Study Buddy: For China’s elite graduates, career dreams take a back seat to stability in coronavirus-hit job market

  • The economic uncertainty brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic has made top Chinese graduates more risk averse in their career aspirations
  • Use the provided pre-reading activity, comprehension questions, vocabulary practice and writing prompt to test your understanding of the article

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As a record number of Chinese graduates enter the job market, even those from elite universities are setting aside career dreams for stability. Graphic: SCMP

1. Pre-reading questions

  1. Which industry would you like to work in when you graduate (e.g. banking, education, IT, engineering, government or property)?

  2. What kind of company or organisation would you like to work for when you graduate (e.g. government, state-owned enterprise, large company (e.g. AliBaba, SHKP, HSBC), a small or medium enterprise or a start-up)?

  3. Would you accept a lower salary (say, 20% lower) in return for a more stable job (e.g. with a government department or large bank)?

2. Comprehension (31 marks)

Read the following text, and answer questions 1-18.

[1] When Hermione Zhang graduated with a master’s degree in Beijing last year, the 25-year-old had high hopes of working at a commercial bank or securities firm in one of China’s biggest cities. But after her two-year programme was put on hold for nine months due to the pandemic – preventing her from networking or interning, which would have given her valuable face time with employers – she was forced to set her sights a little lower. Eventually, after sitting through a gruelling 89 interviews in three months, she took an offer at a small rural bank near her hometown in the central province of Shanxi.

[2] “If it wasn’t for the pandemic, I would have stayed in Beijing, even just doing internships,” said Zhang. “The pandemic has changed the way I make my career decisions. In a difficult time, everyone wants to land a stable job. In the face of uncertainties, the tendency to avoid risks and unfavourable scenarios has surpassed the urge to be adventurous and enterprising.”

[3] Amid a state of economic flux three years into the coronavirus pandemic, many young Chinese from elite universities are setting aside career dreams for stability, as a record number of graduates enter a job market clouded with uncertainty. Schooled at the most prestigious universities at home and abroad, top Chinese talent used to aim for Fortune Global 500 companies, large internet platforms, consulting agencies or law firms in cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. But this year, graduates have been intimidated by a torrent of news on social media about mass lay-offs at tech, entertainment, private tutoring and real estate companies as the Chinese economy is battered by stringent coronavirus control measures and regulatory crackdowns. They are willing to settle for lower pay and life outside big cities, for jobs at state-backed firms or in the public services – positions considered more secure in a turbulent economic climate. As a result, job ads are receiving hundreds of applicants and even civil service positions in backwater towns are coveted by overqualified applicants, industry insiders say.

[4] In Lishui, a small county in Zhejiang province with a population of under 200,000, the local “talent recruitment scheme” helped hire 24 fresh college graduates, 23 of them with postgraduate degrees, including four with doctorate degrees. More than 700 applicants with postgraduate degrees from top five universities in China and prestigious overseas institutions applied to work in a far-flung county called Heping in Guangdong, with about 350,000 residents.

[5] “The quip that goes, ‘The end of the universe comes down to public servant positions’ is getting more and more popular among students,” said a lecturer surnamed Zhao, who works for Beijing Offcn Education & Technology Co, one of China’s largest tutoring organizations for the public service examination. “Since last year, students’ desires for public servant jobs are getting stronger due to the worsening labour market amid the pandemic.” Zhao said even students with the most impressive academic backgrounds are choosing stability to reduce the chances of getting laid off in the future.

[6] “The competition has got so intense, the people we hired at 6,000 yuan (US$890) a month this year are better than those we used to hire at 8,000 yuan,” said Fred Feng, a team manager at Hays, a recruitment agency headquartered in Hong Kong. In China, jobs at foreign companies used to be considered secure and distinguished, but in recent years, they have lost their shine to the country’s fast-growing internet companies that have more appealing salaries. Feng, who leads a team of about 12 people, said the number of applicants for jobs at his company has increased by more than half compared to last year, with many of them holding master’s degrees from elite US schools such as Johns Hopkins University or top tier domestic ones like Peking University. Feng is hiring for entry-level human resources jobs, but applicants abound with previous internships or law degrees. “Internet companies are cutting their headcounts, and many of our applicants said they feel at a loss about what their futures hold,” he said, adding that despite uncompetitive pay, the stability at his company is appealing for young talent.

[7] Chinese internet giants such as Tencent and Alibaba have rolled out rounds of job cuts over the past year, as regulatory pressure and lockdowns weigh on business. Hundreds of real estate companies have filed for bankruptcy over the same period amid a nationwide property slump, official data showed. Wary of the tech sector’s grim prospects, 22-year-old student Liu, who only gave her surname, is worried about whether she can secure a job at an internet company. “During my internship at ByteDance, many mentors told me the headcounts this fall will be much less than previous years’ due to the [economic] climate, and they warned us to be prepared,” said Liu, who will soon graduate from a business masters programme at a top Hong Kong university.

[8] The economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic has made Chinese graduates more realistic and risk averse. Work with state-owned enterprises is the most popular choice for this year’s graduating class, according to a report by online recruiting company Even the most competitive jobseekers, such as those with degrees from overseas universities, are looking for work in the state sector.

