- The Washington Times - Friday, January 30, 2009

BEIJING

The Year of the Ox is said to symbolize prosperity through fortitude and toil. But, as China celebrates the Lunar New Year this week, millions of anxious college students are finding these qualities do not guarantee success in the country’s contracting job market.

The chronic oversupply of graduates in an economy still reliant on low-end manufacturing has been a major concern for the Chinese middle class for the past few years.

Now, as the economic slowdown renders the country’s employment situation “grim,” their chances of getting a dream job are receding as China’s growth slows.

Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao says 6.1 million graduates expected to flood the job market in June are facing unprecedented competition. They will join 1.5 million graduates from the class of 2008 who are reportedly still jobless.

Their chances of landing a job are receding as China’s growth slows. The growth rate for the final quarter of last year was just 6.8 percent, dragging the full-year number to 9 percent and ending a run of five consecutive years of double-digit growth.

Tales of underachievement and meager prospects are regular fixtures in Chinese newspapers.

Graduates terrified of being left on the shelf have been vying to work as nannies and cleaners for rich families in the southern province of Guangdong, the Guangzhou Daily reported.

And the official China Daily carried a survey by the Shanghai Education Press Group, which found that 86 percent of the 2,000 students it had interviewed had lowered their salary expectations, with most undergraduates considering a starting wage.

Students such as Annie Wang, 22, an English-interpreting major in her final year at the highly regarded Beijing Foreign Studies University, used to be snapped up.

“I have applied for several trainee programs with international firms, but after some interviews, I failed. My dreams have turned to bubbles,” she said. “My university is a good one, and I am considered a relatively good student here, so I find myself in an embarrassing situation. Most of my friends and former schoolmates are no better off.”

China’s leaders are jittery about large-scale unemployment in its cities, regarding it as a serious challenge to social stability. Official statistics are playing down the problem, putting the urban unemployment rate at the end of 2008 at 4.2 percent.

However, this percentage does not factor in migrant workers or new college graduates. The more likely figure is 9.4 percent, says the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The Cabinet has pledged to make the employment of higher-education graduates a priority, and with the Chinese New Year, it announced a series of measures aimed at creating more job opportunities.

Graduates willing to work in the country’s rural areas, in cities in the poorer western regions, or in the armed forces would be entitled to a full or partial waiver of their student loans.

Labor-intensive companies can take out loans of up to 2 million yuan (nearly $300,000) if they recruit graduates and graduates looking to set up their own business can access a loan of 50,000 yuan ($7,300). The government also said it would provide training for 1 million unemployed graduates over the next three years to improve their qualifications.

China scholars such as Minxin Pei, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, doubt the long-term effectiveness of some of these proposals.

“These are useful solutions, but they have limited effect,” said Mr. Pei. “Joining the army is not very attractive to most graduates because the commitment tends to be long; it is also unclear whether China actually needs more recruits for the armed forces.

“There are very few attractive jobs in the rural areas for graduates to apply for,” he said. “These tend to be administrative jobs that are highly prized by the locals. The government is starting to think creatively, but not enough so far.”

Prospective graduate Miss Wang agreed. “These jobs in rural areas do not offer satisfactory salaries for someone to have a decent standard of living. I don’t think it’s realistic,” she said.

Many Chinese labor experts say the gloomy employment situation is not just a result of a graduate glut, which was spurred by a government drive to expand college enrollment in 1999.

Wang Boqing, founder of the Chinese labor consulting firm MyCOS, said many companies are reluctant to hire college graduates even if they have sufficient funds. They fear that graduates will possess few practical skills despite being able to reel off reams of theories as a result of the college system’s emphasis on rote learning.

“We need to emphasize a different education philosophy. You have to really understand what you are learning rather than just remembering formulas,” Mr. Wang said.

In the short term, though, the government needs quick answers. Ten million migrants are out of work, according to a survey by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

In addition, the combination of millions of unemployed migrant workers and increasingly frustrated graduates milling about in the cities could create “a highly combustible mix,” warned the Carnegie Endowment’s Mr. Pei.

“The most likely form of protest that combines unemployed students and migrant laborers would be a series of street demonstrations and riots in the cities. If they are not suppressed quickly, they can spread from one city to another. That’s the worst nightmare for the government,” he said.

The Communist Party can take comfort in the fact that it has a high level of support among college students, particularly those that study at the country’s most prestigious universities.

“Finding a job is important, but maintaining a harmonious environment comes first,” said Eric Xing, 21, an English and business major in Beijing’s Renmin University.

“As a Communist Party member, I know we should not just think from the perspective of the individual. We have to think about the whole country and the people as a whole.”

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