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.
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"Let me first find a job, then talk preferences," he said mildly at a depressing job fair last month. Young hopefuls milled about empty recruiting booths in a fluorescent-lit lobby. Only a few firms registered for the fair had showed up.Skip to next paragraph
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Hiring freezes are spreading: Some 65 percent of businesses in the Pearl River Delta, an economic hot spot, don't plan to recruit graduates this year, a survey by the Kingfield Management headhunting service found last month.
The government hopes to keep urban employment to 4.6 percent this year – the highest rate since 1980, according to official figures.
Even "Ivy Leaguers" are throwing demands overboard. Before the crisis, 5,000 yuan ($735) a month would have been "acceptable" in pricey Beijing, says one senior from Peking University, China's top school. But her roommates have settled for jobs paying monthly salaries of 3,000 yuan and 1,700 yuan ($440 and $250).
By comparison, a migrant worker in Shenzhen, the costliest of factory cities, earned about 1,500 yuan ($220) a month with overtime before the downturn.
For weeks, the government has been trying to lower students' expectations. State media frequently report how bad the job market is and how hard leaders are working to improve it.
Measures announced Jan. 7 sought to spruce up second-tier paths. One offered subsidies and loan forgiveness to graduates who work for a few years in China's less-developed western provinces.
Those carrots have been dangled for years, but most grads aren't biting, says Professor Rawski. It's like asking New Yorkers to move to West Virginia.
"It's too hard" to live out west, says the Peking University senior, laughing at the idea that any of her friends would consider it.
Start my own firm? Maybe not.
The Jan. 7 policies also encourage youths to start businesses – an even tougher sell.
Chinese students are rewarded all their lives for high scores on established exams, not for risk-taking or creativity, so most graduate with little stomach for entrepreneurship. And China's business jungle – dominated by state-backed oligopolies and other corporate giants, and layers of regulation and corruption – is no place for novices.
Despite the bottleneck from college to cubicle, the authorities have not choked off college expansion. They have reined it in, though, to 5 percent annual growth, down from 30 percent a decade ago.
"Talent is the wealth of the country," says Professor Lai. "If China wants to develop, it must raise its education level."
The freedom that today's youths enjoy in choosing their careers is also "a measure of progress in society, despite unemployment," he continues.
The previous generation worked in jobs picked by the state. Textbooks warned that, under capitalism, "graduation means unemployment."
Some youths today seem to embrace the added risk and reward.
Zhang Yueling – whose parents earn a living making mining tools from home – hopes one day to design computer chips. The 2008 grad quit her job in central China last month and moved to Beijing to find a company that would help her achieve that dream.
Her previous job paid 3,000 yuan a month ($440), but she's willing to work for 2,000 yuan ($295).
She's all alone in the big city, wandering an abandoned job fair on a freezing weekday morning.
But she's not discouraged: "I don't expect to find a job soon, but I'll keep looking till I do."