Students in their final year at Zhongshan University in Guangzhou have no doubts where they would like to work following their graduation this summer. They have spent the past few months vying for jobs as trainees in the thousands of international companies operating in China. Few will be as successful as student union leader Jackie Ou Yang, who was offered jobs in marketing by several of the most sought-after multinationals. Most will have to use their connections to find the best jobs available in local companies. Today, the big-name companies are recruiting trainees on the mainland in the same way as they do in Hong Kong or the West. They visit the universities in the spring and compete for the cream of the crop. The process, though, is a revolution from how these students' predecessors found jobs. A decade ago they did not choose. They were assigned. Now, the best students vie to join the companies with the best career prospects. But these students are not only in hot competition with each other. In a few years they will be holding the management jobs in joint ventures now prized by Hong Kong senior and middle managers. While there are growing concerns about Hong Kong's declining competitiveness in the region, Hong Kong's graduates and future managers must also face the reality of the increasing abilities of mainlanders. Mr Ou and his classmates studying international trade and finance have English skills at least equal those of Hong Kong students. This group has fluent English. Localisation is the plan of all major foreign companies in China. As they succeed, they will need to employ fewer and fewer 'Hong Kong expatriates' who require higher salaries and living expenses - at least double the packages given to mainland managers. In the past 20 years, the mainland has been a major source of employment for the Hong Kong managers able to act as a bridge between East and West. But not for much longer. Antonio Cheung, director of recruitment specialists Deloitte and Touche Consulting Group, said: 'The most junior management positions have already been taken over by the mainland Chinese. For middle management, in the past two to three years we have started seeing the effect on the Hong Kong Chinese. The mainlanders are catching up, especially university graduates from the big cities. They have taken up a substantial percentage of positions from Hong Kong people.' By 2000 more locals would be moving into senior management and 70 to 80 per cent of middle management posts in foreign companies would be taken by mainlanders, he said. 'If the mainlanders can change their mentality and adopt Western management style, Hong Kong people will face a major threat,' he said. 'Year by year it is going to be more difficult for them. They have to take more initiative in their self-development and go for region-wide experience, not just focus on the PRC.' Hong Kong people would not only lose out in jobs on the mainland, but Hong Kong too, said Mr Cheung. For many Hong Kong-based companies it made sense to hire mainlanders to work in Hong Kong and develop their business, because of their mainland knowledge and language skills. Max Lummig, chief executive of Executive Access, said the most-prized senior executives were mainlanders who had spent years studying and working abroad. 'Eight years ago a large proportion of the Chinese talent employed in China was from Hong Kong. We are now seeing a gradual switch to a local talent base. There are already a lot of executives returned from abroad. But now there are more and more mainland-grown managers. This is where the big change is.' The self-confident Mr Ou has obvious corporate leadership potential. As well as being head of the student union, he runs the university radio station and is among the top students in his class. From the many job offers he received, he has decided the marketing department at Procter and Gamble (China) offered him the best career prospects. 'P and G is the first choice for marketing,' said Mr Ou. 'It is prized as its marketing managers can be very powerful. My course has prepared me well for this. One of our teachers was particularly open minded. She encouraged us to think in new ways and to ask questions.' Procter and Gamble, like most international companies in China, is powering ahead with its policy of training young Chinese. It does not look to Hong Kong as a source of recruitment, but to the best universities on the mainland. The same is true of other international employers in China. When Mr Ou starts work at Procter and Gamble, he will be put through the company's internal training programme and gain work experience abroad. Yvonne Pei, a spokeswoman for the company in Guangzhou, said: 'The people here are very bright. They now have very good test scores, as well as interview results. Even though the school system is different from the Western system, students are encouraged to participate in a lot of activities. There are plenty of opportunities for them to develop the sort of leadership skills we require.' Fanny Cheung Haiyen, Mr Ou's classmate, performed successfully in interviews with American company Wal-Mart. 'The reason we want to join foreign companies is because they have perfected the market economic system. We would not get such training in state companies,' she said. She will spend 20 weeks on a corporate training programme. 'Everything will depend on my performance. But I could be a middle manager within 1.5 years if I do well.' While foreign companies have found it difficult to work with mainland-trained middle and senior management who have spent years following bureaucratic communist practices in state-run enterprises, they are more satisfied with the abilities of the best graduates, who they put through their own training schemes. Competition for the best jobs is intense. The Zhongshan students say only a minority in their classes are being offered jobs by foreign companies. Andrew Wan Zhiliang failed to find one. He will join a state trading company instead. 'If you want a good job it is not easy,' he said. 'I was recruited by this company because my friend's mother works there.' Benny Qiu Bingzhe was determined to join a foreign company. Finding a job, though, was a more nail-biting experience than he had expected. Although he finally received several offers, he tasted rejection first. But he would still prefer this intense competition than being assigned to a job without choice, he said. He has accepted an offer with Price Waterhouse, the company he now believes will most suit him. 'We have much better opportunities than students did before.'