China’s college graduates facing job market’s “new normal”


by Ye Yuan, Lianfen Liang and Sarah Talaat


China witnessed a record number of college graduates in 2016, with 7.65 million students departing institutions of higher education. Regardless of lower economic growth and what some graduates may see as a repeat of the 2015 “hardest job-seeking season,” there are increasing numbers of graduates who are choosing to work immediately after graduation.

According to a report by Zhaopin, a leading job-listing site in China, more than 75.6 percent of graduates reported a preference to work, compared to 71.2 percent last year. Only 21.3 percent of graduates chose to further their studies, and 3.1 percent started their own businesses this year.

While a majority of graduates acknowledge they are not optimistic about the current employment situation, there are now fewer students who respond that it is “very hard to find a job,” according to Zhaopin.


Sources: World Development Indicators, last updated on Oct 14, 2016; MyCOS Insititute

For many students, selecting an ideal job rather than accepting the first that comes along is a top priority. However, not every student is able to do this for various reasons including a desire to enter a highly-competitive field, university standing, grades or even cost-of-living discrepancies. According to the Zhaopin report, more than half of the respondents earn a salary lower than their expectations. Graduates from mid-level universities are more likely to fall into this category than those from top-tier universities.


Source: Zhaopin, a leading Chinese job-listing website

Ben Zhao, a senior Tsinghua University journalism student, said that company recruiters tend to be selective about applicants’ education background. “I can get 3 to 4 calls (from recruiters) everyday, asking me to come to their company or be an intern, while people from universities that are not so good may be just ignored. That’s why most want to further their studies,” Zhao said in an interview.


Ben Zhao, senior journalism student at Tsinghua University, has already secured a job for when he graduates this year.  Photo by Sarah Talaat.

One of his friends, who attends what Zhao called a “not-so-good” university in northeast China, is trying for a second time to pass the graduate entrance exam. If he fails again, Zhao said the friend will open a restaurant instead. 

Social capital, including alumni resources and networking, can be an additional boon to graduating job-seekers. For Zhao, during his recruitment by China Resources Group, the company’s vice president, also a graduate of Tsinghua, chose to interviewed him personally. “We are from the same university, (the) same education, and we have (the) same methods to deal with people,” Zhao said. “You can feel the equalities. We had a really happy conversation.”  

Meanwhile, these graduates are also experiencing first-hand the so-called “time of industry transition” during which the knowledge and soft-skills industry is overtaking manufacturing to become the key player in China’s domestic economy. This is heavily reflected in the job market as IT and internet-based businesses are graduates’ favorite career industry for the past three years, according to Zhaopin.

Due to the high number of graduates entering the workforce this year, Xinghua News Agency reported in May that Chinese Premier Li Keqiang was urging businesses to spur job creation through the development of “new business models, including the ‘Made in China 2025’plan and the ‘Internet Plus’ initiative.

Internet giants including Tencent, Huawei and Baidu top the popularity rankings among graduates, which leads to fierce competitions among applicants. Fewer top graduates are considering smaller or new companies, due in part to the risk associated with such companies, according to a 2013 article by the New York Times.

Vocational schools and top-tier schools, known as 985 and 211 universities, which receive increased government funding for their exceptional educational contributions, are more competitive in job markets, a Peking University Education Review paper concluded. The paper’s authors asserted that the selective admission process favored by China’s higher education system ensures that admitted students are typically more capable than their peers, and are favored by employers after graduation.

Chen Feibing, a second-year master’s student in architecture at China University of Mining and Technology, and Luo Jing, a second-year master’s student in biology at Beijing Forestry University heard from a friend about a recruiting event hosted on the Tsinghua University campus Tuesday. The event attracted approximately 50 students. Both Chen and Luo said they feel as if they don’t have many options and that the company, Suining City Commercial Bank, is a state-owned enterprise (SOE) and will therefore provide them with less-risky jobs.


Chen Feibing and Luo Jing read recruitment materials during a presentation by Suining City Commercial Bank held at Tsinghua University Tuesday.  Photo by Sarah Talaat.

“I came here to have a look because I haven’t gotten an offer yet,” Chen said in an interview. “It’s a province-level bank. Jobs there are like (being) civil servants, and they are better than average-level jobs.”

Chen also said he felt there is a noticeable difference between the recruiting process for students from top-tier universities and students from mid-level schools.

“Students from Tsinghua and Peking are generally considered more capable, and it is the truth,” Chen said. “But I still want to have a try.”


*Top image: A recruiter speaks with a potential applicant at the Suining City Commercial Bank presentation held on the Tsinghua Campus Tuesday.  Photo by Sarah Talaat.