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China's surge of college graduates finds white-collar work elusive

A heavily blue-collar economy and the global financial crisis have made it tough for graduates, whose numbers have risen sharply.

By Carol HuangStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2009

Hire Me: Some 40,000 job-seekers peddled résumés at a December job fair in Beijing. The financial crisis and a still blue-collar economy has forced college grads to adjust expectations.

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As if college seniors hadn't watched their job prospects sink low enough.

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Students from Guangdong Province, China's wealthiest region, are so desperate for work they're applying for jobs as nannies – and getting rejected, a local paper reported last month.

It's probably not what young people had in mind as they slogged through years of tough exams, buoyed by the new emphasis on higher education and the prospect of white-collar employment in a booming China.

Some 6.1 million grads are expected to flood the job market this year – joining the 27 percent of last year's diploma-holders who still haven't found work. Instead, they're finding deserted job fairs, hiring freezes, and salaries that migrant workers might expect. Confronted by global recession and a heavily blue-collar economy, China's educated elite are having to lower their expectations – frustrating families and putting the government on alert ahead of the 20th anniversary of the student-led Tiananmen protests.

There's "a mismatch between expectations and realities, exacerbated by the current economic slowdown," says Thomas Rawski, a China expert at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. "It really is a clash of preferences."

The oversupply of students first ballooned in 1999, when China erected a flurry of colleges in an effort to mint more of the scientists and managers it needed for a 21st-century economy. It also sought to absorb a burst of teenagers born in a post-Cultural Revolution baby boom after 1976.

Enrollment rose quickly, from 3 percent of college-age students in the 1980s to 20 percent today.

Despite the rapid expansion, only 6 percent of the population now holds college degrees. Not surprisingly, graduates expect elite jobs, as do the relatives who footed their tuition bill.

Topping the A-list are government jobs, which pay modestly but offer benefits and security. Last year, some 750,000 students took the civil service exam – and only 2 percent could expect slots. Big companies draw students, too: Though less stable than the civil service, business jobs pay well and provide better training.

And location is everything. Youths from across the country are flocking to east coast metropolises like Beijing and Shanghai.

But even these megacities can't furnish enough of the gleaming office jobs that graduates want.

China's export-dependent economy deals mainly in manufacturing and processing, which require unskilled workers. The white-collar end of the production process – design and sales – mostly happens overseas, says Lai Desheng, director of the Center for Labor Market Research at Beijing Normal University.

And the skilled-labor positions in between, with their 14-hour days on factory floors, fail to tempt many college grads, he adds.

Don't put me on assembly

Don't ask Meng Xiao to assemble laptops. The 2008 grad from Hebei Province hopes to design software one day. But like others in this tight job market, he's lowering his sights.