Yang Biao has spent every weekend for the past two months at job fairs. The 25-year-old, who will finish a Chinese literature degree at Beijing University of Technology in July, has also sent out nearly 200 job applications.
"I do feel like I'm running out of time and I'm getting more anxious as each day passes," he said. "But I can only cross my fingers and hope I will no longer need to live off my parents."
Yang is one of a record nearly seven million students who will graduate from mainland universities this year and enter the job market during a marked economic slowdown.
By early this month, 52.4 per cent of mainland students about to graduate had signed job contracts, down seven percentage points on the same time last year. In the industrial hub of Guangdong, the rate was 46 per cent, and in Beijing, home to such top universities as Peking and Tsinghua, it was just 33.6 per cent.
Graduates majoring in English, law, computer science and technology, accounting, international trade and industrial and commercial administration are finding it harder to find jobs.
President Xi Jinping made a high-profile visit to a job fair in Tianjin on May 14 to reassure jobseekers, pledging to create more jobs by boosting economic growth. Xi told the graduates he met that having a job was the foundation of people's livelihood and that employment struggles were becoming a global problem, Xinhua said. He was quoted as saying that only economic development could help improve the situation.
A day later, Premier Li Keqiang chaired a State Council meeting that outlined several measures designed to keep the employment rate for graduates no lower than last year.
The State Council also promised to tackle discrimination and inequality in the job market and to provide jobseekers from poor families with one-off allowances to help them find jobs.
Yang, from a rural family, said more than half his classmates were still looking for a job by the middle of this month. Because he was about to graduate from a less prestigious university, he did not expect a well-paid job, just one that could support him.
He said he had turned down a job offer from a Beijing kindergarten with a base salary of 1,700 yuan (HK$2,130) a month because it was not enough to make ends meet, given that he would have to move out of his parents' home on Beijing's outskirts to work in the city centre. Yang tried to get into a postgraduate school to further his studies and boost his competitive edge, but failed the entrance exam in February.
Another jobseeker, Ji Yinrui , said the cost of pre-employment accreditation courses in the computer and IT sector was a bigger problem for him than the tight job market. Ji, who will graduate from a university in Tianjin with a degree in computer science and technology, said many big-name employers in the computer and information technology sector required newly graduated jobseekers to take accreditation courses from privately run career training institutions as a condition for recruitment.
But such courses, which lasted up to six months and cost between 10,000 yuan and 20,000 yuan, were beyond the reach of jobseekers like him from poor rural families.
"I understand the employers' concerns about a general lack of workplace skills among graduates nowadays, but isn't that an issue about how we've been taught in universities?" he said. "Because what we're required to learn at the private training schools is exactly what we should have been taught at university, especially during our last semester."
Ji's hunt began in November and he has given himself another two months to land a job, even a part-time one, because he says it is time to stop relying on his parents and stand on his own feet.
Citing a survey by the National University Student Information and Career Centre, China Central Television reported on May 19 that demand for recruits by employers with more than 1,000 employees was down by 3.6 per cent compared with last year.
A university degree no longer guarantees a decent job on the mainland because a reckless, government-led push for expansion since the late 1990s has seen the number graduating each year more than triple in the past decade.
The prospects of landing highly sought-after positions at government agencies and state-owned enterprises are often linked to power and money.
Some 500 college graduates in Shanxi lost tens of millions of yuan between 2008 and last year to a rogue job agency in a scam in which they were each swindled out of between 200,000 yuan and 500,000 yuan paid in return for promises of jobs in the state-owned sector.
As competition in the job market gets fiercer, those from less privileged families also face all sorts of discrimination and administrative barriers.
Zhao Lili , a postgraduate student in Beijing originally from Henan , said she faced twin difficulties in job hunting - as a woman and someone without Beijing household registration, or hukou.
"Many recruiters have shown no interest in me after learning that I'm not a local resident because they think I'm more of a liability than a local applicant," she said.
Zhao, who is studying business management, said a far larger proportion of male students in her faculty had found jobs than had female students.
Xiong Bingqi , deputy director of the Beijing-based 21st Century Education Research Institute, said governments needed to play a bigger role in creating jobs, boosting transparency in recruitment and addressing inequality in access to sought-after positions.
Xiong also warned against a public preoccupation with statistics about the job outlook for university graduates, which could put pressure on universities to doctor their employment figures and force students to rush into jobs they disliked.
Studies by Mycos Data, a mainland consultancy specialising in higher education, show that 38 per cent of university graduates in 2009 left their jobs after six months.
"So job-creation efforts for college graduates are not a seasonal issue, but should begin shortly after students enter universities and continue all the way through the first three or five years of their career and even longer," Xiong said.
In tomorrow's Post: An American university ventures into China