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Degree no job guarantee in China

Booming enrollment is making it harder for graduates to find work.

February 18, 2008|Don Lee | Times Staff Writer

WUHAN, CHINA — Sun Yuanping skipped her college graduation ceremony for a job interview. It was an all-day affair and the bookish 22-year-old felt good about it. After all, she has degrees in marketing and botany from a well-regarded school in this central Chinese city, and she ranked in the top fifth of her class.

Sun never heard back from that prospective employer nor from dozens of other companies and government agencies where she has applied since she graduated in June. Recently, after tearful self-reflection and long nights tossing in bed, she pared down her expectations and began sending her resume to small businesses offering salaries as low as $140 a month, a third of what she had hoped to make.

As each jobless day passes and Sun lives off a $100 monthly allowance from her parents, she feels more and more guilty.

"All along, I thought if I went to a good university, everything would be fine," Sun said on a recent snowy afternoon. Her eyes welled with tears as she went on. "At first, it was hard to believe. I considered myself to be quite excellent. I'm struggling to accept this."

Until the start of this decade, a college degree in China put you in elite circles. The government arranged jobs for graduates in public agencies or state-owned enterprises. Unemployment wasn't an issue.

But of the nearly 5 million young people who graduated in June, about 1.45 million were still unemployed in the fall, according to a study published last month by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Researchers estimated that by year-end, about 75% of the recent graduates had found jobs.

China's graduate employment rate compares favorably with countries such as Japan, where 68% got jobs by the end of the year. No such comprehensive statistic exists for the United States. But Yang Dongping, a Beijing scholar who wrote the academy's report, cautioned that many schools in China were known to exaggerate placement figures. Whatever the true numbers, Yang said, "Without doubt, it's harder and harder for graduates to find jobs."

That is evident in Wuhan, a city of about 10 million on the Yangtze River. Based on employment contracts and school certificates, officials said, the employment rate for university graduates in this city by year-end fell from 83% in 2003 to 73% in 2006. Their average monthly take-home pay is $200 to $240 -- compared with about $160 for all Wuhan residents.

In part, the falling hiring rates reflect booming enrollment at Chinese universities and the opening of new schools, many of them second-rate. About 5.6 million Chinese are expected to graduate from two- and four-year colleges this year, five times the number in 2001.

But the rising joblessness also mirrors broader problems in China's education system and economy, as well as inflated expectations of many graduates. Researchers and company recruiters say too many students are coming out of universities unprepared for the marketplace. Many undergraduate institutions have aggressively expanded programs in fields such as law, where there are relatively few openings for those without advanced degrees.

Of most concern, company managers say, is that many students lack creativity and analytical ability, having been drilled in memorizing and reciting facts.

"Universities should train students more according to the needs of the job market and encourage them to be more innovative," said Ji Xueqing, general manager of the Shanghai branch of software maker Ufida Co. Last year, he said, his branch hired about 600 staffers, including fresh graduates. For each position, there were seven to eight candidates.

"With development, our society will need more experienced workers, and companies will have higher requirements," Ji said. "It's going to get harder for [new graduates] to find a satisfactory job."

That worries government officials. "When the employment situation is difficult, relations between teachers and students are tense," said Yang Yiyong, vice director of economic research at the National Development and Reform Commission, a powerful policymaking agency in Beijing. A year and a half ago in China's central Henan province, students at Shengda College rioted after they discovered that their diplomas didn't bear the name of the school's more-prestigious affiliate, Zhengzhou University. Students, worried that the change would hurt their job prospects, ransacked offices, smashed windows and scuffled with police.

"Education is a very large expense for ordinary families. Of course they want to get a return after graduation," Yang said.

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