Top of the class?

Graduate unemployment worries Chinese leaders


An uncertain future

Jane Huang, a 23 year-old accountancy student from Guangxi, has two groups of friends. Both are graduating at the same time as her this month. The first group is made up of the five girls Huang shares a dorm with at Beijing Forestry University. The second includes the five high-school classmates who travelled up to Beijing with her four years ago to start at other universities in the capital.

Of the latter group Huang is the only one to have found a job after graduation. Of the former group she is the only one to have got a job without parents pulling strings.

“This year is difficult,” she told WiC this week. “I am lucky.”

Huang is feeling fortuitous because she knows the odds are against her. She is graduating in the largest batch of students ever.

Close to seven million university students will leave their campuses this month and most want to enter the workforce immediately.

The problem is that there just aren’t enough degree-level jobs to go around. At least 600,000 odd graduates from last year still haven’t found employment too.

Worse, with the economy slowing there are fewer new jobs being created.

MyCOS, a Chinese education consultancy, says the number of graduates who had signed employment contracts by May 1 was down 12% compared to the same period last year. Similarly bleak, the People’s Daily cited an academic from the Shanghai Social Science Youth Research Centre as saying that corporate demand for graduates was down around 15% from last year.

“It’s all my friends talk about at the moment,” says Huang.

A quick look at Sina Weibo bears this out. A count of the number of posts containing the words ‘graduate jobs’ runs into millions, with many of the comments bemoaning the time and money spent on getting a degree for no obvious benefit.

“I have worked for four years but the average monthly salary is Rmb2,000. How can I survive?” wrote one man from Guangdong.

“As one of those 7 million graduates the pressure on me is as big as a mountain. I want to cry,” posted a female student from Jilin province.

China’s leaders have been making a special effort to show a little solidarity with the graduating class. Last month Xi Jinping made an unannounced visit to a student job fair in Tianjin and Li Keqiang used a meeting of the State Council to call on companies to create more opportunities for those leaving university.

Li also said the government needs to reduce more of the obstacles to people starting their own businesses.

“The employment of the graduate class affects economic development, the improvement of living standards and social stability,” warned a central government document issued ahead of the State Council meeting presided over by the premier.

After 6 months, 200 job applications and 30 interviews, it was a private company that finally hired Huang. She says part of the reason she succeeded was that she started to use English language websites to look for work, where the ads were more focused on her skills and less on her personal background.

As a woman, Huang’s search was also more difficult. Various media sources have reported that women and those without a local hukou (the urban household registration permit) are finding it particularly hard to find jobs this year. One cartoon doing the rounds on weibo shows two tiny people trying to jump onto a giant office chair. “Must be male, more than 1.70 metres tall and a local person” are scrawled down the chair leg.

China’s job market seems to be diverging. At one end of the scale the drive to expand higher education is running into problems, especially that the economy is not producing enough graduate-entry jobs to soak up the new students. But as WiC has also reported, coastal factories are finding it tougher to recruit and retain manual workers. That’s more a result of China’s demographic shift and social change, both of which are shrinking the available pool of migrant workers.

Hence the paradoxical problem of unemployment in some areas of the economy but a shortage of labour in others.

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