As economy sours, China frets over jobless graduates

HANGZHOU, China — Like many college seniors in China, Pan Junjie will have bad news for his parents when he sees them for the Lunar New Year festival on Jan. 26, China's most important holiday: He'll graduate from one of China's top law schools in June, but he still doesn't have a job lined up.

Pan knows he'll get an earful from his parents about his future.

"They won't be satisfied," he said glumly outside a job placement fair. "They will say, 'You went to a good university. You scored well on the exams. And you can't get a good job?' "

Anxiety is high at Pan's Zhejiang University and at China's 750 or so other universities. As many as a quarter of the 6.1 million seniors who'll graduate this year are likely to have problems finding steady jobs, a new research report says.

As unemployment rises in China, competition for jobs is so severe that a Guangzhou Daily newspaper story early this month said that thousands of seniors in southern China had sought jobs as nannies and domestic helpers in the homes of the rich.

Such reports are unsettling not only for college students and parents but also for China's leaders. Communist Party chiefs are well aware that college graduates led the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square until tanks rolled through the capital, and they don't want educated — and now highly networked — young people growing disgruntled.

Premier Wen Jiabao discussed the issue with the State Council, China's Cabinet, last week, and the body issued a statement afterward calling university graduates a valuable human resource and vowing that the government "gives top priority to their employment."

A few decades ago, when China's economy still was centrally planned, getting into a university was difficult and tightly controlled. Barely one out of 20 college-age young people could enroll, but those who did had their futures assured.

"When college students graduated, they were allocated jobs," said Zhang Juwei, the director of the Center for Labor and Social Security Research at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

In this decade, China's leaders have encouraged university enrollment as a way to boost professional ranks and enlarge the middle class. Access to higher education has exploded, with vocational schools and colleges springing up around the nation. Since 2002, the portion of China's college-age population that's enrolled in higher education has climbed more than fourfold to 22 percent, but China still trails Japan at 55 percent, the United States at 67.2 percent and Australia at 72 percent.

Students, however, aren't necessarily studying to fill the jobs that are available. Many are fussy about where they work and what they earn, and some universities don't offer courses that teach the skills the marketplace needs.

"We took courses that weren't useful," said Wang Ning, a lanky 6-foot senior at Shanghai University of Sport. "I had to take a course in Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory. In these courses, the teachers talk and the students sleep."

A physical education major, Wang said she was "very worried" that she hadn't yet found a job as a PE teacher in a public school.

"The employment situation is not good," the 23-year-old said. "Not only are there new graduates this year, there are also graduates from last year who still haven't found a job yet."

Many students want jobs in service industries rather than in factories or industrial conglomerates, but China's economy hasn't created enough service jobs to satisfy their desire, Zhang said.

With unemployment increasing and the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen uprising coming up in June, which is also graduation time, Premier Wen is submitting plans to help graduates find work, offering the following incentives:

_ College graduates who join the People's Liberation Army will get tuition refunds.

_ Graduates who start their own businesses will get preferential tax and loan policies.

_ Seniors who agree to take jobs in the poor hinterlands of central and western China will get full refunds of their university tuition fees.

Two decades after the Tiananmen protests were crushed, leaving hundreds, if not thousands, dead, most of China's college students are aloof to political concerns, haven't heard of the uprising or don't care about it. Many are focused on seeking careers that pay well. Still, senior advisers to Wen said that tending to graduates' concerns might head off any potential social friction.

"The Chinese government has high concern about political stability, and it must take care of this point," said Wang Huijiong, a senior adviser at the Development Research Center of the State Council.

Many university students ignore the appeal to move to China's rural areas. They come from one-child families and feel strong obligations to remain near their parents, who often depend on them for financial support.

"My mother has already retired. In the next few years, my father will retire. Once they are retired, they need me to take care of them," Wang said.

A job fair at a convention center in the picturesque lakeside city of Hangzhou, near Shanghai, drew thousands of college seniors, some accompanied by their parents, nearly all carrying plastic sheaves with resumes. Long lines snaked away from the booths of major companies that were accepting applications.

Many students said they felt pressure to sign job contracts before the Lunar New Year, a traditional deadline for seniors to snare jobs.

"Some teachers tell us, 'If you don't find a job before the Lunar New Year, you die one time,' " said Wang Ping, a business management major at Zhejiang University of Technology, using a Chinese expression that means one feels intense shame.

Crowded in line, other students overheard Wang as she proclaimed her economics-related major as the hardest in which to land a job. Many immediately differed. One claimed that biological engineering was harder.

"No, it's mine, pharmaceutical sciences," another said.

Like most students, Wu Xuqin said she might not get the kind of job she once envisioned.

"Our teachers at the university told us we should lower our salary and job expectations," said the 22-year-old Wu, who studied pharmacy.

University graduates in China commonly make about $220 a month as a starting wage, although that may dip downward temporarily.


China, America's economic codependent, has hiccups

Was 2008 the beginning of another Great Depression?

Here's a happy thought: Stimulus plan might not work

China offers discounted appliances to prime its economy

Energy efficient home, easy to maintain — and no mortgage

McClatchy's inauguration coverage