[9] “This year, students’ expectations are pretty low and they are choosing stability over career development,” said Ryan Hu, founder and CEO of career consultancy Togo Career, whose clients are exclusively Chinese who studied abroad. “The competition is super intense. We work with students who have both bachelor’s and master’s from Ivy League schools, and those who went to top UK universities. At least half of these students would list state firms as one of their top choices.”

[10] Unemployment prospects in China are grimmer than at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, experts say, as lockdowns and virus-control measures stoke market uncertainty and dampen the economic growth outlook. The headline jobless rate – the surveyed urban unemployment rate – rose by 0.3 percentage points to 6.1 per cent in April, the highest level since March 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. It was also above the government’s target of keeping unemployment under 5.5 per cent this year. The unemployment rate for workers in the 16 to 24 age group reached 18.2 per cent over the same period, the highest level since 2018, when China first started publishing the data monthly. Unemployment for this age group typically peaks in the summer as fresh graduates enter the job market.

[11] Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has also warned of a “grim” outlook for the job market, urging provincial governments to take stronger action to stabilise employment ahead of the 20th Party Congress. The government has rolled out a series of fiscal policies to cushion employment, including tax and fee cuts, subsidies, easing of financing restrictions, exemption of late fees for payments, and support for college students starting new businesses.

[12] Anxious parents are also taking a greater role in their children’s search for employment, unwilling to leave anything to chance. Hu, from Togo Career, has noted more parents joining job consulting sessions with their kids than in previous years. “Overall, an increasing number of parents have a stronger desire for their children to go to state firms, or companies with a stable outlook,” he said. “They are asking out of anxiety whether their children should plan ahead. Because compared with those that have children living abroad, these Chinese parents are exposed to more news about intensifying competition this year and lay-offs, and are more sensitive about it.”

Source: Adapted from “For China’s elite graduates, career dreams take a back set to stability in coronavirus-hit job market” by Luna Sun, South China Morning Post, 15 June 2022.


1. Decide whether the following statements are True, False, or the information is Not Given in paragraphs 1 to 4. (4 marks)
(i) Hermione Zhang received only one job offer.
(ii) Zhang’s desire for stability is stronger than her urge to be adventurous.
(iii) More university graduates are entering the job market than ever.
(iv) Few university graduates want to work in small towns.

2. Which phrase in paragraph 1 refers to being delayed?

3. According to paragraph 2, what is Zhang’s goal?

4. Following is a summary of paragraph 6. In five of the lines, there is ONE mistake. If you find a mistake, underline it and replace the word with one that expresses the correct idea. Write the word in the box on the right. Both grammar and spelling must be correct. In one of the lines, there is no mistake; put a tick (P) in the box. The first one has been done for you as an example. (6 marks)

5. What does the word “they” underlined in paragraph 6 refer to?

6. Find ONE word in paragraph 7 that means a state of not being able to pay what you owe.

7. Find a word in paragraphs 8 to 10 that has a similar meaning to each of the following words. (4 marks)
(i) “opposed”
(ii) “abroad”
(iii) “leading”
(iv) “worsen”

8. Fill in the blanks with ONE word only. (3 marks)

According to paragraph 10, finding a job now is even (i) ________________ than in early 2020 because lockdowns and other measures to (ii) __________________ the coronavirus have resulted in a (iii) ________________ economic growth outlook.

9. What was the jobless rate recorded before April 2022?

10. According to paragraph 10, why is unemployment normally highest in summer?

11. In paragraph 11, what does Premier Li mean when he warns of a “grim” outlook for the job market?

He means that fresh graduates __________________________.

12. In paragraph 11, “subsidies” are an example of _______________.

13. According to Hu in paragraph 12, why are Chinese parents whose children are studying in China more nervous than those whose children are studying overseas?

14. According to Hu in paragraph 12, …
A. parents don’t want their children to work for state-owned enterprises.
B. parents are more anxious than before.
C. parents should not get involved in their children’s job search.
D. parents are not aware how tough the job market is this year.

Questions 15-18: The reading passage has 12 paragraphs. Choose the correct headings for the four paragraphs below from the list of headings provided. Write the correct number in the space provided.

List of Headings
i. Lower salary expectations
ii. Even students from elite universities seeking security
iii. Chinese parents prefer stability
iv. Graduates less interested in foreign companies
v. Rising unemployment rate
vi. Graduates lowering sights
vii. Government action to stabilise employment

15. Paragraph 1 _______

16. Paragraph 3 _______

17. Paragraph 6 _______

18. Paragraph 10 ______

3. Vocabulary practice (14 marks)

A. Words

  • gruelling (adj) – very tiring and demanding

  • intern (n) – new university graduate who gets practical job experience, sometimes for low or no pay

  • peak (vb) – reach its highest point

  • prestigious (adj) – respected and admired

  • scenario (n) – a description of what might happen in the future

  • stringent (adj) – strict, must be obeyed

  • turbulence (n) – the state of being in disorder

Place one word from the box in each blank, using the correct form of the word.

1. Several employees said the company’s labour practices were better than the norm in the industry — for example, the firm pays _______________ well.

