“I didn’t know it would be like this,” says 22-year-old Dang Lirong as she searches job postings for anything related to medicine at a Beijing employment fair.
“I took the major because I thought it would give me a good job,” Dang says, adjusting her black-frame glasses. After four years of toil at college in Hebei and a year interning at a Beijing hospital, she has yet to land full-time work.
Dang is among 7.5 million college graduates entering China’s job market this summer, the most 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 policy makers to spur the employment-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 Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a Beijing-based think tank. “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 they’re not expanding quickly enough to absorb the swelling ranks of aspiring attorneys, biologists and other young professionals.
Graduates last year most wanted to be secretaries, teachers, administrators, accountants and human resource managers, yet the top five needed by employers were salesmen, technicians, agents, customer service staff and waiters, according to a 2014 report from Peking University and the website ganji.com, which helps companies to hire.
Ma Chao, a mechanics major, avoided talking to employers looking for salesmen at a different jobs fair at an exhibition center in Beijing’s east.
“I’m not really cut out for that,” said Ma as he walked around the football-field sized hall, scanning booths and avoiding recruiters’ advances. “There are jobs out there, but few meet my expectations.”
Ma said his family lives close to Beijing, so there’s no rush to find work to pay for his own living expenses.
Zhou Xiaozheng, professor of 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 referring to those that rely on their parents after graduating while the second refers to those who live paycheck to paycheck.
“Young people now want to make money but don’t want to work hard; they’re more speculative than their parents,” he said. “For college grads, their idols aren’t hard-working people, but those who become billionaires overnight on the stock market.”
The irony for China’s youth: the more educated you are, the tougher it is to find work. The unemployment rate for 16 to 25 year olds with a college degree or better was 5.6 percent in the first quarter, compared with 4.7 percent for those who didn’t finish high school, according to Gan Li, director of the Survey and Research Center for China Household Finance and a professor at Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu.
The salary gap between a 22-year-old whose family spent tens of thousands of yuan on a four-year degree and an assembly worker at the same age is also shrinking. The average monthly wage of those six months out of college was 3,487 yuan ($562) in 2014, according to a June report from MyCOS Research Institute, based on a nationwide survey of 264,000 responses. That increased 7.3 percent from 2013, slower than the 9.4 percent rise in average wages nationally and the 9.8 percent jump for migrant workers.
“Only when more high-end services jobs, especially those in research and development, are created will the college employment problem be solved,” said 21st Century Education’s Xiong. China needs to further open the state-controlled media, telecommunication and finance sectors to absorb more educated workers, he said.
The encouraging news for China’s wave of graduates is that the services sector is growing faster than total output. Investment in science and technology services and telecommunication and software services both surged more than 30 percent last year.
Lyu He is among hiring managers looking for graduates at the same jobs fair that Dang attended. She needs 200 young salespeople to go to restaurants, shops and massage parlors to promote a mobile app that pings product and services ads based on users’ location.
“College students these days just want to sit in front of a computer, working and living in a virtual world,” she said, having collected fewer than 10 resumes in four hours working her booth. “They should come to companies like ours and do a job that communicates with people, real people.”
Twenty-two-year old Guo Rui is among those who have bent the dreams of youth to match economic reality. After studying television production and working short stints at TV stations and newspapers, she ditched plans for a life on screen because the pay just didn’t cut it. She now works as a property sales agent in Beijing, earning about 20,000 yuan a month.
“You can’t settle for what’s stable and comfortable when you’re young,” she said. “You should follow the market.”