With about 750,000 more students graduating into the workforce this year compared to last, the competition is getting tougher, leaving the 20-somethings whose studies have often left them with little practical know-how floundering to find work.
With the trees in bloom and the sun shining, students strolling the grounds of Beijing’s leafy university campuses shouldn’t have a care in the world.
They’ve marked themselves out as China’s best and brightest by winning coveted places in college and are graduating into a country experiencing breakneck economic growth, social change and cultural revival.
So why is Bai Yun worried?
The 21-year-old will soon have a degree in computer automation, but he’s still struggling to find work, one of a growing number graduating only to face the unthinkable prospect of unemployment.
"When we pass the test and finally get into university, none of us consider what kind of work we might be able to get three or four years later when we graduate," he said.
But with about 750,000 more students graduating into the workforce this year compared to last, the competition is getting tougher, leaving the 20-somethings whose studies have often left them with little practical know-how floundering to find work.
"University students want to find an ideal job, but they don’t really understand how society works. In reality they don’t know what kind of job would be suitable," said Bai.
"And the competition is fierce."
The spectre of unemployment is not only a worry for the students, but also for the government.
At the same time, multinational companies report a shortage of skilled workers, leaving China with a mismatch between supply and demand in the labour market.
New graduates no longer want to work in the heavy industries that fuelled China’s growth a generation ago, but face a service industry and small- and medium-sized enterprise sector that are too underdeveloped to absorb them.
College graduates ask about vacancies at a job fair in Yangzhou,
East China’s Jiangsu Province
"The same economic growth cannot provide the same employment it did several years ago," said Zhang Jian, a senior economist at the Asian Development Bank.
Graduates also often want their first job to be the one they stick with, fearing that if they move around, they’ll lose coveted benefits like pensions and health care.
Those willing to take risks and strike out on their own are faced with a banking sector dominated by state banks that are more used to lending to state-owned enterprises than small business ventures.
"If graduating students want to create their own business, they will find it difficult to find financial channels — they can’t find capital, they can’t get bank loans" said Zhang.
Twenty-five-year-old Chen Na will soon have her masters degree in journalism.
She has just found a job — months she says, after most graduating students — but the work at English-language teaching supplement is not ideal.
Chen went straight from university to graduate school, and says now she wonders if she should have had some work experience in between.
"I thought it might be a problem, so while I was studying I took internships to get some experience. But afterward I discovered when I started looking for work that some people don’t consider that real experience," she said.
MOVE TO THE HINTERLAND?
Her thoughts echo a report last year by McKinsey & Co. that said China’s education system emphasised theory over practical solutions, leaving fewer than 10 percent of job candidates suitable for work in foreign companies as engineers, accountants, analysts and other careers.
Wary of the potential instability a pool of well-educated, unemployed youth could have, the government is taking notice.
A Ministry of Education notice said about one-quarter of last year’s graduates were unemployed and outlined remedial steps including controlling the increase in university enrolment and encouraging students to look for work outside the big cities.
More than 55,000 students took the government up on the offer and went to work in less developed western provinces, the Xinhua news agency has said, lured in part by favourable policies including pledges to cancel their debts in compensation.
But the solution is not for everyone.
Bai grew up in Beijing and he wants to stay there.
Chen, who is from the coastal province of Shandong, says the capital offers more opportunities than her hometown, a sentiment she says is shared by most of her classmates.
"Every year a lot of students come to Beijing, but very few leave," she said.
For those yet to find work, the options may be narrowing.
"We’re all about 24 or 25. At that age you can’t forever rely on your family for your living," she said of her classmates.
"All they can do is keep looking."