Foreign education no guarantee of success in China job market

Record numbers of newly minted university graduates are returning to the mainland to a job market not overly impressed with all their efforts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 4:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 February, 2014, 4:01am

A record 300,000 university graduates are expected to return to the mainland this year, facing one of the gloomiest job markets in recent memory as domestic firms favour work experience over expensive foreign degrees.

The number of "sea turtles" - so called because the Putonghua terms for the aquatic reptile and "overseas graduate" are homonyms - is expected to surpass the 272,900 who came home in 2012, according to China Central Television.

But foreign-educated job seekers won't just compete with other overseas graduates for employment. They will encounter stiffer competition from an estimated 7.3 million domestic graduates.

"Job hunting is tougher than taking entrance exams at university," says Jacqueline Gu, 24, who recently graduated with a master's degree in law from Britain's Durham University.

After sending out more than 50 resumés and sitting through round after round of interviews in the past four months, Gu accepted a position with a Shanghai law firm. The catch? She had to accept a monthly salary of HK$3,800, a third of what she sought. At that pay rate, it will take Gu years to recoup the 300,000 yuan (HK$380,00) her family spent on her degree.

The Beijing-based think tank, Centre for China and Globalisation, found that 86 per cent of 830 overseas graduates surveyed in the first half of last year landed their first job on the mainland within six months of completing their studies. But 59 per cent of the graduates said their professional networks were weaker than their mainland counterparts. Three in four said they were paid less than they had expected.

Gu says her foreign education has also put her at a competitive disadvantage compared with local graduates because she did not have the luxury of spending most of her senior year as an intern.

"While they were busy networking at a law firm, I had to work on my thesis on top of taking several final exams," Gu says.

Given another chance, Gu says she would apply to a Chinese law school and take a semester abroad, instead.

The one great benefit of studying overseas - her fluent English - hasn't turned out to be a benefit to local law firms. "My English was much better than my mainland peers in the group interview, but employers don't ask for English," she says.

She scrapped her hunt at international law firms and focused on local firms in Shanghai, her home city.

To her surprise, the human resource managers didn't ask for her English test score. Instead, they quizzed her about how she would handle actual cases, questions that "only those who have worked in a law firm would know", she says.

The other lesson she learned from tens of failed interviews is that top foreign universities do not enjoy the same recognition as their Chinese counterparts, she says.

Most of her interviewers had never heard of her alma mater, a top school in the United Kingdom.

"Chinese employers only recognise the most prestigious universities, namely the Ivy League, Cambridge, Oxford, and LSE [London School of Economics] simply because they have not heard of the others," she says.

The tough labour market has not treated Ivy League graduate Yang Hebo much better. After graduating from Columbia University with a master's in actuarial science in 2012, Yang applied for a second master's programme when he failed to find a job.

Graduates with overseas diplomas, even from Ivy League schools, no longer have a clear edge over their mainland peers, he says. "Top Chinese universities like Tsinghua and Peking University have many more alumni on the mainland," he says.

The surge of Chinese students going abroad means that overseas experience no longer gilds one's resume, says Xiong Bingqi, deputy director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute in Beijing.

Last year more than 450,000 Chinese students studied abroad, paying full tuition, 12 per cent more than the previous year, Xinhua has reported.

China has overtaken India and Canada as the largest source of foreign students in the US. American universities last year admitted 235,600 mainland students, 29 per cent of first-year international students, according to the Institute of International Education in Washington.

Since China's economic reforms started in 1978, more than 1 million students who graduated from foreign universities have returned, according to the Centre for China and Globalisation. About 80 per cent of these "sea turtles" returned home in the past six years.

In 2012, 272,900 overseas graduates flooded back seeking jobs, 46 per cent more than in the previous year.

The number of openings in the labour market is not increasing at the same speed.

Last year, the job market had 15 per cent fewer positions compared to 2012, Vice-Minister of Education Du Yubo has said. Meanwhile, the number of mainland graduates rose 190,000 to nearly 7 million - the biggest graduating class ever.

Virginia Choi, managing director of Tamty McGill Consultants International, a Hong Kong-based employment consultancy, says employers prefer graduates with extensive work experience.

Choi was surprised to find many mainland students who had studied overseas had little work experience and were "detached from society".

"They study very hard but have little idea of what life looks like outside a classroom," Choi says. "Employers don't bother to train fresh graduates about the basics, like how to dress and make coffee in the office."

That is why Cambridge graduate Cecilia Yi decided to start with an internship. After graduating last year, she flew back to Beijing to start at a consultancy that offered her 100 yuan a day.

With a master's degree in economics and a bachelor's degree from Peking University, Yi sent out about 50 resumés and sat for the civil service examination.

"Two in five companies, mostly private firms, invited me to attend their written tests," Yi says. "It was quite encouraging, considering the increasingly tough competition."