Almost 7 million ― this will be the number of college graduates in China in 2013, a year which promises to be the toughest job-hunting season in Chinese history.
Never before has the nation had so many graduates competing for jobs, particularly when so few are available. The number of vacant positions offered by employers has shrunk by 15 percent. Without a doubt, the job market is white-hot.
As of April 19, less than 30 percent of graduating seniors in Beijing had signed contracts with employers. Shanghai faces a similar situation.
The title of “college student,” once a shining halo for Chinese people in the 1980s and 1990s, is now virtually synonymous with “soon-to-be unemployed.”
“In the late 1990s, the number of college graduates just exceeded 1 million. Now we have almost 7 million,” said Xiong Bingqi, vice president of the Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Center.
Attendees of a job fair sponsored by Beijing Technology and Business University wait to speak with a recruiter in Beijing. (Bloomberg)
The reason for such an increase lies in the expansion of college enrollment in the late 1990s as the government hoped to make more people have access to higher education. The expansion was also expected to boost consumer spending to fend off the impacts of the Asian Financial Crisis, as well as to ease immediate pressure on the labor market.
Expanded enrollment finally gave 70 to 80 percent of high school graduates the chance to enter college. Figures from the Ministry of Education show that the number of college graduates already exceeded 6 million in 2009 and since then the number has grown steadily.
The bleak employment situation for college students has been a problem for years and is just becoming more prominent in 2013.
“While at the same time, the majors in colleges haven’t changed that much, as many colleges are not market-oriented and set up majors en masse,” said Xiong.
In first-tier cities including Shanghai, Beijing, as well as Guangzhou and Shenzhen in Guangdong province, where most graduates wish to make a living, young job hunters cluster in low-rent tenements in old parts of town or on the outskirts.
In 2009, Lian Si, a scholar at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing and then a post-doctoral fellow in Peking University, coined the term “ant tribe” based on three years of research of recent graduates.
“Now the living cost in such cities is even higher and with the displacement of such areas, it is much more difficult for the college graduates to find cheap accommodations,” said Zhang Yi, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
For 25-year-old Fan Lihui, who just got his master’s in business administration, the situation is worse than previously imagined. “I lowered my salary expectation to 2,500 yuan ($407) a month, but I still couldn’t get an interview,” Fan told national broadcaster China Central Television.
In comparison, criteria drafted by netizens in early 2012 state that to be a white-collar worker in China, one needs to earn a monthly salary of no less than 20,000 yuan ($3,258), own an apartment with at least two bedrooms and a car worth around 150,000 yuan ($24,435).
The criteria, though lacking systematic social research and statistical analysis, to some extent, reflect China’s public opinions on the financial requirements of leading a leisurely life amid soaring prices in everything from real estate to food. It also suggests that employability itself is closely tied to perceptions of socioeconomic status, said a report by Xinhua News Agency.
Yan Zhaolong, in charge of Nanjing Andemen Job Fair for Migrant Workers, is inundated with college students consulting him for opportunities as migrants. The job fair ended setting up a window specifically for graduates.
“I feel sad about this,” said Yan, who is over 40 years old. “In my days, college students were people that we should admire. I never thought they could end up like this.”
“If I could start college over...” prefaces an online photographic phenomenon. Students from Hangzhou Electronic Science and Technology University in Zhejiang province stand in front of cameras holding papers written about their hypothetical second chances as freshmen.
Wishes include changing majors, reading more books, going to the lab more, taking part in more activities on campus, playing fewer computer games or going abroad for further study.
“I don’t think the knowledge we’ve learned in college is of practical use and neither do my classmates,” said a netizen who calls himself Ballack, a Hunan University senior who still hadn’t found a job as of May 26.
“College life is too easy as it is much easier to graduate than to be enrolled. You won’t learn anything without self-control. The teachers won’t care that much,” said Liu Tongxue, a student at Shandong Normal University in Shandong province who said that her contemporaries are self-centered yet fail to consider their individual competence for the most desirable employment opportunities.
Guo Hengyu, a sophomore at Suzhou University of Science and Technology in Jiangsu province, has been hunting for a job since freshman year. “We have to prepare early and talk to the employers more to learn what kind of people they want. I’m worried what it will be like when I graduate.”
Li Siyao, a graduate from Laizhou No. 1 Middle School in Laizhou, Shandong, who barely passed the college entrance exam by 37 points last year, eschewed university to attend a vocational school ― Shandong Property Management College.
“I made this decision on the serious employment situation and I think this can only get worse in the following years,” said Li. “I’d rather learn some vocational skills that can quickly be used in the market. For the degree, I can get that through self-taught exams if I want.”
Postgraduates face an even worse situation, according to Tu Minxia, director of the Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Macao Youngsters Research Institute.
“Many college students choose to stay in universities for further study to avoid the serious employment situation but find out things can only get worse. The job market is especially unkind to women with postgraduate degrees,” said Tu.
The grim situation, though, dragged some students out of the ivy tower to face reality. Liao Weidong, a junior material chemistry major at Shanghai’s Fudan University, one of the top universities in China, is already looking for work.
Liao goes off campus for his internship every weekend and always works until midnight. As a leader of the student union of the university, he frequently organizes students for mock job interviews and job-hunting lectures.
“Even though we come from a top university, we can’t just take for granted that we will be well received by the job market,” said Liao.
Meng Xiangbo, a 23-year-old economics major at Anhui University in Anhui province, opened a pet care shop near campus in 2012. It made about 70,000 yuan ($11,403) in its first year, and Meng plans to expand.
“Opportunities are everywhere as long as you can work hard,” said Meng. “I think the future for college students to start up business is very promising.”
But Meng also admitted that it is very hard for the college start-ups to get loans from the bank. He still hasn’t told his parents that he is running his own business.
“In Chinese parents’ eyes, the best choice is always to get a well-paid job in a decent company. Running one’s own business would be regarded as risky and not on the right track,” said Meng.
“The number of college students will rise even more in the future, so we should deal with this at the root,” said Ding Dajian, a researcher with the China Institute for Employment Research. “The core is to develop the private companies and make some preferential policies for college startups.”