China education a mismatch for job market

May 22, 2023 08:44
Photo: Xinhua

The Chinese are better educated than at any time in the country’s history – this year a record 11.6 million will graduate from universities. But youth employment – those between 16 and 24 – reached 20.4 per cent in April, also a record, and more than double the 2018 figure.

How can this be? There is a serious mismatch between the education and skills given to those graduates and the vacancies in the job market.

For example, there is a severe shortage of labour in manufacturing. Of manufacturers, 80 per cent say that they are short of workers by up to 30 per cent. Semi-conductor firms are short of 200,000 people, as are companies in AI.

China is educating more students in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) than any other country. But graduates are not specialised enough, have no professional experience nor have served as interns.

There are also deeper causes. During the Covid pandemic, thousands of companies, especially in the private sector, closed down. In addition, the government cracked down on the private education and real estate sectors and high-tech companies – all popular choices with new college graduates.

The post-epidemic recovery has been weaker than the government hoped, with retail sales and industrial production growing slower than expected. Demand in major foreign markets is also weak.

The state blames the graduates themselves for not finding work. In March, the Communist Youth League criticised them for clinging to their professional aspirations and “refusing to tighten screws in factories. “They should take off their suits, roll up their sleeves and go to the farmland,” it said.

It has praised graduates from leading universities who have taken jobs in the government of villages, the lowest level of the government structure.

In March, Central Television (CCTV) showed a video by a young couple with college degrees who said that they earned 9,000 yuan a night selling street food, such as teppanyaki tofu and French fries, at a city in eastern Zhejiang province.

The video sparked widespread scepticism from people on social media. The Beijing Youth Daily went to interview the couple a few days later – they admitted that, on most days, their sales were a third or less of the figure given in the CCTV interview.

CCTV has shown profiles of others it says are earning a good living in jobs that do not require advanced qualifications.

In the summer of 2021, China Tobacco Henan Industrial Co recruited 135 people to make cigarettes at its factories. Of these, nearly one third had master’s degrees, and the rest came from well-known universities.

When this news became public, people on social media asked what the value of the education of those graduates was.

The generation that is graduating now is different to any other in China’s history. They have grown up in an era of stability, prosperity and comfort and have not experienced the political campaigns, food shortages and economic hardships of their parents and grandparents.

The majority are single children, who have received every support, moral and financial, from their family. Parents spare no expense in the education of their children, including private institutions and foreign study. This has made many graduates unwilling to accept jobs on the factory floor or do manual labour, which they consider demeaning and a waste of their skills.

Graduates are not helped by the dramatic increase in the number of institutions of higher learning. By 2021, the number of public colleges and universities in China exceeded 2,700, including 1,270 universities and 1,486 higher vocational collages.

While the spread of education is good for China, the number has resulted in increasing competition among graduates, many with similar qualifications, and a devaluation of the degree they hold. To stay ahead, many feel the need to obtain further degrees, at home and abroad.

This high level of unemployment will have profound consequences. Those without jobs are likely to put off marriage and having a family. In 2021, China had only 7.6 million new marriages, down 38 per cent from 2015.

In 2022, China's population shrank last year for the first time in six decades and the national birth rate hit a record low - 6.77 births per 1,000 people.

Dr Jin Keyu, an associate professor at the London School of Economics, has just published a book; “The New China Playbook: Beyond Socialism and Capitalism”.

He said the new Chinese graduates were smart and well-educated but did not have internships. “Many of them have been overburdened by a competitive test-taking, rote-memorisation kind of education system, so they’re not that appealing to the private businesses that demand passion, interests, ethics and some experience,” he said.

In the longer term, this army of unemployed young people could become a political problem – without a job, short of money and angry.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.