China struggles to create jobs for swelling grad pool

Graduates taking a 'selfie' in front of a statue of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.
Graduates taking a 'selfie' in front of a statue of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong.PHOTO: REUTERS

Record number are looking for work this year, but there is a big skills mismatch

BEIJING • After four years at college in Hebei and a year interning at a Beijing hospital, Ms Dang Lirong, 22, has yet to land full-time work.

"I didn't know it would be like this," she says as she searches job postings for anything related to medicine at an employment fair.

"I took the major because I thought it would give me a good job."

Ms Dang is among 7.5 million college graduates entering China's job market this summer. The figure is the highest-ever and almost seven times the number in 2001.

Their dreams are colliding with an economy growing at the slowest pace in a generation, adding pressure on policymakers to spur the labour-intensive services sector.

"Every year, it's the most difficult job-seeking season for graduates in history, and the next year is even more difficult," said Professor Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a think-tank based in Beijing.

"The services sector isn't developed enough to create enough effective demand for college grads."

Compounding the challenge is a yawning skills gap between what the economy needs and what graduates want to do.

The country's services- and innovation-led new economy is doing better than the polluting heavy industries of old, but the sectors are not expanding quickly enough to absorb the swelling ranks of those who aspire to be lawyers, biologists and other young professionals.

Graduates last year said they most wanted to be secretaries, teachers, administrators, accountants and human resource managers. Yet the top five positions needed by employers were salesmen, technicians, agents, customer service staff and waiters, according to a 2014 report from Peking University and Ganji.com website, which helps companies to hire staff.

Mr Ma Chao, a mechanics major, avoided talking to employers looking for salesmen at a different job fair at an exhibition centre in Beijing's eastern area.

"I'm not really cut out for that," he said as he walked around the football-field-sized hall.

Scanning booths and avoiding recruiters' advances, he said: "There are jobs out there, but few meet my expectations."

He said his family lives close to Beijing, so there is no rush to find work to support himself.

Prof Zhou Xiaozheng, who specialises in sociology at Renmin University in Beijing, says graduates - most of them from single-child families - are getting pickier.

Many are "boomerang kids" or "moonlight clan", he said.

The first phrase refers to young people who rely on their parents after graduating, while the second refers to those who live from pay cheque to pay cheque.

"For college grads, their idols aren't hard-working people, but those who become billionaires overnight on the stock market," he said.

But some young graduates have given up on the dreams of youth to match economic reality. Among them is 22-year-old Guo Rui.

After studying television production and working short stints at TV stations and newspapers, she changed her career plans because the pay just did not cut it.

She now works as a property sales agent in Beijing, earning about 20,000 yuan (S$4,350) a month.

"You can't settle for what's stable and comfortable when you're young," she said. "You should follow the market." BLOOMBERG

A report last year found that graduates wanted to be secretaries, teachers, administrators, accountants and human resource managers. Yet

the top five positions needed by employers were salesmen, technicians, agents, customer service staff and waiters.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2015, with the headline 'China struggles to create jobs for swelling grad pool'. Print Edition | Subscribe