Tales from a Shanghai job fair: Why China's college grads, employers mismatched

Graduates from Fudan University in Shanghai pose for a photo on campus. According to a recent state survey, China's college graduates are four times as likely to be unemployed than someone who hasn't studied past elementary school.

A job posting from Shanghai Bao Steel, China's largest steel company, says that people from parts of Sichuan, Anhui, Henan, and Hunan aren't welcome to apply. Discrimination is rampant in China's massive labor market.

Hundreds of HR managers carefully eye prospective employees who, resumes in hand, crowd the floor at a Shanghai job fair.

Here’s the problem: neither group is interested in each other.

Nicole Li is looking to hire college graduates for her property management company. “We need technicians to fix software problems, but college grads don’t have these skills," says Li, frowning. "We need people for exhibitions who can do presentations in English, but they can’t do that, either.”

Li needs to hire people for 60 high-skilled jobs. She says among the thousands of candidates here today, she’ll be lucky if she finds one.

Tong Huiqin comes to this job fair every Friday. He graduated from the Shanghai Finance University six years ago. Since then, he’s jumped from one job to the next. “It isn’t hard to find a job," says Tong.  "It’s hard to find the right job.”

He’s worked as a supervisor for a bunch of companies, but hasn’t found the right fit. “You could have five hundred graduates and five hundred job openings here, and none of them would match up," he says.

Tong blames Chinese universities. He says they need to do a better job at preparing people for the country’s rapidly changing labor market. Xiong Bingqi is the deputy dean of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, a nonprofit think tank in Beijing. “The scale of China’s higher education system has developed so fast that we’re failing to produce college graduates with the right skills for the jobs that are out there,” says Xiong.

For those with means, that’s meant sending your college-age children instead to universities in the U.S., Australia, or Europe. But most young Chinese can’t afford that, so they’re stuck in a Chinese university. And after they graduate -- according to a recent state survey -- their unemployment rate is four times higher than for those who didn’t get past elementary school.

Inside the job fair, young graduates linger in front of a booth for Bao Steel, China’s largest steel manufacturer. A big sign says that people from parts of Sichuan, Henan, Anhui, and Hunan are not allowed to apply. A guy applying for a job says people from those provinces can’t be trusted. It’s sort of like a booth at a New York job fair banning applicants from, say, Minnesota, Wisconsin and North Dakota. But this is typical in China, where even state-owned enterprises don’t bother to hide their discrimination.

At a neighboring booth, Jason Zhang is hiring people to work at a chain of nightclubs. He doesn’t care where his job candidates are from. He’s more concerned whether they’re willing to work. “I think today’s graduates are less appealing than people who were born in the '70s and '80s," says Zhang. "They tend to be overly confident and they don’t want to work very hard.”

I turn around and ask 22-year-old Wang Qianmin, who’s about to graduate from Shanghai Normal University with a teaching degree, what she’s looking for at the job fair. "I don’t know," she says with a pout. "Most of the jobs here aren’t really interesting. I’m looking for a company that’ll give me a high salary, money for meals and that’ll pay my rent -- a place where the working hours aren’t too long."

Wang says she wants to be a teacher. Or maybe a wedding planner.

She can’t decide.

Jason Zhang, the recruiter who has years of experience hiring people, rolls his eyes at this type of candidate. "Chinese college graduates these days think they’re really special," he says with a smile. "The problem is -- they’re the only ones who think that."

Zhang says Wang and many others in China’s class of 2013 will go all summer thinking they’ve got lots of options, and will probably end up unemployed.

About the author

Rob Schmitz is Marketplace’s China correspondent in Shanghai.

A job posting from Shanghai Bao Steel, China's largest steel company, says that people from parts of Sichuan, Anhui, Henan, and Hunan aren't welcome to apply. Discrimination is rampant in China's massive labor market.

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