People at a job fair
EDUCATION

How a Fiercely Competitive Job Market is Forcing Graduates to Change Their Plans

China’s record number of new graduates seek employment or further study by any means

Hao Yijun had put off the moment for as long as she could, but it was finally time to take the plunge. In 2019, instead of entering the workforce after her bachelor’s degree, she’d started a master’s program at Shanghai International Studies University for “a sense of security.” But with another graduation imminent this year, she was faced with a decision: either accepting a job offer from a foreign company trading in consumer goods, or becoming a public school teacher.

This situation is hardly unique—ever since China introduced market reforms in the 1980s, generations of students have had to make a choice between the public and private sector, with youngsters usually attracted to the fast-paced, highly paid environment of the latter while their parents preferred the stability of the former. Yet for new graduates this year, this calculus has never been so fraught with risk, and is being turned on its head: Many are seeking the most stable job possible, or any job at all.

As of May this year, the unemployment rate for workers aged 16 to 24 is at 18.4 percent, the highest proportion since authorities began publishing that data in 2018, and up from 14.3 percent in December last year. Covid restrictions have curtailed economic growth in some of China’s biggest cities, including Shanghai, while China is seeing a record number of 10.76 million graduating university and college students this year.

Hao, who wished to use a pseudonym for this story, tells TWOC she eventually gave up the job offer from the private sector, even though it was more highly paid. “There has been a lot of news about layoffs, so if you go to a private company you have to accept that you’ll be moving jobs; it’s difficult to stay in a company for life. Working within the ‘system’ is still relatively stable,” she says, referring to the public sector, and stressing again that it gave her “a sense of security.” According to a report by recruitment platform Zhaopin published last month, 54 percent of this year’s graduates want a job in the public sector, compared to 40 percent in 2019.

Others are seeking refuge in further study, even outside China’s borders. Grace Gao is graduating from her undergraduate course at Tianjin Foreign Studies University, but instead of accepting a full-time post at an artificial intelligence company in Beijing, where she is currently completing an internship, she intends to go to Malaysia to get a master’s degree in September. “Originally, I just wanted to work after graduation,” Gao tells TWOC, but “I feel like all the good, valuable jobs were taken already last autumn…most companies now also ask people for experience abroad.”

Interviews at an international job fair in Hangzhou in 2020

Interviews take place at a job fair in Hangzhou in 2020 (VCG)

With competition so intense, new graduates are doing whatever they can to get ahead. Those like Hao, with degrees from China’s top universities, at least have the luxury of a famous school name to fall back on. Those at lesser institutions are often rejected without interview: “The good companies all prioritize graduates from top schools, a lot of the time we can’t even get past the CV stage,” Xu Yun, a finance graduate from Harbin who took and failed the postgraduate exam last year, and still hasn’t succeeded in finding a job, told the media platform Zairenjian Living this month.

Xu was a graduate from a so-called “second tier” or erben (二本) university, and told Zairenjian that the only job offers she received after graduation were from electronics factories or in sales. Even these jobs, Zairenjian found, were also becoming competitive, with postgraduate students settling for them and making an erben degree even less valuable. Xu eventually decided to take an exam for a government poverty-reduction program that sends fresh graduates to poor regions to work in education, farming, medicine, and other fields, but even there, there are thousands of people signing up for 20 to 30 positions per county. Similarly, Yang Jingyu, another erben graduate from Harbin, told WeChat media account Perpetual Light Studio that she was being squeezed out of the job market by top class university students above, and vocational college graduates from below who have more technical skills to apply to specific industries.

Graduates from vocational or technical colleges, considered far less prestigious than undergraduate institutions, are also faced with fierce competition in some industries. But, perhaps counter-intuitively, some of them are well-placed to benefit from gaps in the manufacturing industry. A report by CCTV in December last year described a large shortage of workers in China’s manufacturing sector, with ten key industries likely to have a shortfall of 30 million workers by 2025. Sun Zhijuan, director of the Shenzhen Institute of Technology’s laser research department, told CCTV that every student graduating from her program had already received two to four job offers. While undergraduates overwhelmingly seek white-collar office jobs, leading to an oversupply of workers, there may be more opportunities for skilled technical workers.

While some graduates prioritize stability over pay or career growth prospects, others are postponing entering the job market as long as possible. A report by 58.com, an online employment platform, found that 20 percent of graduates did not want to go into employment straight away after graduation. Education consultancy Mycos has found that the proportion of graduates going on to postgraduate studies increased by 13 percent from 2019 to 2021. In December last year, a record number of 4.57 million students took the postgraduate studies entrance exam, 800,000 more than the previous cohort. Even vocational college graduates are seeking to stay in education in increasing numbers: In 2019, 7.6 percent of vocational college graduates took the exam required to upgrade to a bachelor’s course, but that increased to 19.3 percent in 2021, according to Mycos.

