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Out of School, Out of a Job

With new college grads struggling to find jobs amid the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has introduced a policy package designed to stave off an unemployment surge. But will it work?

By NewsChina Updated Sept.1

China saw 8.74 million college grads in 2020. While 3.41 million have registered for graduate school entrance exams, the majority is scrambling for positions in an already thin job market. 

According to the South China University of Technology’s School of Journalism and Communication, this year’s employment rate for the school’s graduates is 35.2 percent with 48.5 percent for postgraduate students. The school appealed to its alumni network for helping new grads find jobs. 

Statistics from Boss Zhipin, an online recruiting company, showed that job vacancies for recent college graduates in the spring of 2020 dropped by 27 percent year-on-year despite the extended hiring season. 

Wang Feng (pseudonym) works in HR for a listed real estate company. The company usually begins its annual spring recruitment program after Chinese New Year. For 2020, they put it on hold. 

The company would recruit over 500 college graduates on average annually. Wang told our reporter that recruiting college graduates is a way for the company to expand its talent pool. But since the Covid-19 outbreak, the company has had to downsize.  

According to the National Bureau of Statistics, home sales in January and February dropped by 35.9 percent year-on-year, and real estate companies are facing growing financial pressure. Wang said his company expects to resume hiring college graduates in late 2020 on a much smaller scale. 

The aviation industry was also hit hard. Since early February, the Civil Aviation Administration has halted many routes and international travel also plunged.  

Liu Kuo, who works in the job placement department at the Civil Aviation University of China (CAUC), told NewsChina that she is facing unprecedented pressure. “A shared characteristic among domestic aviation colleges is more than 80 percent of students join the workforce directly after graduation,” she said. 

Since February, enterprises that regularly recruit the university’s graduates have been quiet. When Liu invited them to attend the spring online job fair, many said they were not hiring.  

Sun Ling, director of the college section at Zhaopin, an online recruitment platform, said March is usually the busiest time of year. But in 2020, roughly 30 percent of enterprises listed on the platform said they were not recruiting, while 40 percent are waiting out the pandemic. 

“Because of the downward economic pressure and impact of Covid-19, job vacancies for recent graduates dropped by 16.8 percent but the number of job seekers rose by 69.8 percent year-on-year,” he told NewsChina. Government statistics showed that China’s GDP fell 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020, the first time since the country’s reform and opening-up started in the late 1970s. 

According to a report on the job market for college graduates in the spring of 2020 by Boss Zhipin, the pandemic has battered China’s international trade, causing a drop in vacancies by 43.1 percent year-on-year. The service industry slashed demand by 40 percent and the financial sector more than halved its previous hiring numbers. 

“The growing number of graduates coupled with the number of new jobs drying up has made 2020 a tough year for college graduates,” said Dai Liyi, vice president of East China Normal University. 

But not all industries have cut back. Government data shows that the internet, manufacturing, energy, chemical engineering and environmental sectors have increased demand. 

Bytedance, the parent company of TikTok, announced in February that it would open 6,000 vacancies to college graduates. “Our talent demand doubled that of 2019 alongside the rapid growth of the company,” a senior HR manager with Bytedance told NewsChina on condition of anonymity. As of early June, Bytedance sent more than 3,500 offers to fresh college grads. 

According to a report on employment trends during the epidemic by job-hunting website, Liepin, new jobs in the first quarter of 2020 dropped 28.76 percent year-on-year. It also showed that companies involved in “new infrastructure projects” - featuring AI, 5G, the industrial internet and the Internet of Things - increased hiring in the first quarter by 43 percent year-on-year. 

Cloud Recruitment
On March 4, the Ministry of Education (MOE) temporarily halted recruitment events for college graduates and encouraged schools to move them online. 

In 2020 so far, reruiting website Zhaopin has organized 1,217 online job fairs, attracting over 730,000 enterprises with 2.8 million vacancies on offer. Other recruitment websites and social media platforms have opened new recruitment channels for college graduates. 

Online recruitment is safer and requires less overhead. The sudden spike in use of online recruitment platforms and software, however, has not been without hiccups. “Some companies complained to our university about frequent blank screens or dropped signals during online interviews,” said Liu Kuo at CAUC. 

Jiang Liping, head of the job placement office at Hunan University of Science and Technology, told NewsChina that enterprises had checked only 35 percent of their students’ posted resumes. 

The university organized eight online job fairs between February and June, offering 100,000 positions. But only 500 students signed contracts. In previous years, the university had arranged between 20,000 and 30,000 positions at offline events with roughly 1,000 students landing an offer. 

MCC-SFRE Heavy Industry Equipment, a State-owned machinery enterprise in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, told our reporter that the company attended several online job fairs since March offering more than 30 vacancies. As of early June, many were still available.  

