Why Chinese College Graduates Aren't Getting Jobs

Despite a still-thriving economy, university graduates struggle to overcome an employment market increasingly skewed to the well-born and the well-connected.
jobfair.jpgJob seekers crowd stalls at a job fair in Beijing, China. (Greg Baker/AP)

The term "hardest job-hunting season in history" has become a buzzword in China recently. According to China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 6.99 million students will be graduating institutions of higher education this year, a record high since the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

This intimidating number is inextricably tied with discussion of another pressing issue: the employment rate of college graduates. The latest statistics released by Beijing Municipal Commission of Education show that only 33.6 percent of college graduates in Beijing have signed employment contracts, up 5 percent from April. Meanwhile, a recent report by Tecent-Mycos reveals that college graduates face gloomy employment prospects.

"I just can't figure out why it's so hard to get a job this year," said Miranda Zhang, who is graduating from a university in Beijing. "I feel desperate --campus recruitment is competitive, with dozens of people competing for one position, while HR offices out in the real world usually disregard graduating students because we do not have any prior work experience."

This has not always been the case. Before the financial crisis in 2008, economic prospects for China and Chinese students were a lot better. Businesses were expanding, new companies were emerging, and thus hordes of new employees were needed. However, as China's growth has slowed to 7.5 percent this year, businesses, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises, are showing signs of shrinking. The numbers show that Miranda is not alone in her worries -- the total number of job openings is down 15 percent from 2012.

As Chinese college students come face to face with these gloomy prospects, complaints or expressions of disappointment have grown in online communities such as Sina Weibo (a Twitter-like service), Renren (a Facebook-like service) and Douban (an IMDB-like website for users with shared interests in movies, books, and music).

One of the most common complaints is the unfairness recent graduates have experienced in the job interview process. In fact, a lack of transparency or the use of guanxi (connections) is particularly evident in competition for jobs at state-owned enterprises or in civil service -- these positions are considered much more stable and better-paying than other jobs in China.

Sara Wang, a journalism student at Wuhan University, described what she thought to be unfair competition for a job at Chinese National Radio. She stated that she made it all the way through the resume selection process and written exams to the last round of interviews, but was eliminated during the physical examination. She speculated that someone else used guanxi to get the job, but was unable to prove that this had been the case. Perhaps that is why Weibo user @我是千里驴 proposed that to solve the problem of unemployment, "the essential thing to do is to ensure the transparency and fairness of the employment process."

Some attributed the large-scale unemployment to the college students themselves. Netizen @穿心莲籽 wrote:

How can you satisfy a bunch of poor college students who have grandiose aims but puny abilities? What they want is a job that does not require much labor, in which they do not need to expose themselves to the elements, one with high social status and a high salary, where they can play games while they are at work and attend social gatherings while they are off work; in other words, a "golden rice-bowl" job within the system. [College students] think that with their educational achievements, they do not belong to the working class anymore and that they deserve a white-collar job at the very least. No wonder they cannot get a job.

While this is true to some extent, a larger proportion of people held the government responsible for the unemployment problem. In fact, the public has long criticized Chinese colleges' blind expansion.

Weibo user @M3MStudio mused:

The Ministry of Education is responsible for maintaining the employment rate -- isn't that ridiculous?" "The Ministry of Education should feel guilty because students nowadays cannot make full use of what they learn in college, and what they learn in college is useless in their careers. Colleges are like companies; teachers are like bosses; and students have become nothing but tools for colleges and teachers to compete for fame and profit. The education system in mainland China has collapsed.

Despite such gloom, Xu Mei, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Education, suggested that the employment rate and the number of graduating students signing employment contracts would increase greatly in June. At the same time, Xu also affirmed that the Ministry would act to ensure that the employment rate of college graduates would not decrease, a statement to which netizens responded with some derision.

Weibo user @寻找LostMyself wrote, "The Ministry of Education's prediction will be realized with 100 percent success, because this is what they are best at. I believe every graduate knows the real deal with the so-called employment contract signing rate!"


This post also appears at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.

Lotus Yuen is a Beijing-based writer and editorial intern at Ifeng.com. She has written for Southern Metropolis Daily, New Business Magazine, and Hong Kong Independent Media.

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