Updated: Jul 8
This special report has been prepared by Nguyen Ha Linh, Zhao Mingjun, Charmaine Magbuhos, Raphael Perri, Shen Chen and Erdenenyam.p., reporters in the Global Business Journalism program's In-depth Reporting and News Writing course.
By RAPHAEL PERRI
Global Business Journalism reporter
With youth unemployment rate in China at record highs, many college students are facing a tough decision: stay in school or graduate and face an uncertain job market. Amid the economic tumult of the COVID era and troubles in the nation’s tech industry, the trend is clear. Students are choosing to remain in the university setting, hoping that an advanced degree will give them a competitive edge and increase their chances of finding a high-quality job in the future.
"I'm staying in school because I don't want to join the army of unemployed graduates," says Lin Yuhong, a 26-year-old computer science Ph.D. student at Tsinghua University. "I know it's not a guarantee of finding a job, but I believe having a better degree will make me stand out from the crowd."
The April unemployment rate of 20.4% for job seekers between 16 and 24 years old came topped the previous record of 19.9%, set in July 2022, right after last year's graduation, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
“The job market is tough in China,” explains Qin Han, a student counselor at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. “It is hard for students to find a position with desirable salaries and benefits.”
Having worked in this field for six years, both in Australia and China, she observed that there is an oversupply of highly qualified applicants for available jobs, making the competition even more intense.
Recent layoffs in the tech industry – the largest employer of recent graduates of top Chinese universities – are exacerbating the issue. Companies like Tencent, Alibaba, and Xiaomi have announced significant job cuts and hiring freezes in response to economic pressure, a government regulatory crackdown, and intensified competition.
The impact of these layoffs is being felt at all levels, including entry-level positions, which are crucial for recent graduates seeking to enter the workforce.
This is particularly true for those looking to start their careers in the tech industry, which is often the first choice for many fresh graduates, as evidenced by employment reports from the country’s esteemed C9 universities. Huawei, Tencent, and Alibaba, prominent industry giants stand at the forefront, actively recruiting a significant number of students, surpassing all other companies and industries in terms of hiring.
>> Read more: What happened? Chinese tech layoffs, explained
For aspiring graduates, securing a position in the tech sector has long been regarded as an ideal starting point for their careers. However, recent circumstances have cast a shadow of uncertainty over this once-coveted path.
In response, students are following Lin Yuhong's example and are remaining on campus for graduate studies, either master’s or Ph.D.
“If you only have a bachelor’s degree and want to find a job, you will most likely fail,” explains Cherie Choi, who is pursuing her master’s degree at Tsinghua University after graduating from Peking University last year.
As companies kept rejecting her applications, she felt she had no other but to continue her studies.
“It was not just my problem, it was everyone’s problem,” she continued.
According to a recent report by the Chinese Ministry of Education, the number of Chinese students pursuing graduate studies within China has been steadily increasing and nearly doubled in the last decade, particularly in academic specialties such as finance and technology.
There is a compelling reason for students to pursue advanced degrees in these areas: the number of applicants for each job opening in these sectors can reach as high as 160, making it incredibly difficult for job seekers to stand out from the crowd.
However, obtaining a graduate degree does not guarantee success in the job market, and many graduates continue to struggle to find employment, even with an advanced degree from a prestigious university.
Despite this talent glut, the trend of Chinese students pursuing graduate studies within China is likely to continue, as they seek to improve their career prospects in the face of an increasingly competitive job market.
“In a country where education is highly valued, doing a Ph.D. is the new norm for staying ahead in a crowded job market,” emphasizes Xiao Peng, a Ph.D. candidate at Tsinghua University.
With competition for available jobs fiercer than ever, even doctoral graduates are not guaranteed jobs in academia or business.
“Not only do you need a Ph.D. but you also need publications in prominent journals, or even awards at competitions,” adds Lin Yuhong.
What’s more, getting that coveted job doesn’t guarantee a decent quality of life.
“At first, I was so happy to find a job in China, but dreams quickly turned to nightmares when I was asked to work late, on the weekends, and even on holidays,” Hou Hiuwen confessed a few months after graduating with a master’s degree from Chengdu University of Information Technology. “And if you don't do it, someone else will.”
Seeking a happier career path, she, like an increasing number of young Chinese professionals, is considering earning a living overseas. With all the stresses of her current job, “I don't want to work in China anymore,” Hou conceded.
Since 2010, the number of Chinese students going abroad for their university studies keep increasing. Baidu data reveals that this exodus has witnessed a steady average annual growth rate of 6%, underscoring the fact that Hou's aspirations are shared by many.
In the face of an increasingly competitive job market and a significant rise in the number of individuals pursuing graduate studies, the future outlook for coping with these challenges remains uncertain.
To echo the words of economist John Maynard Keynes, “The difficulty lies not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
This current generation of Chinese students and graduates finds itself compelled to challenge long-standing conventions in order to secure a bright future. Will the allure of foreign opportunities continue to exert its pull? And if it does, will these expatriates eventually return to their homeland, or opt to forge their paths overseas?
Such ponderings give rise to an inquiry into the essence of pursuing success and fulfillment in a rapidly evolving world. As we delve into these reflections, it becomes clear that the answers have the potential to redefine the narrative surrounding China's human capital and, indeed, the global labor landscape in our era of uncertainty.