When Hermione Zhang graduated with a master’s degree in Beijing last year, the 25 year old had high hopes of working at a commercial bank or securities firm in one of China’s biggest cities.
But after her two-year programme was put on hold for nine months due to the pandemic – preventing her from networking or interning, which would have given her valuable face time with employers – she was forced to set her sights a little lower.
Eventually, after sitting through a gruelling 89 interviews in three months, she took an offer at a small rural bank near her hometown in the central province of Shanxi.
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“If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would have stayed in Beijing, even just doing internships,” said Zhang.
The pandemic has changed the way I make my career decisions
“The pandemic has changed the way I make my career decisions. In a difficult time, everyone wants to land a stable job. In the face of uncertainties, the tendency to avoid risks and unfavourable scenarios has surpassed the urge to be adventurous and enterprising.”
Amid a state of economic flux three years into the coronavirus pandemic, many young Chinese from elite universities are setting aside career dreams for stability, as a record number of graduates enter a job market clouded with uncertainty.
Schooled at the most prestigious universities at home and abroad, top Chinese talent used to aim for Fortune Global 500 companies, large internet platforms, consulting agencies or law firms in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
But this year, graduates have been intimidated by a torrent of news on social media about mass lay-offs at tech, entertainment, private tutoring and real estate companies as the Chinese economy is battered by stringent coronavirus control measures and regulatory crackdowns.
They are willing to settle for lower pay and life outside big cities, for jobs at state backed firms or in the public services – positions considered more secure in a turbulent economic climate.
As a result, job ads are receiving hundreds of applicants and even civil service positions in backwater towns are coveted by overqualified applicants, industry insiders say.
In Lishui, a small county in Zhejiang province with a population of under 200,000, the local “talent recruitment scheme” helped hire 24 fresh college graduates, 23 of them with postgraduate degrees, including four with doctorate degrees.
More than 700 applicants with postgraduate degrees from top five universities in China and prestigious overseas institutions applied to work in a far-flung county called Heping in Guangdong, with about 350,000 residents.
“The quip that goes, ‘The end of the universe comes down to public servant positions’ is getting more and more popular among students,” said a lecturer surnamed Zhao, who works for Beijing Offcn Education & Technology Co, one of China’s largest tutoring organizations for the public service examination.
“Since last year, students’ desires [for public servant jobs] are getting stronger due to the worsening labour market amid the pandemic.”
Zhao said even students with the most impressive academic backgrounds are choosing stability to reduce the chances of getting laid off in the future.
This year, a record 10.76 million college students are set to graduate, adding pressure to a job market that economists are calling the most challenging yet for young educated Chinese.
“[The competition] has got so intense, the people we hired at 6,000 yuan (US$890) a month this year are better than those we used to hire at 8,000 yuan,” said Fred Feng, a team manager at a recruitment agency headquartered in Hong Kong.
In China, jobs at foreign companies used to be considered secure and distinguished, but in recent years, they have lost their shine to the country’s fast-growing internet companies that have more appealing salaries.
Feng, who leads a team of about 12 people, said the number of applicants for jobs at his company has increased by more than half compared to last year, with many of them holding masters degrees from elite US schools such as Johns Hopkins University or top tier domestic ones like Peking University.
Feng is hiring for entry-level human resources jobs, but applicants abound with previous internships or law degrees.
“Internet companies are cutting their headcounts, and many of our applicants said they feel at a loss about what their futures hold,” he said, adding that despite uncompetitive pay, the stability at his company is appealing for young talent.
Chinese internet giants such as Tencent and Alibaba have rolled out rounds of job cuts over the past year, as regulatory pressure and lockdowns weigh on business.
Hundreds of real estate companies have filed for bankruptcy over the same period amid a nationwide property slump, official data showed.
Wary of the tech sector’s grim prospects, 22-year-old student Liu, who only gave her surname, is worried about whether she can secure a job at an internet company.
“During my internship at ByteDance, many mentors told me the headcounts this fall will be much less than previous years due to the [economic] climate, and they warned us to be prepared,” said Liu, who will soon graduate from a business masters programme at a top Hong Kong University.
This year, students’ expectations are pretty low and they are choosing stability over [career] development
The economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has made Chinese graduates more realistic and risk averse. Work with state-owned enterprises is the most popular choice for this year’s graduating class, according to a report by online recruiting company Zhaopin.com.
Even the most competitive jobseekers, such as those with degrees from overseas universities, are looking for work in the state sector.
“This year, students’ expectations are pretty low and they are choosing stability over [career] development,” said Ryan Hu, founder and CEO of career consultancy Togo Career, whose clients are exclusively Chinese who studied abroad.
“The competition is super intense. We work with students who have both bachelors and masters from Ivy League schools, and those who went to top UK universities. At least half of these students would list state firms as one of their top choices.”
Unemployment prospects in China are more grim than at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, experts say, as lockdowns and virus control measures stoke market uncertainty and dampen the economic growth outlook.
The headline jobless rate – the surveyed urban unemployment rate – rose by 0.3 percentage points to 6.1 per cent in April, the highest level since March 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. It was also above the government’s target of keeping unemployment under 5.5 per cent this year.
The unemployment rate for workers in the 16 to 24 age group reached 18.2 per cent over the same period, the highest level since 2018, when China first started publishing the data monthly.
Unemployment for this age group typically peaks in the summer as fresh graduates enter the job market.
In the first three months of 2022, amid coronavirus outbreaks and a slowing economy, more than 60 per cent of China’s graduating class said they were experiencing intense competition, while about 55 per cent had lowered their job expectations, according to the Zhaopin report.
This graduating class has reduced their expected salaries by 6 per cent compared to last year, from 6,711 yuan to 6,295 yuan, due to pressure from the stalling economy.
Still, after the spring hiring season, only 15 per cent of students signed a contract with an employer, compared with 18 per cent last year, according to Zhaopin.
“The job situation is much grimmer than in the past, the graduating class lowered their expectations while showing more conservative behaviour in searching for a job,” the report said.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has also warned of a “grim” outlook for the job market, urging provincial governments to take stronger action to stabilise employment ahead of the 20th Party Congress.
The government has rolled out a series of fiscal policies to cushion employment, including tax and fee cuts, subsidies, easing of financing restrictions, exemption of late fees for payments, as well as support for college students starting new businesses.
Anxious parents are also taking a greater role in their children’s search for employment, unwilling to leave anything to chance.
Hu, from Togo career, has noted more parents joining job consulting sessions with their kids than in previous years.
“Overall, an increasing number of parents have a stronger desire for their children to go to state firms, or companies with a stable outlook,” he said.
“They are asking out of anxiety whether their children should plan ahead. Because compared with those that have children living abroad, these Chinese parents are exposed to more news about intensifying competition this year and lay-offs, and are more sensitive about it.”
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