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updated 3/16/2010 4:13:04 PM ET 2010-03-16T20:13:04

Factory worker Chen Qinghai frowned as he looked at a tall bulletin board full of help-wanted notices from companies making everything from photocopiers and DVD drives to mobile phones and car parts.

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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."

A skinny man with a Bruce Lee-style hairdo and spiky sideburns, 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.

"Only small and medium-size companies are having difficulties recruiting people," said the union official, Deng Weilong. "We are asking small- and medium-size companies to create a good work environment."

Many factories are apparently getting the message. Wages have risen by 10 percent recently in the Pearl River Delta, according to a survey released this month by Stephen Green and Kelvin Lau, economists at Standard Chartered.

The salary hikes are unlikely to lift the prices of Chinese exports high enough to make factories in the U.S. and the rest of the West more competitive. Chinese factories tend to slice profit margins to hold on to market share. They may also cut production costs by automating or moving to interior provinces where labor is cheaper.

For Chinese workers, a bigger paycheck might inspire them to shop more, which could be good news for Western companies trying to sell more to Chinese consumers.

For Chen, salaries are still too low.

"It's my understanding that our wages are the lowest in the world," he said. "Jobs are easy to find here, but good ones are rare."

American David Levy, who runs a factory making electric cables in Dongguan, has witnessed the generational shift in China's work force. He described the first waves of migrants, who planned to send most of their money home and eventually return to their village to build a house.

"Fifteen years ago, the expectation was: a place to work, a salary and then they didn't care much about anything else. Life was just going to suck for a couple of years," he said.

Photos of his factory workers from five years ago document the generational change. None show workers with the wild mop-top hairstyles that are popular now, he said.

"Their demeanor is also different," Levy added. "They can actually look the boss in the eye when they're talking. They don't cower when the boss comes around. They're becoming more and more like American workers. I like that."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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