A survey of 368 students in Shenzhen by Liu Chengbin, the deputy head of the social sciences department at Huazhong Technology University in Wuhan, found that “under the pandemic situation, university students’ employment values are clearly moving toward jobs ’within the system,’” more are looking for stability from their employment, and more graduates willing to leave big cities to pursue public sector employment. According to Mycos, another record 2.12 million sat China’s civil servant exam in winter 2021, a 35 percent increase from the year before. Even there, however, entry-level jobs are inundated with highly educated university graduate candidates: This year, 24 entry-level posts in Suichang county in Zhejiang province, were filled by four PhDs, 19 master’s graduates, and one bachelor’s graduate. Technical college graduates have it even worse: Southern Weekly newspaper reported in May that the head of Guizhou Vocational College of Industry and Commerce in Guiyang had to plead with a local hospital to accept his school’s nursing graduates, since the hospital’s job posts this year asked for applicants to have a bachelor degree.

The wave of undergraduates flocking to postgraduate studies and the public sector comes as many private businesses are cutting back on hiring. Sun Xiaoming, an employee at a technology company in Shanghai who handled graduate job applications this spring, tells TWOC that his company advertised 50 positions to graduates in 2021, but only 10 this year. Last year, those positions were open to both undergraduates and postgraduates, but this year they required postgraduates only. When asked the reasons, Sun replies, simply, “the pandemic.”

Jinan University’s 2022 graduation ceremony

This year’s graduates face a difficult future in the job market (VCG)

Though the pandemic is a novel challenge to this year’s job market, the struggle of job hunting for China’s university graduates has been growing ever since the country began massively expanding university places in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The number of graduates has hit a new record every year since 2000. In April 2013, around 70 percent of that year’s graduates were yet to find a job, and in the same year, Qiang Wang, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote in Nature magazine that “many young Chinese people with a degree are in jobs that do not require one.”

Popular industries for graduates have also suffered set backs over the last year. The internet and technology sector (a favorite among graduates, with 22 percent of this year’s cohort hoping to work for internet companies according to 58.com), for example, suffered a downturn recently as regulatory crackdowns contributed to many of China’s tech giants laying off workers or scaling back departments. Technology media platform Technode estimated that 73,000 tech employees were laid off from July 2021 to April this year. Similarly, the real estate sector is cooling off, with new rules introduced last year to regulate the amount of borrowing companies can undertake, and the country’s largest property developer Evergrande Group defaulting on debts. Airline hiring has been decimated by restrictions on travel and the hospitality industry: When Kunming Airlines eventually opened 10 job postings for fresh graduates this year, they received over 1,500 applicants.

Some local governments have taken action to arrest the employment crunch. Fuzhou, the capital of Fujian province, is offering free room and board for graduates from other parts of the country who accept jobs or internships in the city, while Liaoning province now offers six months of free vocational training classes for recent graduates from the last three years on subjects like digital media creation, interior design, and electronic vehicle repairs, to improve their employability. Shanghai announced state-owned enterprises should make 50 percent of their new employees fresh graduates. China’s State Council also announced in May it would offer subsidies to companies that hire fresh graduates, while in February the National Development and Reform Commission announced tax breaks and low-interest loans for recent graduates that set up their own businesses. The Ministry of Education has even called on high-level administrators in universities to find jobs for their students.

Some companies have also benefited from current trends. Liu Peipei, an HR manager at a finance company in Beijing explains that her company easily filled up 10 open positions this spring, eight of which were filled by new graduates from overseas universities, as students concerned about the stability of the internet sector are now considering finance. She also noticed more applicants seeking to relocate from Shanghai this year, which she attributes to the Covid outbreak in the city.

Liu also notes a changing trend in graduates who apply for her company: “graduates in the last two years…increasingly understand what job they want to do, and they are clearer about their future [career] direction.” In the past, Liu claims, many young job-hunters were attracted to whichever industry was hot that year. “They just wanted to break into that industry…many people didn’t think clearly what kind of direction was suitable for them, what kind of work they suited, so they would just enter out of curiosity, then maybe take a few detours, and re-plan their career [later].” In the last two years, “they have developed their own interests very early…they are actually quite clear about their goals.”

Gao’s parents would prefer her to get a stable job “like something in the government, or a teacher.” But she isn’t sure even if she will return to China after studying abroad, due to Covid restrictions. For Hao, though the public sector wasn’t originally what she intended for her life, she feels that teaching could become a meaningful career, and is optimistic about the future: “After so many years of studying, I’ll be happy to get working. I can finally make some money.”

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Sam Davies is the deputy managing editor at The World of Chinese. He writes mainly about society, sport, and culture, with his pieces touching on diverse topics from the future of China’s ski industry to efforts to prevent juvenile crime.

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