes in the poorer countryside to fill jobs in factories in the Pearl or Yangtze River deltas, or other lower-skilled jobs such as restaurant help and cleaners in the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Drone-flying is just one example of the growing number of new occupations created by the worldwide gig economy. The popularity of ride-sharing gave rise to the Didi driver (Uber or Lyft driver in the US), while on-demand services apps like Alibaba Group’s Ele.me and Meituan Dianping have created employment for armies of food deliverers.
These jobs typically offer more freedom than the traditional factory job, where workers are rooted to a spot for hours. That has created pressure on manufacturers to find enough workers for their plants.
“Chinese millennials and post-millennials have higher education and are willing to job-hop in search of higher pay and more freedom,” said Zhang Ying, a recruiter in Dongguan, a manufacturing hub in China’s south. “It is a headache for all manufacturers, and not easily solved because the government wants to reduce its reliance on low-end manufacturing and transform the economy to a tech-driven one.”