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Jobs scarce for China's graduates

Each year millions of new degree holders vie for few openings. Some blame official policy.

December 28, 2006|Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — For the better part of a 20-hour journey, Yu Meng had slept as the train jostled and rolled across the north of China.

A broad-faced, cheerful 26-year-old graduate student in chemistry, she had come from remote Gansu province to attend a job fair in the capital. Now, still bundled in a knee-length brown parka, a clutch of resumes in her hand, she was trying to elbow her way to the front of a recruiting booth -- one of hundreds sprawled across the vast interior of the capital's China International Exhibition Center.

Around her swirled thousands of other recent and upcoming college graduates from all over China, all competing for a limited pool of jobs. It was a graduate's nightmare that mirrored a national problem: too many people, too few jobs.

Figures vary, but the size of China's higher education system appears to have at least quadrupled in the last decade as the nation has pushed relentlessly toward building a modern economy. Next spring, Chinese colleges and universities expect a record 4.95 million graduates, up 820,000 from this year.

More than a million of them will wind up jobless, according to estimates. The glut is leading students and colleges to what might be considered acts of desperation.

In Guangzhou recently, 286 graduates and post-graduates competed for 11 positions as street cleaners, according to the official New China News Agency. The city hired one candidate with a PhD, four with master's degrees and six with bachelor's degrees.

"Given the already grave employment situation in the country ... the employment pressure on university graduates will be obvious," Wang Xuming, a spokesman for the Ministry of Education, said at a recent news conference.

All of which is causing an air of concern among students.

The dilemma facing Chinese students is hardly unique. Through the ebb and flow of the business cycle, American college students have long been accustomed to the idea that a degree doesn't necessarily guarantee them a job -- at least not right away. But in a country where, not so long ago, the communist state guaranteed everyone employment, however lousy, it is a new and unsettling reality.

"People's hopes are very gloomy -- all of us job seekers," said Zhao Xiaojuan, a 22-year-old who is about to graduate with a degree in English from the Hubei University of Technology in Tienjin. "If you're lucky, maybe you have a chance to be interviewed." Zhao aspires to work as a translator or executive assistant in a multinational company.

Some employers and economists, however, say the problem is one of rising expectations. It's not that there are no jobs available, it's that students are holding out for the good ones. They should be more patient, this line of thinking goes, and willing to settle for something less than their dream job at first.

"A college education is a long-term investment," said Tang Min, the chief China economist for the Asian Development Bank. "You have to think about your lifetime."

Tang, who wrote a report in 1998 calling for a major expansion of the Chinese higher educational system, has been criticized as the architect of the current glut. He says he has no regrets, even when faced with a recent report saying that two-thirds of last year's college graduates are earning less than $250 a month. That, he said, is double what a high school graduate can expect to earn in China, and the gap is almost certain to grow as graduates climb the career ladder.

"What I tell those young people is, 'Don't worry. You'll not regret having gone to college.... Wait 10 years, and then compare yourself to those people who didn't go to college,' " Tang said.

Several universities have recently added golf to their curriculums in hopes of turning out graduates who have what it takes to schmooze prospective employers in a country where golf is a fairly new executive pursuit. Xiamen University in southeastern China even made the sport mandatory for freshmen in some degree programs.

Some say what is needed are more students with skills that match the job market. Employers say students are often not qualified for the available job openings and blame the university system for failing to adapt to the nation's new economy.

"They teach you a lot of theory," said Phoebe Li, human resources manager for Intouch Software in Beijing, a growing software developer. "They don't put it much into practice."

Partly in response to those critics, the government recently announced a major initiative to increase vocational education over the next five years.

In the meantime, the students at the job fair had neither shop classes nor nine irons to give them a leg up. They had to rely on resumes and sheer grit.

When Yu Meng reached the front of the Administration of Environmental Protection booth, she faced the recruiter. He was looking for chemists.

"Do you hire graduates fresh out of school?" Yu asked.

"We like to have people with work experience," he replied. Seeing her face fall, he quickly added, "But that doesn't mean we don't consider fresh graduates."

"Would you please take a look at my resume?" she asked. She slipped it in front of him. He gave it a cursory glance, his mouth twisting in disapproval.

"You have a chemistry major," he said, "but you don't have any experience in environmental protection."

In the end, he agreed to keep the resume but didn't leave Yu with a lot of hope.

"I'm pretty worried," she said afterward, standing in an aisle between booths while a sea of anxious job seekers parted around her. "There are a lot of positions on the job market. The problem is, we have way too many graduates."

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mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

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