China’s coronavirus recovery gathers steam, but young jobseekers face being left behind

Sidney Leng
·4-min read

China’s accelerated economic rebound in the third quarter has failed to significantly improve job prospects for the country’s young and educated, reflecting a weak link beneath headline growth figures that have been largely engineered by state spending and industrial production.

The monthly jobless rate for Chinese aged 20 to 24 with a college education was 4 percentage points higher in September than the same period a year ago, but 2.4 percentage points below August, Liu Aihua, a spokeswoman from the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said.

The NBS did not provide last month‘s unemployment rate, but in an earlier statement said it was 19.3 per cent at the end June – roughly one in five surveyed – and it had not fallen in July and August from a year earlier.

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China was the first major economy to bounce back from the coronavirus pandemic and gross domestic product growth accelerated to 4.9 per cent year on year in the third quarter, up from 3.2 per cent in the second quarter and a contraction of 6.8 per cent in the first three months.

But despite the broader economic recovery, young Chinese with university diplomas are still facing tough job prospects.

On Tuesday, a private survey released by Renmin University of China showed the number of job vacancies for young adults in the third quarter was 5 per cent below a year earlier, but the number of jobseekers surged about 20 per cent.

Sales positions were the most common while skilled jobs such as IT and hardware management were scarce, according to the survey, which is based on data from Chinese online recruitment site Zhaopin.com.

Popular jobs in large cities like Beijing and positions at state-owned enterprises, which offer better job security than private sector firms, were particularly difficult to get, the survey found.

But the number of “social work” positions exploded in the third quarter, increasing more than sevenfold from a year earlier, as communities across China looked for manpower to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Young Chinese have taken to social media to voice frustration at their job prospects.

“The confidence that I finally built up during graduate school years has been exhausted in the past six months, and I feel more and more useless,” said one recent graduate on Douban, a popular Chinese social media platform, who has struggled to find employment.

Job prospects for Chinese graduates have been at the top of Beijing’s policy agenda, as 8.74 million people graduated this year.

Combined with 2018-19, China has produced about 25 million young graduates in the past three years, meaning a 20 per cent jobless rate would translate to roughly 5 million unemployed.

Furthermore, a new crop of university students set to graduate next summer will begin looking for work this autumn, boosting competition in an already competitive labour market.

On the bright side, China’s urban employment has stabilised in step with the broader economy. The NBS’ surveyed urban jobless rate dropped to 5.4 per cent in September from 5.6 per cent in August, and down from a peak of 6.2 per cent in February.

However, experts have criticised the surveyed unemployment rate in the past for excluding most rural migrant workers, something the NBS has denied.

In September, the number of migrant workers in cities increased by 2 million from the second quarter to 179 million people, but the number was still 3.84 million fewer than a year earlier, according to the NBS.

Business closures and a shrinking number of jobs because of the pandemic has forced many migrant workers to remain in the country side, where there were fewer opportunities.

In the first three quarters of the year, per capita disposable income increased by 0.6 per cent in inflation-adjusted terms from a year earlier, with rural incomes growing faster than in urban areas. But income growth nationwide was still down 5.5 percentage points from the same period a year earlier.

The main drag was falling net profits among the self-employed, which declined by 2 per cent from a year earlier, while wages increased by 3.6 per cent.

Meanwhile, national per capita expenditure fell by 6.6 per cent from a year earlier to 14,923 yuan (US$2,229), with only spending on food and housing increasing from a year earlier.

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