December 29, 2016 1:00 pm JST

Young Chinese gravitate to grad schools for an employment edge

Millions pin hopes on higher degrees as plum jobs grow harder to find

MARIKO TAI, Nikkei staff writer

The gates of Peking University: Even graduates from elite Chinese schools are having a tough time in the job market. (Photo by Mariko Tai)

BEIJING -- Millions of Chinese youth decided not to attend Christmas parties this year. Instead, they spent the festive weekend sitting for a two-day entrance exam for postgraduate courses at national universities.

According to China's Ministry of Education, a record 2 million people registered to take the 2016 graduate school admissions test, up from 1.77 million in 2015 and 1.64 million the year before. The number of graduate school applicants has swelled 56% from a decade ago, when national schools received 1.28 million applications.

Meanwhile, the ministry projects that 7.95 million will complete undergraduate degrees in 2017, a 4% increase on the year. So a bigger proportion of Chinese college graduates are turning to postgraduate studies, rather than entering the workforce right away. 

A thirst for knowledge is not the only thing driving them. Many see advanced degrees as their best bet for surviving an increasingly competitive job market. 

The ratio of job offers to employment-seeking college graduates in China's 100 biggest cities was stable in the March-June period, at 1.05, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. The figure was down a fractional 0.01 from the same term in 2015. This data may not tell the whole story, however.

"National statistics are generally not very helpful or revealing," said Keegan Elmer, a researcher at the China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong. In a recent report, the CLB noted that the Chinese labor market is "without doubt" a lot tougher for job seekers than it was at the start of the decade.

Recent media estimates of the unemployment rate among young college graduates range from 4% to over 30%.

In an online survey by Chinese education information website eol.cn, 35% of respondents said the reason to pursue a postgraduate degree is "to increase their competitiveness in job hunting." Less than 31% responded that the primary motivation is "to improve academic research capabilities."

Online media company Sohu.com has reported recently that out of the 30 universities that offer students the best odds to find jobs, 23 reported that postgraduate students secured employment at a higher rate than undergrads.

With students looking for every edge they can get, the prevalence of postgraduate degrees among the Chinese population could approach that of the U.S., where roughly 12% of people ages 25 and up hold a master's or higher. As of mid-2015, there were roughly 20 million 21-year-olds in China; the 2 million Christmas exam takers -- assuming that a majority of them were university seniors -- account for about 10% of that tally.

No guarantees

Some big Chinese companies are actively recruiting postgraduate degree holders. JD.com recently launched a recruitment drive targeting candidates with MBAs from overseas schools. The program, dubbed International Management Talent, is designed to put new hires on the fast track to executive positions.

Internet giant Tencent Holdings also has an overseas MBA recruitment program.

Ai Lun, a 26-year-old postgraduate student majoring in English translation, reckons he made the right choice in pursuing a master's. He has already landed a job at a media company in Beijing, several months before he is due to finish his studies. 

Still, Ai stressed their are no guarantees of finding a good job in a prime location. "A lot of my schoolmates are struggling to find a job, especially in Beijing," he said. Students are feeling the pressure as China's economic slowdown leads to more layoffs and higher unemployment.

Zhang Linda, a 23-year-old postgraduate student at a university in Hubei, said she has been looking for a job since November, with no luck.

"Job hunting has turned out to be quite a challenge," Zhang said. "Although I want to work in Beijing, as my parents want me to, I might end up working in Hubei."

Asia300

JD.com, Inc.

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Asia300

Tencent Holdings Ltd.

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