2. European banks had another _______________ week, hit by a triple whammy of Western sanctions on Russia, a scaling back of rate hike expectations and a worsening macroeconomic environment.

3. You were faced with an impossible _______________ that you could only choose either job security or job satisfaction and had to make a tough decision.

4. She decided to seek membership at the Wanderers Club — one of the finest, most _______________ and most exclusive of clubs in South Africa.

5. Governments need to set more _______________ air quality national standards and explore better foreign policies that promote better air quality.

6. Global stock markets have been _______________ since Russia invaded Ukraine last week.

7. Influenza occurs in Hong Kong throughout the year, but it usually ______________ in February and March with the most number of cases reported.

B. Phrases

  • cushion (vb) employment (n) – help avoid unemployment

  • fiscal policies (n phr) – the use of government spending and tax policies to influence economic conditions

  • grim (adj) prospects (n) – bad possibility of something happening

  • lay off (phr vb) – dismiss from work

  • lose (vb) its shine (n) – stop being attractive or interesting

  • risk averse (adj) – unwilling to take risks

  • weigh on (phr vb) – be worrying or disheartening

Place one phrase from the box in each blank, using the correct form of the words.

8. What is the difference between being ____________________ and being fired? Both will lead to the decrease in the number of employees.

9. Today the company has ____________________ as reports indicate it is preparing to lay off between 50 and 75 per cent of its staff. Top talent may no longer find this company attractive.

10. The war has further strained an already stretched global supply chain while ____________________ global food and oil supplies.

11. Hotels face ____________________ for the rest of 2022 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

12. Rich investors in Asia are becoming more ____________________ and are focusing on cash to avoid loss.

13. Examples of ____________________ for health are taxes on tobacco and alcohol, subsidies on certain foods, and tax incentives for health care purchases.

14. Export growth has also continued to accelerate, helping ____________________. Fewer people out of work will surely benefit the overall economy.

4. Writing

Write about 300 words for the following essay question:

The Careers Club in your school has decided to invite speakers from different companies and industries to speak to the students about career opportunities in their field.

You are a member of the Careers Club. Write an email to the Chairperson of the Club. Suggest at least TWO kinds of companies and industries to be invited. Give reasons to support your suggestions. Sign your email Chris Wong.


Experts say unemployment prospects in China are grimmer than they were at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. Photo: Shutterstock


1. Pre-reading questions – sample answers

  1. I would like to work in education. It may not be as exciting as some other fields, but it is where my interest lies, and the pay is fine for me, and the jobs are generally stable. I think teaching in primary school, secondary school or university would be a worthwhile career, as I would be helping train young people to be productive and responsible members of society.

  2. I would prefer to work for a start-up in the high-tech field. I know it would be risky because a lot of start-up companies eventually fail, but I think it would be worth the risk because it would be more exciting and I think I would have an opportunity to learn much more than I would working in a large, traditional company.

  3. At my age, I am not really interested in stability. I would accept a lower salary job initially if it would lead to greater opportunities in the near future.

2. Reading Comprehension answers (31 marks)

  1. (i) NG; (ii) T; (iii) T; (iv) F

  2. (was) put on hold

  3. to land / get a stable job

  4. (i) (bad) good; (ii) (hate) prefer; (iii) (lower) higher; (iv) (fewer) more; (v) ✓; (vi) (certain) uncertain

  5. (jobs at) foreign companies

  6. bankruptcy

  7. (i) averse (ii) overseas (iii) top (iv) dampen

  8. (i) harder / tougher; (ii) control / contain / restrain; (iii) poor / bleak / gloomy / dreary

  9. 5.8%

  10. Fresh graduates enter the job market.

  11. will have a hard time finding a job / will find it harder to get a job this year

  12. fiscal policies

  13. They are exposed to more news about more intense competition for jobs this year.

  14. B

  15. vi

  16. ii

  17. iv

  18. v

3. Vocabulary Practice answers (14 marks)

  1. interns

  2. gruelling

  3. scenario

  4. prestigious

  5. stringent

  6. turbulent

  7. peaks

  8. laid off

  9. lost its shine

  10. weighing on

  11. grim prospects

  12. risk averse

  13. fiscal policies

  14. cushion employment

4. Writing – sample answers:

  • I think we should focus on finance industries first. It would be nice to have a speaker from the financial industry, such as banking, especially from a big bank, like HSBC, Standard Chartered or Bank of China.

  • We must have someone from the IT industry. Like finance, IT is a very broad industry, covering many sectors, so it would be nice to get a speaker from a company that is involved in many different IT sectors, like Alibaba.

  • I think we should invite speakers from successful start-up companies as well, so that students don’t just think about joining a large company. They should hear from entrepreneurs with new ideas and approaches, since this is the future.

  • I don’t think it matters what industry they are in or what product or service they provide. It’s useful to hear how they got their idea, how they started the company, how to succeed as a start-up, and what it’s like to work for a start-up.

  • It might also be useful to invite a speaker with broad government experience, who could give students a general idea of what it’s like to work for the government and what sorts of opportunities are available for university graduates.

Sponsored by The Hong Kong Jockey Club

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