“Most times, the candidate just looks at the name of a company when they look for a job online. Offline job fairs are much more interactive and more efficient,” said the company’s HR manager. 

Chen Jiena, an HR manager at TCL, an optoelectronics firm, told NewsChina that during in-person interviews, it usually takes only three minutes to determine whether a candidate is suitable. With online interviews, however, interviewers are more likely to miss subtle yet telling details such as body language.  

“Covid-19 broke out unexpectedly and most enterprises were playing it by ear during the spring recruitment season,” she said. “Manyrecruiting websites were also caught off guard and were not ready to serve both enterprises and college graduates.” 

Delivery workers box up the belongings of a graduate who could not return to her dorm at Wuhan University, Hubei Province, June 11

Breach of Contract
The pandemic has been precarious for students looking for a job and those with freshly inked contracts. Wu Xiaofei (pseudonym), a graduate from CAUC, landed an offer with an airline on September 19, 2019, the second day of autumn recruitment season. He signed with the company immediately. 

But in early February 2020, the airline withdrew its offer. “They told me the contract was not legally binding,” Wu said. “They added that following a lengthy observation period, I was not qualified. They didn’t elaborate further.” 

Wu told our reporter the company eventually withdrew 10 of the 20 offers to students from his university,  

After CAUC negotiated on the students’ behalf, the company agreed to make good on the offers - on the condition they agreed to relocate or take a different position.  

A recent graduate majoring in environmental engineering shared his experience on Zhihu, a Quora-like platform, saying that he signed a contract with a State-owned enterprise in late October 2019. However, in April, they withdrew the contract and paid him a penalty. The post received over 10 comments from people sharing similar experiences.  

According to a survey of jobseekers during the pandemic conducted by the Renmin University of China and Zhaopin, 51 percent of new college grads said it is “very difficult” to find a job in 2020. 

“Many enterprises saw losses in the first quarter and reluctantly breached contracts,” Wang Feng told our reporter. “Our company closed our branch in Changsha, Hunan Province, and graduates who had received offers there had to transfer to other cities. If they chose not to, we had to break the contract.” 

On March 18, the State Council, China’s cabinet, announced a series of directives to stabilize employment and stem a potential surge in youth unemployment that would expand hiring at SOEs over the next two years, and prohibit companies from arbitrarily breaking contracts and requiring mandatory internships. 

According to Fu Xinchao, director of enrollment and employment at Henan Finance University, with social distancing and quarantine rules in place during the pandemic, many students, particularly from vocational schools, cannot start internships, giving enterprises an excuse to withdraw offers. 

“Many recent hires are first required to pass an internship before entering the company. But that stopped early this year,” he told NewsChina. “Students signed internship contracts with smaller companies, many of which closed or cut staff because of the pandemic. These students ended up unemployed.” 

State Steps In
As the job market becomes competitive, college grads are turning to government jobs. In late April, Shandong became the first province to post job vacancies since the pandemic began. The province said it would hire 7,360 civil servants in 2020, doubling its numbers for 2019. Among them, 1,021 positions were available only to recent college graduates. 

In Fujian Province, more than 90 percent of its available civil servant positions are open to fresh graduates. Other provinces including Liaoning, Hebei and Jiangsu have expanded recruitment and opened more positions to the class of 2020. 

This year, Shenzhen saw nearly 28,800 college graduates. Labor authorities in the city told employers that at least 70 percent of their recent hires must be 2020 grads, a proportion much higher than in previous years. 

On June 11, Shenzhen’s public school system posted 1,382 jobs. In previous years, these jobs were only open to experienced teachers. The municipal government also required State-owned enterprises to increase hiring of recent college graduates. 

In March, the MOE cooperated with commercial job platforms to create 24365, an online recruiting platform offering over 13 million job vacancies to college graduates. So far the platform has hosted at least 29 online job fairs. An MOE survey showed that 24 percent of 1.05 million recently employed graduates said they searched for job information on the platform. 

The MOE announced it would offer 105,000 “special teaching positions” in rural areas in western and central China, and hire more than 400,000 college graduates to work at kindergartens, primary and high schools in western China. There are also preferential policies for college graduates seeking to join the army. 

“The government has offered many positions in sectors including healthcare and education to increase employment among college graduates,” Chu Zhaohui, a researcher with the National Institute of Education Sciences, told NewsChina.  

“These positions, however, are not enough to absorb the large number of graduates.” 

In recent years, the private sector has been increasingly filling that role. According to an employment report released in 2019 by China Occupational Skills, a higher education consultancy, 54 percent of college graduates from 2014 to 2018 worked for private enterprises. Chu argued that China should offer incentives to encourage businesses to recruit more college graduates. 

“Employment of college graduates depends on private businesses. The government should do its best to create an equal and sound environment for the private sector,” he said.

Teachers from Wuyi University in Fujian Province work on a group graduation picture using Photoshop, June 16