This city of 15 million on the Pearl River is the hub of a manufacturing region where factories make everything from T-shirts and shoes to auto parts, tablet computers and solar panels. Many factories are desperate for workers, despite offering double-digit annual pay increases and improved benefits.
Wang Zengsong is desperate for a steady job. He has been unemployed for most of the three years since he graduated from a community college here after growing up on a rice farm. Wang, 24, has worked only several months at a time in low-paying jobs, once as a shopping mall guard, another time as a restaurant waiter and most recently as an office building security guard.
But he will not consider applying for a full-time factory job because Wang, as a college graduate, thinks that is beneath him. Instead, he searches every day for an office job, which would initially pay as little as a third of factory wages.
“I have never and will never consider a factory job — what’s the point of sitting there hour after hour, doing repetitive work?” he asked.
Millions of recent college graduates in China like Wang, 24, are asking the same question. The result is an anomaly: Jobs go begging in factories while many educated young workers are unemployed or underemployed. A national survey of urban residents, released this winter by a Chinese university, showed that among youths in their early 20s, those with a college degree were four times as likely to be unemployed as those with only an elementary school education.
It is a problem that Chinese officials are acutely aware of.
“There is a structural mismatch — on the one hand, the factories cannot find skilled labor, and on the other hand the universities produce students who do not want the jobs available,” said Ye Zhihong, a deputy secretary general of China’s Education Ministry.
China’s swift expansion in education over the last decade, including a quadrupling of the number of college graduates each year, has created millions of engineers and scientists. The best can have their pick of jobs at Chinese companies that are aiming to become even more competitive globally.
But China is also churning out millions of graduates with few marketable skills, coupled with a conviction that they are entitled to office jobs with respectable salaries.
Part of the problem seems to be a proliferation of fairly narrow majors — Wang has a three-year associate degree in the design of offices and trade show booths. At the same time, business and economics majors are rapidly gaining favor on Chinese campuses at the expense of majors like engineering, contributing to the glut of graduates with little interest in soiling their hands on factory floors.
“This also has to do with the banking sector — they offer high-paying jobs, so their parents want their children to go in this direction,” Ye said.
SOCIAL STABILITY STRAIN
Wang and other young, educated Chinese without steady jobs pose a potential long-term challenge to social stability. They spend long hours surfing the Internet, getting together with friends and complaining about the shortage of office jobs for which they believe they were trained.
China now has 11 times as many college students as it did at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests in the spring of 1989, and an economy that has been very slow to produce white-collar jobs. The younger generation has shown less interest in political activism, although that could change if the growing numbers of graduates cannot find satisfying work.