SHANGHAI — Zhou Xiaobu runs from one end of a table to another, grasping a piece of a puzzle she and her team are assembling as part of a leadership training exercise for McDonald's Corp. managers.
"Go, go, go," yells their Taiwanese teacher, exhorting them to work for the prize, a box of Danish butter cookies, for being the first to build the company's trademark Golden Arches. Above their heads is a sign that reads: "Learning today, leading tomorrow." The thick green binders stuffed with paperwork on each of the 31 students' desks indicate the next activity may not be as rousing.
This is McDonald's Hamburger University in China, and it can be harder to get into than Harvard.
"I'm thrilled and proud to attend Hamburger University," said Zhou, who in 2007 started as a management trainee in the central Chinese city of Changsha, a job for which she and seven others were among 1,000 applicants. That's a selection rate of less than 1 percent, lower than Harvard University's record low acceptance rate last year of about 7 percent, according to the school's official newspaper.
To get to the training center, Zhou competed with 43 other workers at her store to be made first assistant manager. She didn't pay any tuition; it cost McDonald's about $1,520 to put her through the five-day course.
The world's biggest restaurant operator moved the training center from Hong Kong last year as it expands in mainland China, where its market share is less than half of KFC owner Yum Brands. McDonald's opened a record 165 restaurants in 2010 and will accelerate that growth this year to meet its goal of 1,000 new outlets in the four years through 2013.
The school last year trained 1,000 of the almost 70,000 employees McDonald's has in mainland China, a region that doesn't include Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan.
An additional 4,000 people will attend classes at the training center through 2014, said Susanna Li, the head of the training center. The classrooms are equipped for simultaneous translation into English, Mandarin and Cantonese to accommodate students from Hong Kong and teachers from overseas.
"We'll make sure the people pipeline is ready," Li said. "Having the school here in China helps us provide training faster than sending students to Hong Kong."
Total sales for fast-food chains in China rose 12 percent last year, according to London-based researcher Euromonitor International. Yum's restaurants, which include Pizza Huts as well as KFCs serving fried chicken alongside Chinese dishes, accounted for 40 percent while McDonald's had 16 percent, the researcher said.
McDonald's set up its first Hamburger University in Elk Grove Village, Ill., in 1961 to train managers as well as franchise owners. McDonald's Chief Executive Officer Jim Skinner, who was paid $17.6 million in 2009, started as a management trainee in 1971 after serving in the Navy.
Getting into the school is competitive because more than 26 percent of China's 6.3 million college graduates were unemployed as of July 1, according to the Ministry of Education. That compares with a 4.2 percent unemployment rate for China's urban workforce, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.