Without jobs growth, China will break education’s promise

Penn State UniversityJuly 29, 2013 

— Xin Sun, 24, is taking the route his parents always wanted for him.

Work hard, study, get a job.

Attending Nanjing University, he graduated with a degree in management information systems.

On paper, he was on the fast track to success.

Fast-forward to March 2013. Xin is jobless and starting to become hopeless, he said.

Xin dedicated four years of his life to studying for a job market that doesn’t really exist in China – at least not yet.

College students across the globe are facing a saturated job market without enough jobs to satisfy the growth.

And China, which often has been seen as a powerhouse for employment, is no exception. The problem in China, though, is especially acute for college graduates – which seems to defy conventional wisdom that more education means better job prospects.

“I think students feel like they’re working toward this dream – much like the American dream – of going to school, getting a good job and making a good life,” Xin said. “We’ve seen agriculture and factories in our country, which we still need, but there has to be more industry to account for these students graduating. There has to be more jobs that use our degree.”

China is regarded as an economy with an enormous manufacturing sector fed by an endless supply of cheap labor. But those jobs have little attraction for the country’s growing number of college graduates like Xin.

Chinese governmental leaders have set a goal of 195 million college graduates by the end of 2020.

From 1998 to 2011, the enrollment rate in college has gone from 8 percent to 27 percent, causing a large development in education and an increase in students very quickly, according to Ding Yan, a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.

“Fifteen years ago, only four or five of every 100 people would be a university student,” Ding said. “Now it’s 30 and increasing.”

Ding believes the growth is too quick, and China is going to face major problems absorbing the spike in graduates.

Jobs in farming and factories are plentiful – and, for now, there are enough people to fill them. Migrant workers who perform these menial labor jobs, Ding said, are still available within China’s workforce.

“There are not as many options in rural areas to receive a college education, so China still has enough workers to remain in this manufacturing, low-skilled industry,” Ding said. “But it might not stay like that for long.”

The increased premium on a college education for Chinese young people could chip away at the number of people willing to take factory or farming jobs, Ding added. Instead, there will be a growing number of college graduates competing for relatively few jobs, mostly in technology and business.

Xiong Qingnian, a Fudan professor and director of the Research Institute for Higher Education, said universities could help ease the demand by diversifying their programs.

“Intertwined into the more common majors like business and economics, there should be more vocational and technical skills being taught at the university level,” Xiong said.

“We need more students across this spectrum of jobs. They are finding the job industry hard to break into right now because they are only looking for one type of job,” he said. “They are only studying for one type of skill. There needs to be a mix.”

Fudan University’s Ding said Chinese students need to be realistic, because not everyone can secure technology-based jobs.

For instance, just 10 percent of college graduates who studied engineering are actually getting a job in engineering.

“Assembly and production lines are still extremely important,” Ding said. “We rely on such low-skilled industry. And without it, if students continue to choose unemployment until a higher paying job comes, China has no future. This is why the Chinese government needs to promote all industries.”

Some graduates are taking matters into their own hands – creating opportunities for themselves in non-traditional ways.

Ding said he heard a story of a student who graduated from Peking University, one of China’s elite universities, who opened up a meat-selling business.

This is unusual, Ding said.

But entrepreneurship may become more common, because it offers opportunities to students who are facing unemployment, Ding said.

Meanwhile, college students who have followed a path that promised a better life are struggling.

Hu Zhen Hao, on the cusp of earning his accounting degree, is one of them.

Having initially started at a technical school, Hu was then accepted to the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics.

Every week since January, he has attended various job expos in search of something that would make him an employed college grad.

And every week, he’s heard nothing back.

As much as he’d like to avoid a low-wage job, he thinks he might be forced into one.

“We don’t have the jobs in China right now to keep up with the university graduates. Things might be made in China, but they’re not created in China, so we’re only seeing a small profit and a small spectrum of jobs.” Hu said. “We don’t have the jobs here that we’re studying for. And that’s why there needs to be a change.”

Greene reported this story from Shanghai for a class in international journalism.

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