Project 211

Stalling for time

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 May, 2006, 12:00am


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IT'S A SCORCHING, humid Sunday afternoon on Zaoyang Road, the commercial hub for residents of Shanghai's Changning district. Amid the noise of blaring sirens, squealing brakes and incessant shouting, hundreds of bai tan, or street stalls, are springing into action.

Usually, it's the poorly educated and unskilled of China's workforce who operate them. But lately, a few new faces have appeared that don't quite fit in - such as Summer Zhang, a 20-year-old business administration student from nearby Shanghai University. Zhang has set up a T-shirt stall and her parents aren't happy. 'My father wanted me to find a part-time internship or something,' she says. 'But nowadays that's as easy as me becoming the president of the United States.'

Despite the smell of rotting food, territorial fights for the best spots and the risk of municipal officials confiscating their merchandise (students don't hold bai tan licences), more of Shanghai's university students are turning to the street, due to a lack of opportunities in the 'real world'. Increasingly for students, Zaoyang Road is the real world.

'I consider this to be a bright spot on my resume since I can't find anything else to do while in school,' says Zhang, referring to the stall she set up three months ago, which she runs at weekends and occasionally during the week after classes. 'It gives me some fundamental and practical knowledge of my school major, something I need if I want to find a job.'

When Zhang graduates she'll be among many students facing a similar dilemma - too many applicants, too few jobs. And even for the lucky ones, low salaries often force them into a second job.

A Reuters report estimates that 4.13 million students will graduate from mainland universities this year to enter a job market that can only soak up 1.66 million candidates. And according to China's Labour and Social Security Bureau, those who do find a job are likely to earn less than an uneducated farmer. The bureau estimates that an undergraduate's average monthly income will be 1,000 yuan, while a farmer will take home 1,100 yuan.

Real estate agent Jacky Li is among those who run a street stall. 'I come here after my day job, which barely pays anything,' says Li, who's had a bai tan since he graduated from Shanghai Nautical University in 2004. He makes about 4,000 yuan each month from his herbal medicine stall. 'There's no way for me to support myself if I only have one job in Shanghai,' says the 26-year-old.

'I sell guiling gao [herbal turtle jelly] now, a medicinal food that helps revitalise your skin and lose weight. After the summer, I might sell something else that fits in with the market trend.'

A McKinsey & Company survey this year found that less than 10 per cent of mainland graduates are deemed suitable for employment by multinationals. Despite Shanghai and Beijing drawing young job seekers from across the country, many companies, local and foreign, say there aren't enough qualified candidates.

To Chan Yun, an architect graduate from Tongji University, such reports amount to 'a slap in the face'. Now running a Hello Kitty bai tan, he plans to take over his mother's flower shop next year. 'People with the most powerful guanxi [connections] get the good jobs in Shanghai, and it has nothing to do with your qualifications,' says the 27-year old Shanghai native. 'You have people from all over China looking for jobs in Shanghai and you cannot find enough candidates? Give me a break.'

Jessica Ting, a consultant with human resources company Talent Shanghai, blames the situation on a flawed education system. Most universities don't adequately prepare their students for the corporate world, she says. They're ill-equipped for internship programmes in the higher-paying foreign companies, which have the most sought-after jobs.

'The [typical] Chinese university doesn't teach its students anything practical besides technical knowledge,' says Ting. 'Often that's not enough for them to even get an entry-level job. Most of our students are severely lacking in the aspect of team work, communication, and general understanding of work ethics.'

Job prospects are worse for students not fortunate enough to attend prestigious universities such as Fudan or Tsinghua, which have corporate campus recruiting programmes. Most universities lack this service, says Ting.

'Most firms don't set up any type of campus recruiting events besides a few reputable campuses such as Fudan or Jiaotong universities,' she says.

'At least 90 per cent of Chinese students will not have a chance to experience a real-life corporate environment before they graduate. So it's very hard for them to make their resumes look remotely interesting to the human resource departments of foreign firms.'

Zhang is well aware of this - it was one reason she set up her bai tan. 'In China, graduation from a mediocre school means the beginning of unemployment,' she says, sorting through the range of Hello Kitty T-shirts that go for 30 yuan each. She makes about 1,000 yuan a month. 'You either go back to school or find yourself out of a job for at least a year, so why not start my own business? It's better than the other two choices.'

So grim are their prospects that many graduates end up in housing shelters such as the 'unemployment village for students', where there's cheap but cramped share accommodation in semi-abandoned buildings with no air-conditioning or decent sanitation.

The village has two locations, each catering to 200 students. It was set up in 2000 and at least 15,000 students have walked through its doors since they opened, says organiser Shang Aimei.

She offers both psychiatric and career advice to lodgers, who 'usually develop some [kind of] mental illness' if they don't find work quickly enough. 'It takes them at least a couple of months to find something acceptable, even longer for new graduates with no experience,' she says.

Computer engineer Xiao Peng is a long-term village resident. He'd been unemployed for a year after graduating, and even though the 26-year-old from Jiangsu province has now found a job, he isn't planning on moving out any time soon. 'Getting a job is like dating. Once you get rejected too many times, you develop a fear and a mental block,' he says.

For Ting, the bai tan phenomenon is a stark reminder that neither the recruiting companies nor the universities are doing the best they can to secure a future for students. 'Bai tan is a state of desperation and surrender to the current situation,' Ting says. 'Foreign firms need to broaden [their] hiring spectrums, and get rid of their elitist attitude of hiring only graduates from top institutions.

'On the other hand, Chinese schools need to start reforming their education curriculum so students don't have to spend four years in school just to become unemployed without any useful skills when they leave.'