Graduates find path to a good future starts with humble manual labour

Two young men, fresh out of university, find promising work in a very different kind of job market in Shanghai

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 12:49pm

In a wet market in Shanghai's Putuo district, 22-year-old Cao Bingwang and his co-worker Xiao Jian chop spareribs, pack cutlets or clean tripe, according to their customers' wishes, wielding their implements as deftly as any of the butchers at nearby meat stalls.

They call out cheerfully to passers-by, or patiently explain different cuts to customers, and wish them well when they hand over coupons. Their attitude is appreciated by the shoppers.

But there is a difference between the two young men and most others in the trade: Cao and Xiao are university graduates and their choice of profession - a labour-intensive job seen by some as demeaning - raises eyebrows.

Since the mainland brought back college entrance exams after the Cultural Revolution, university graduates have been termed as "God's favoured ones" in view of the tough exams they must pass and the glorious job prospects that follow graduation. For a time, a university diploma was a passport to a good job that required only brain, not brawn.

That is why, 10 years ago, when a man who graduated in the 1980s from Peking University - one of the most prestigious educational institutions on the mainland - was found working as a "mere" butcher in Xian , the news was a bombshell. The man told the media he was a disgrace to his alma mater and urged fellow graduates never to follow in his shameful footsteps.

However, that situation has gradually changed. The job market for newly minted graduates has deteriorated and a growing number of "God's favoured ones" have found themselves distinctly out of favour.

In the case of Cao, a graduate from Henan Agricultural University with a bachelor's degree in biology, his family simply could not accept that he had taken a job as a butcher. But he has stuck at it for six months, believing in the Chinese adage that "one can distinguish oneself in any trade".

He said he never imagined having anything to do with the pork industry until the end of last year when the Guangzhou-based Guangdong Yihao Food Company came to his campus to recruit staff. The company promised that recruits could become regional managers if they mastered the front-line butcher role.

Cao said that on recruitment he received three weeks' training in Guangzhou. During the day he learned all about pork, along with cookery tips and how to run a pork stand. First thing each morning he had a compulsory spell of intensive exercise and honed his butchery skills.

"I am content with my job that pays me at least 3,000 yuan (HK$3,700) a month and provides me with a dormitory room. Raw pork doesn't make me nauseous as I am from a rural family in Henan and now I even think it smells nice," Cao said.

"I am confident in this industry and I want to work hard to prove that I am capable, so that I can move my career forward."

His co-worker Xiao, who graduated from Jiangxi University of Finance and Economics this summer, said he believed that what he learned in his studies over the past four years would not be wasted.

"In my eyes, selling pork is no different than selling mobile phones," he said.

Xiong Bingqi , deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, wrote in the People's Daily that it was outdated to believe that university graduates were wasted if they took up manual work.

"According to this concept, university education is only for the elite, as in the 1980s and 1990s," he wrote. "Graduates who hold this concept are trapped when they go looking for job or try setting up their own business … because they only target a small number of industries and turn their noses up at industries that require manual work."

This year seven million students graduated from colleges and universities across the country, the highest number in the mainland's history and about seven times the number in 2000. But the country's slowing economy has also set a record, creating the most gloomy job market for university graduates.

Jennifer Feng Lijuan, from the human resources services provider 51job.com said pay for graduates in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai was now on par with that of migrant workers.

"From our statistics, the starting salary for bachelor's degree holders in first-tier cities is 3,200-3,600 yuan [per month] and 4,500 yuan for master's degree holders. This pay level is already extremely low," she said.

Tony Wang, an employee at a financial firm in Shanghai who graduated from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics last year, said university students were aware of the difficulty in finding jobs and, as a result, most had low job expectations.

"We also felt great pressure [to find jobs] last year. Our teachers were also nervous and made a lot of effort to help us find jobs by sending us job fair information and organising interview rehearsals," he said. "At that time we were happy with job offers of 4,000-5,000 yuan a month."

Feng suggested that graduates should develop a long-term career plan that looks beyond the manual jobs they may have now.

Added Cao: "Of course, I won't sell pork for ever. I dream of settling down in Shanghai and buying an apartment and a car, just like other young people."