BEIJING - Feng Danya studied foreign languages. She had hoped to be part of a
growing local company and grow with them, she said. But her timing was wrong.
She graduated in the summer of uncertainty for the global economy and many
"I now work in an Italian deli shop, selling meat and cheese," she said. "I'm
trying to keep my English up with the foreigners who come to shop here from
time to time. I tried many other places where I could at least use my degree,
but nothing came through."
Feng is at least employed. With a monthly salary of 1,400 yuan (US$205) and
accommodation shared with her parents, she can continue to look for something
better while earning a modest living. But many of her university friends are
still without jobs, scouring job fairs and talent recruitment centers.
An explosive report released by the Chinese Academy of Social
Sciences (CASS) in September said earnings of graduates were now at par and
even lower than those of migrant laborers. The news came as a blow to many
high-aspiring parents and youngsters in a country that has for centuries prided
itself on cultivating elite Confucian intelligentsia.
"What is the point of putting so much effort and time into getting a university
degree if at the end all you get is the salary of a migrant worker?" said Wang
Lefu, who studied business management. "One needn't have bothered with exams
and all the bureaucracy."
Unable to find a job to his liking, Wang is now applying to continue his
studies abroad. His parents run their own business and can support his studies
in Britain or Australia. "There the education should count for something," Wang
said, adding he hopes to land a job that can take him back to China on a
foreign salary. "In a year's time the economic crisis should be over and jobs
will be easier to get."
But for China the global economic crisis has exacerbated a serious unemployment
crisis that has been many years in the making and that few believe will
disappear with the first signs of global recovery.
China's official unemployment rate stands at about 4%. Yet a large group of
laborers - the communist state's 150 million migrant laborers or floating
population, as they are sometimes termed here - is not taken into account when
unemployment figures are calculated.
When the global financial crisis hit last year - diminishing trade flows and
reducing manufacturing orders for China's factories to a dribble - some 20
million migrants were estimated to have lost their jobs and returned home.
The pressure of resolving unemployment tension in the countryside this year has
been made even more difficult for Beijing by its difficulties in finding jobs
for the country's surging numbers of university graduates.
Some 6.1 million graduates entered the job market this summer, 540,000 more
than last year. In 2008 the employment rate for graduates was less than 70%.
This year nearly two million of graduates, many of them postgraduate diploma
holders, are expected to be left without job placements.
Students from Guangdong province, China's wealthiest region, are so desperate
for work that they have been applying for jobs as nannies - and getting
rejected, a local paper reported earlier this year. Well-off employers are said
to prefer peasant girls with experience instead of English-speaking graduates
in business administration.
In its "Green Book of Population and Labor 2009" published last month, the CASS
said the lack of trained and skilled workers as opposed to the surging numbers
of graduates has led to the emergence of an abnormal trend where graduates are
paid the same or even less than migrant laborers.
Beijing, where Feng gets her monthly income of 1,400 yuan, is one of the
costliest cities in China. But the report found that migrant laborers in
southern China's manufacturing belt could earn up to 1,500 yuan per month.
"It is definitely a trend," said Cai Fang, fellow at the Research Institute of
Population and Labor Economics at CASS. "On one hand it illustrates how our
labor market has become more integrated, but on the other hand it tells a
worrying story about how fierce the competition for employment has become."
College graduates are frustrated, but so are their parents. Many of them have
invested their life savings in obtaining a university degree for their single
children. Not surprisingly, many of them blame the government for putting an
emphasis on higher education as a prerequisite for young people to prosper in
the 21st century China but failing to provide jobs.
The oversupply of college graduates started in 1999 when Chinese leaders
decided to counter some of the effects of the Asian financial crisis by
boosting university enrollments. They had hoped that a generation of
well-heeled educated urbanites would boost domestic consumption and help reduce
China's dependence on exports.
Enrollment rose quickly, from 3% of college-age students in the 1980s to 20%
today. The trend coincided with a very public effort by Beijing to begin a
process of retooling its manufacture-driven economy into a high-knowledge
But even when the economy was booming and creating more jobs, Beijing was
struggling to find employment for its growing number of diploma holders. Many
Chinese graduates major in computer sciences, law and accounting, but the real
demand was to fill specific technical fields.
The global financial crisis, with its hiring freezes and credit crunch that
choked enterprises' expansion, made a bad situation only worse. At the
beginning of this year Beijing issued a call to all levels of government to
combat unemployment, particularly among new graduates. This year marks the 20th
anniversary of Tiananmen pro-democracy student demonstrations, and Chinese
leaders feared graduates' job concerns might snowball into social unrest.
Even as the global economy shows signs of recovery and Chinese economists speak
of "exit" strategies from the crisis, the unemployment situation remains grim.
"University graduates and migrant workers are among the groups that have been
most severely affected by the crisis," Yi Weimin, Human Resources and Social
Security Minister, admitted at a conference specially convened last month to
mitigate the news of the CASS report.
It is high time that young diploma holders lowered their expectations and began
to see the potential of many once neglected but well-paid jobs, he told the
media. "As a result of the crisis, there will be a change in values for our
graduates," Yi said.
In its latest move to ease graduate unemployment amid the downturn, Beijing has
ordered the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to change its recruitment standards
to attract more female graduate students.
A statement issued by the conscription office of the Ministry of National
Defense last week indicated that from now on the PLA is going to judge its
women recruit candidates on their eloquence, artistic skills and appearance - a
sweeping change from previous recruitment standards that emphasized age and
(This feature was produced by IPS Asia-Pacific under a series on the impact of
the global economic crisis on children and young people, in partnership with
the United Nations Children's Fund - East Asia and the Pacific Regional