GUANGZHOU, China — Factory worker Chen Qinghai frowned as he looked at a tall bulletin board full of help-wanted notices from companies making photocopiers, DVD drives, mobile phones and car parts.
The 19-year-old saw nothing that interested him.
"I wouldn't want to do any of these jobs," he said. "The pay is too low, and there's no chance of advancement. You'd just be stuck there."
Chen is part of the reason many factory bosses in southern China's Pearl River Delta — the nation's biggest manufacturing base — are complaining about a severe shortage of workers. Their anxiety runs particularly high at this time of year, because migrant workers have just spent a few weeks in their home provinces for the Lunar New Year and may not return to their jobs.
There are many reasons for the worker shortage in once-booming coastal regions like the Pearl River Delta. Farm-friendly policies are keeping many people on the land, while other migrants are finding jobs closer to home as poor interior provinces become more prosperous. Infrastructure projects funded by China's massive economic stimulus package have also attracted workers.
But another key reason is the changing labor force: More than half of China's working-age population is made up of laborers such as Chen, young people born in the 1980s and 1990s.
Their attitudes and expectations are vastly different from those of their parents, who hunkered down on assembly lines for little pay and helped turn China into a manufacturing juggernaut. Many younger workers won't do the sweatshop jobs their parents did. They grew up with greater prosperity in families limited by the one-child policy. They are more used to getting their way.
"It's true that we're less willing to eat bitterness," Chen said with a chuckle, using a popular Chinese phrase for enduring hardship. "We're better educated. We know we have rights. Times have changed."
Chen comes from a village outside the city of Shaoguan, in the less developed part of northern Guangdong province. He went to a vocational high school and got his first job two years ago in the city of Shenzhen, earning 800 yuan ($120) a month at a factory that made satellite dishes. After a few months, he quit to work at an auto parts plant in nearby Dongguan city for 1,000 yuan a month.
"The conditions in those factories was awful," he said. "We got paid a fixed salary and couldn't earn overtime."
Chen said his dream is to work for a company that offers him a future. He wants to build on his technical skills in a stable position that allows him to advance each year.
Officials have been denying that there is a serious labor shortage. The issue was raised during the ongoing meetings of the national legislature, the National People's Congress, in Beijing. A top union official from Guangdong told reporters large companies and those with good working conditions weren't facing shortages.