Degree no job guarantee in China

Times Staff Writer

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.

Since then, the central government has moved to slow enrollment growth. And cities have eased resident permit rules to allow job seekers greater mobility. More universities have beefed up their career counseling and job centers. Still, Yang said, “in the near future, the placement situation for graduates will remain very severe. We haven’t reached the peak for college graduates. . . . Therefore, they should adopt a more modest attitude when looking for jobs.”

Like many Chinese graduates, Cheng Xiaohui is the first in his family to go to college -- the first, in fact, in his entire farming village of 300, about 100 miles northwest of Wuhan. Two years ago, the 25-year-old graduated from China Three Gorges University in western Hubei province, majoring in environmental engineering.

The job market didn’t look good, so Cheng moved here to pursue a master’s degree in environmental engineering at Wuhan University of Technology. He graduates this June but has been applying for jobs since October.

“I want to go to a large design institute, not a small private company,” Cheng said, warming his hands with a cup of hot chocolate. For now, he said, he’s holding out for a salary of at least $300 a month. “I have a lot of pressure. . . . I can’t find some job that any migrant worker can do,” said Cheng, an earnest man with deep lines on his face. “Every year, most of my family’s income is used for tuition. My parents never mention income. They just say, ‘Focus on your studies.’ ”

Undergraduate tuition at Three Gorges University runs $1,300 to $1,800 a year. For living expenses, Cheng said, he borrowed about $800 a year from the government

This month, he went home for the Chinese New Year holiday. The college man expected to get a warm welcome from the villagers. Yet Cheng said part of him was dreading his return. “For sure, they will ask me whether I have found a job.”

By the statistics, Cheng stands a better chance than most. Wuhan University of Technology, although not one of the nation’s “key schools,” ranks in the second tier. Last year, various engineering majors held the top eight spots in placement rates, said Wang Xing, director of Wuhan’s Vocational School & College Graduates Placement Administration.

Wang has been studying the situation since 2002. He has visited and met with job counseling officers at schools in Europe and the U.S., including USC. One key difference Wang cited was expectations.

Sometimes Wang fields calls from students’ parents, who want to know why their sons or daughters can’t land good jobs. They don’t realize, he said, that circumstances have changed. “We’re emphasizing to graduates that finding a job is not the government’s job or your parents’. It’s your own.”

Many students in Wuhan know that. The city center alone has 59 public and private colleges and universities where enrollment keeps growing. Meanwhile, private schools have popped up all over the place, some started by state universities to generate cash, others by entrepreneurs.

Wuhan Hongbo Group, a private firm, originally ran back-office operations for universities. But in the last few years, the group has launched three colleges in Wuhan. The campus of one of them, Engineering & Commerce College of South-Central University for Nationalities, was built on tens of acres of reclaimed land near the stretch of the Yangtze River where Mao Tse-tung staged his famous swim in 1966.

The college started out with 800 students; this year it has more than 8,100. Tuition runs from $1,400 to $2,000.

Zhang Jun, vice director of the school’s career center, said 92% of the 1,514 graduates in 2007 had found jobs. He said their average pay was about $140 a month, comparable with wages paid at factories and restaurants. The few openings posted on the center’s bulletin board were not encouraging: warehouse guard and management trainee at a trading company, starting salary $80 a month; hotel management trainee, $70 to $110 a month.

Hu Jian, a senior majoring in e-commerce at the university, has already lowered her expectations. “When I first started job hunting, I only wanted those famous companies in cities like Shanghai and Beijing,” the 22-year-old said. But after hearing nothing from more than 30 applications, Hu has all but given up hopes of joining a Fortune 500 company.

“For sure, I’m a little frustrated and worried now,” she said.