LA Times: China's new college graduates struggle to put their skills to work

19 August 2013

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher

By Julie Makinen
August 18, 2013

BEIJING — Li Sha, 23 and with a fresh college degree in waste water management, meandered tentatively through the Saturday job fair at the China International Exhibition Center.

She passed booths advertising vacancies for software whiz kids, Sichuan restaurant cooks, writers for the glossy monthly Wives of Servicemen. But even in a nation with staggering air and water quality issues, there was nothing that jumped out for a college grad with her expertise.

"I just want to find a position that matches my knowledge," said Li, who added that she'd accept a salary as low as $330 a month, roughly 25% above minimum wage. "But it's rare, and it's even harder as a woman to get hired in this field."

Nearly 7 million students are graduating from college in China this year, the biggest class on record and up from just 2.12 million a decade ago. But the nation's economy is slowing — some analysts predict GDP growth will drop below the government's 7.5% target this year — and that has led to a decline in the number of jobs requiring college degrees. Now many graduates like Li are finding their training ill-matched to the openings.

By some accounts, the unemployment rate for Chinese college graduates age 21 to 25 is 16%, nearly four times that of blue-collar workers. An Education Ministry survey of 500 firms found that employers had trimmed the number of jobs available for new hires this year by about 15%. In Beijing, an estimated 98,000 jobs are available for the 229,000 new graduates, a city education committee study found.

"The manufacturing sector is still seeing labor shortages," said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based research group. But many college graduates in major cities are ending up taking poorly paid jobs in areas such as telemarketing or real estate sales, he said, "and often these wages are lower than a factory worker in Shenzhen."

The average wage for college graduates in 2012 was $461 a month, barely 20% higher than the $381 figure for migrant workers, as calculated by the National Bureau of Statistics.

In Li's case, she chose an environment-related major three years ago because she thought it would be a sure-fire way to get a job, perhaps with a company doing pollution reports or making monitoring equipment. But she said that only 10% of her classmates at the Environmental Management College of China had found work through recruiters visiting her school in the city of Qinghuangdao before graduation in June.

China's leaders, including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang, say the nation needs to focus more on "quality" growth that will create better jobs. But economists say that to do so the government must direct more support toward small and medium enterprises and find the political will to divert resources from state-owned behemoths.

"In the last five to six years, job creation has been mostly in the private sector or from joint ventures, while state-owned enterprises don't create many jobs," said Zhao Zhong, a professor of economics at People's University. "But state-owned enterprises still get favorable treatment, like access to loans."

Cai Jiming, an economist at Tsinghua University, said China's education system has not yet adapted to the demands of the market. "We need less pure academic and theoretical studies and more practical training, combining vocational training with university education."

At the same time, Zhao said, authorities must establish micro-lending programs to encourage new graduates to become entrepreneurs. He also believes the government should develop incentives for grads to take jobs outside of Beijing and Shanghai, where the demand for their expertise is higher.

Wang Xu, 23, who studied packaging design at Shaanxi University of Science and Technology in Xian, 700 miles southwest of Beijing, signed a short-term employment contract this spring with a manufacturer near Xiamen, a city on the southeastern coast.

Some schools, seeking to goose their job placement statistics, demand that students produce such employment contracts before they can receive their diplomas. That's led enterprising types to offer fake contracts for sale online. On the Taobao shopping site, $15 will get you an official-looking certificate and even phone support if school officials call to verify the document's validity.

Though Wang's job was real, he was disappointed that it was in an inconvenient location and paid only $250 a month. "It costs $333 to fly back to my hometown near Beijing," he said, so he quit and came to the Saturday job fair to look for work.

The bleak outlook has prompted some graduates to strike out on their own in fields that hardly require a degree. State-run media have published articles about diploma holders working as nannies, maids, clowns, masseurs, butchers, cattle ranchers, noodle makers, furniture movers — even cleaners of public toilets.

Lai Zhangping, 28, graduated from Huaqiao University in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, but this year he opened a stall with two friends on the streets of Shanghai selling barbecued pig's feet.

After graduation, Lai had taken a quality-control position with a Taiwanese company, earning $500 a month. But he quit, he said, because he felt that as a mainlander, he had little chance of getting promoted beyond middle management.

"Surviving in the city is hard; inflation is high and the salary is not enough," he said. "I'm young, I wanted to be adventurous while I could."

Lai and his friends opted for pig's feet because it didn't require much start-up capital. They take in $3,300 to $5,000 a month, he said, peddling the feet for about $1.15 each. He doesn't worry about those who ask why a college graduate would stoop to selling trotters on the sidewalk.

"I don't feel any shame. I'm using my hard work to make money," he said, adding that since his stand was featured in the Shanghai press, he's gotten hundreds of inquiries about franchising the business.

Many other graduates — and their parents — still hold out hope for a job in a state-run enterprise or government office.

Guo Yaran, 22, was strolling around the Beijing job fair with her mother, Zhang Jiping, a 51-year-old accountant.

Asked what kind of job she wanted, Guo, who had just received her bachelor's degree in marketing, said, "I'm really looking for anything," adding that she'd be happy with a salary of $330 a month.

Quickly, her mother interrupted. "As a parent, I don't expect my daughter to get paid a lot, but I want her to get the five benefits," Zhang said, referring to medical, unemployment, retirement, housing and other social security perks that typically come with jobs in the state sector. "Also, I don't want her to work overtime, and no weekends."

"Private companies sometimes have more opportunity for young people, but still, I want something stable for my daughter," she said. "And as a parent, I expect my daughter to stay in Beijing, though I guess if she found something really great elsewhere I wouldn't stop her."

To which Guo interjected: "I don't think you'd let me go."

Because she's still living with her parents, Guo said, she wasn't under intense pressure to take the first job she is offered.

"But I don't plan to wait too long," she said. "Because right behind me, I know there's another class of graduates coming along."

Tommy Yang and Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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