What Chinese graduates should do in this tough job market

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 July, 2013, 4:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 29 August, 2013, 4:13am

A record seven million students are expected to graduate from mainland Chinese universities this year, up 2.8 per cent from last year. But with the employment market tightening and competition rising, how are they all going to find jobs?

It should be easy; Chinese students have to be the most diligent bunch of students in the world. From secondary to post-graduate school, they spend every spare minute nose-in-book, cramming for the next test, completing endless hours of homework and taking extra classes at the weekend. A little boy of a friend of mine is six years old. He’s allowed to watch 30 minutes of television a week and play with his friends for an hour. The rest of his time is spent either studying or doing extra activities, such as practising Chinese calligraphy and English, using the abacus, playing tennis and swimming. Surely all of this should lead to a well-rounded student, or could it be a question of quantity exceeding quality?

Let’s examine a few of the reasons why graduates are finding it more difficult to find work. The Chinese economy’s growth is slowing, which would tighten the job market. And often graduate recruitment is the first area to be cut. The Ministry of Education has reported that 15 per cent fewer jobs are on offer for new hires this year than in 2012, according to a survey of 500 leading firms. This causes more competition for the fewer jobs that are available.

While a decade of rapid expansion in China ’s higher education sector has brought many benefits, it has also brought unrealistic expectations from students and an economy that cannot absorb so many graduates into well-paid jobs. This is not limited to undergraduates. A recent survey of Chinese MBA students showed that, on average, they expected to increase their salary by 345 per cent after graduating!

For many graduates, the first choice would be to go into government or to state-owned enterprises; large foreign-owned multinational corporations would be next on the list. The top levels of state-owned companies reserve their places for students from elite universities or those with good connections, and many firms are under pressure to reform. Multinationals are still looking for excellent graduates, especially those with science and engineering backgrounds, but again the competition is tough.

It’s wise to choose as carefully as possible for your first job, but certainly a degree of open-mindedness is needed. Perhaps it is time for grads to forget the brand and consider joining a smaller, local company that can offer real, practical hands-on experience.

Graduates need to maximise their chances of finding work. To do that, they need to consider the following:

Have realistic expectations

In my experience in recruiting fresh grads in Shanghai , salary expectations have almost doubled in the past three years. While starting salary is important for a grad, it should be far less important than training and career development. Find something that you are good at and that you like, and the money will follow, rather than the other way round.

Think very carefully about what major you decide to study

Traditional degrees in science, maths, engineering and medicine will always be in demand, as will other vocational degrees. A business degree can be useful, but it is very important to look into what you will be studying; something that is too abstract or that doesn’t teach you real-world skills is not so interesting to a future employer.

The latest Antal Global Snapshot survey on hiring and firing trends revealed that companies were significantly growing their headcounts in China. In fact, a high majority of companies in the automotive, retail and luxury goods, and health care industries said in April and May that they were hiring specialists for managerial positions. Although the survey targets experienced talents, demand in these areas is expected to remain high, with positions in sales and marketing, IT and accounting, as well as research and development in most demand.

As disposable income increases, demand in consumer-led industries becomes stronger, and fresh graduates should be paying attention to these economic trends when choosing their major and their first job.

Additionally, if you are trying to get a job in an area that has nothing to do with your degree then you are probably going to be near the back of a very long queue.

At university, all undergrads should to do as much non-study as possible

Although your degree is your main focus, participating in charity activities, joining sport teams, doing part-time work or joining societies will add strings to your bow that academic study cannot provide. It might also make you stand out from the hundreds of other first-class students.

Be persistent and flexible

You are very unlikely to find your ideal job, therefore it’s important to be prepared to accept something that was not perfect, but offers you a route to the job you want.

Jonathan Edwards is a partner at recruitment firm Antal International China in Shanghai

[Correction: An earlier version misattributed the article to Emilie Bourgois, PR manager at Antal in Beijing. Jonathan Edwards wrote the comment piece.]