Graduating to the frantic job hunt
A visit to a recruitment fair does little to lift the spirits of most of the youngsters there.
With barely space to move and queues that go around the corner at the most popular recruiters, there is a general sense that the competition is just too much to overcome.
This is hardly surprising, given that the number of people graduating in China annually has increased sixfold in a decade and this year reached a record 6.6 million.
With China looking to move up the value chain and cast aside its role as the world's producer of cheap goods, higher education is crucial in the transition from imitator to innovator.
Expansion of higher education is "an essential part of the economic growth plan", says Tom Miller, a managing editor at the financial consultancy GK Dragonomics in Beijing.
"A prerequisite is to have the right kind of graduates," he says. "It's part of the bigger attempt to push China from being a poor developing country to being a middle-income, successful economy. It's part of a much, much grander strategy."
But the transformation of China's economy has not taken place fast enough to create a sufficient number of graduate-level jobs for the vast numbers who believe they should be able to find interesting, well-paid jobs after four years of study.
The positions available often fail to match the expectations of those leaving university, especially among arts graduates who are said to face a particular problem of oversupply.
"It's not very hard to find a normal full-time job, but if you want to find something that's enjoyable, it's very difficult," says Yang Wei, 23, an economics and management graduate from Beijing.
Mr Miller says those with degrees from such institutions as Tsinghua University in Beijing or Jiaotong University in Shanghai are still able to secure top positions. But the masses who attended less prominent institutions often struggle. At many of these universities, student numbers have rocketed without corresponding increases in teaching staff numbers.
"The vast majority of students are in much lower-quality universities. Often, they're pretty poor quality," Mr Miller says.
So many graduates are caught up in poorly remunerated jobs that a term has been coined for them: the ant tribe. They tend to live in cheap, cramped lodgings far from city centres.
New graduates are not just competing with each other for work, but also with those who left university in previous years.
The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences found that about 12 per cent of graduates remained out of work the year after completing their studies, compared with a 4 per cent unemployment rate for the rest of the population.
As a result, many 2010 university graduates are still looking for their first jobs, while others are hoping to upgrade after taking less-than-ideal work.
Many graduates from previous years try to get better jobs by sitting the civil service examination. This year, a record 1.4 million sat the exam, with just 16,000 positions available.
The struggle to find suitable employment can be so dispiriting that there have been reports of suicides. In one case from 2009, a 21-year-old woman, Liu Wei, from Hebei province near Beijing, drowned herself in a ditch after failing to find a job before she graduated. The Shanghai authorities have said suicide is the biggest cause of death among students.
To get a coveted, high-quality job, graduates often need to bolster their resumes with internships or additional qualifications.
Gan Xiangxiang, 22, has just completed his degree in electronic systems engineering at Yanshan University in Hebei province and is going to France to study for a master's degree.
"After I graduate from France, I should be able to get a higher salary in China. If you graduate from one of the top 10 schools it's OK, otherwise it's very difficult," he says.
Instead of getting a second degree, another solution is for students to pitch themselves at what might be considered a lower level by undergoing additional vocational training.
Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor in the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University, says there is a "critical bottleneck" because of a lack of people with "practical or technical or vocational" skills.
Unfortunately, he says many companies in China have been reluctant to invest in vocational education because of high staff turnover, and there are still relatively few colleges.
"You had a dramatic expansion in college education over the past 10 years. You haven't seen that dramatic expansion with the vocational training," he says. "That's where the real need is growing. That's where the job market is. It's middle managers, it's literate and numerate people with middle-level job skills."
Well aware of the prospect that disaffected graduates could threaten China's much-vaunted "social stability", the central government has moved to try to improve opportunities.
Graduates are being encouraged to take low-level government jobs with the promise of being fast-tracked through the system.
Also, there are tax cuts and loans for university leavers who start their own businesses. The State Council, China's cabinet, recently announced loans of up to 100,000 yuan (Dh57,020) and an annual 8,000 yuan reduction in taxes for the first three years for people who launch their own companies.
Mr Miller believes, however, the issue of graduate unemployment should not be exaggerated. In any country, a proportion of graduates will remain unemployed six months or a year after finishing their studies.
"Sometimes the problems are overstated," he says. "The question is, how long do they remain unemployed? I don't think there's any evidence there's a chronic problem of graduates remaining unemployed for many years.
"It takes some time [to find a job], and it's disturbing for people and their parents, parents who didn't go to university and expect their sons and daughters to get wonderful jobs immediately. Eventually they will find jobs."
Published: August 1, 2011 04:00 AM