Chinese grads say no to factory jobs

Many of China’s unemployed college graduates aren’t interested in well-paying blue-collar jobs, which they perceive as being beneath them. They prefer to spend hours in Internet cafes or with friends until they can find office work

By Keith Bradsher  /  NY Times News Service, Guangzhou, China

Fri, Feb 15, 2013 - Page 12

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.

EDUCATED UNEMPLOYED

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.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (溫家寶) acknowledged in March that only 78 percent of the previous year’s college graduates had found jobs. But even that figure may overstate employment for the young and educated.

Yin Weimin (尹蔚民), minister of Human Resources and Social Stability, said in a speech last spring that “the major emphasis will be on solving the employment problem among college graduates.”

Wang is the youngest of four children. He was born in late 1987, as the “one child policy” was barely beginning to be enforced in rural areas. His less educated siblings have also been leery of taking well-paid factory jobs.

China has a millenniums-old Confucian tradition in which educated people do not engage in manual labor. But its economy still largely produces blue-collar jobs. Manufacturing, mining and construction represent 47 percent of China’s economic output, twice their share in the United States, and the service sector is far less developed.

The glut of college graduates is eroding wages even for those with more marketable majors, like computer science. But if Wang were willing to take a factory job, his interest in indoor design might take him to Hongyuan Furniture, a manufacturer of home saunas a 45-minute drive south across Guangzhou from his home.

The factory now offers newcomers about US$395 a month, before overtime. Six-person dorm rooms have been replaced with two-person apartments. Yet the factory still struggles to find workers. Plenty of college graduates apply for jobs at the company, but they are not desperate enough to accept blue-collar tasks, said Ni Bingbing, the company’s vice general manager.

ONE-CHILD POLICY

One unusual social dynamic created by the one-child policy is that many college graduates are only children with parents and grandparents who continue to nurture them into adulthood.

That is how Wang has managed to get by for most of the last three years without a job. Despite some grumbling, his parents send him money to help support the modest lifestyle he lives out of a small but tidy studio apartment.

As was common in rural China until very recently, his mother never went to school while his father attended elementary school for several years before dropping out. Now in their 60s, his parents had to give up their rice farm when the local government redeveloped the land it was on; Wang’s father does odd jobs as a construction worker to help support his son.

Not surprisingly, Wang’s parents have urged Wang to take one of the many factory jobs available. “You can get paid 4,000 renminbi [US$635] a month for taking such work, but I wouldn’t do it,” Wang said. “Your hands are dirty, you’re all dirty. It’s not for me.”

As hundreds of thousands of factories have opened across the country over the last decade, they have struggled to find workers who can operate their complicated equipment, much less fix it. Yet the number of those receiving vocational training has stagnated to the point that they are now outnumbered roughly two to one by students pursuing more academic courses of study.

“We have jobs and positions for which skilled workers cannot be found, and on the other hand, we have talented people who cannot find jobs; technical and vocational education and training is the answer,” said Lu Xin, the vice minister of education, at a conference in June.

DEAD-END JOBS?

China’s vocational secondary schools and training programs are unpopular because they are seen as dead-ends, with virtually no chance of moving on to a four-year university. They also suffer from a stigma: they are seen as schools for people from peasant backgrounds, and are seldom chosen by more affluent and better-educated students from towns and cities.

Many youths from rural areas who graduate from college, like Wang, are also hostile to factory jobs.

He is toying with other ideas to earn a living, but learning vocational skills is not one of them. One idea he has is to buy rabbits from wholesalers in the countryside, set out a mat along a Guangzhou street and sell the animals as pets or food.

“I’m not afraid of hard work; it’s the lack of status,” he said. “The more educated people are, the less they want to work in a factory.”