At this year’s commencement ceremony for the Chongqing Metropolitan College of Science and Technology in southwestern China, the graduating class did not receive the usual lofty message to pursue their dreams. Instead, they were dealt a harsh dose of reality.
“You must not aim too high or be picky about work,” said Huang Zongming, the college’s president, to more than 9,000 graduates in June. “The opportunities are fleeting.”
A record number of Chinese college graduates are entering the job market, exacerbating an already bleak employment outlook for the country’s young people. The confluence is deepening one of the most intractable issues keeping the world’s second-largest economy from regaining its vibrancy.
China’s unemployment rate for 16- to 24-year-olds in urban areas hit a record 21.3 percent in June. The numbers for July are expected to be even higher as the next wave of graduates officially transitions from students to job seekers.
Government policymakers struggling to address the problem are now leaning on colleges to do more to find jobs for graduates. The job performance of school administrators was already tied to the percentage of their students who find employment after graduation. Now top school officials are being encouraged to visit companies to unearth opportunities. In some cases, the scrutiny is so intense that students resort to fabricating job offers to placate school officials.
Over the last three decades, as China’s economy grew by leaps and bounds, more people attended college, seeing it as a pathway to promising careers. The number of students enrolling in colleges and universities increased to 10.1 million in 2022 from 754,000 in 1992, according to the National Bureau of Statistics.
This year’s estimated graduating class of 11.6 million students is expected to be the largest ever, and future classes are expected to be even bigger. At the same time, the economy is not growing like it once did.
The problem of youth unemployment may not abate for a decade, carrying potentially bigger ramifications for the country’s leadership, said a June report from the China Macroeconomy Forum, a think tank with Renmin University of China.
“If it is not handled properly, it will cause other social problems beyond the economy, and it could even ignite the fuse of political problems,” the report said.
China’s youth unemployment rate has doubled in the last four years, a period of economic volatility induced by Beijing’s “zero Covid” measures that left companies wary of hiring.
In addition, government crackdowns and tighter supervision have subdued once-vibrant industries such as online education, technology and real estate — fields young people had flocked to for jobs.
Starting in 2020, Alibaba, one of China’s biggest technology companies, was a target of government scrutiny. Last year, the company reduced its employee head count by about 11,700, or about 5 percent of its work force, according to a report released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a body that works under China’s State Council.
And as more young people pursued higher education, there has been a mismatch in the jobs they want versus what is available. China’s economy has not created enough of the high-paying white-collar jobs that many college graduates are seeking, intensifying competition for the most appealing roles.
In a May report about China’s youth unemployment, Goldman Sachs said young people were especially vulnerable to losing their jobs or not getting hired in economic downturns because they have less work experience.
In June, China’s Ministry of Education told schools and local officials to help graduates find jobs “with a sense of duty and urgency,” citing the concern of the Communist Party and the government’s top leaders.
The ministry also told Communist Party officials and school administrators that they should visit companies to seek out job openings for students in majors with low employment rates. In Hunan Province, the education department recently issued a notice that requires schools to submit an explanation if more than 20 percent of graduates find part-time or freelance work instead of a full-time job. Sichuan Province said its colleges would consider canceling majors with a low employment rate for two straight years.
Increasingly, the message being handed down to young people is that they should not be too selective in picking a job and that enduring tough times builds character. Xi Jinping, the country’s top leader, said young people should strive to work in difficult and remote areas and learn to “eat bitterness,” a Chinese expression that means to endure hardship. But even becoming an entry-level civil servant is more challenging these days, with vastly more people taking the entrance examination than jobs available.
College administrators are feeling the pressure to fulfill the employment mandates from government.
“The superiors press the schools, and the schools just press the staff,” said Emma Zhu, a career counselor at a college in Zhejiang Province.
Stella Xu, who works as a career counselor at a college in Hubei Province, said her boss handed out rankings of each counselors’ employment rates and asked them to provide updates on job placements at every monthly meeting.
“You place an invisible pressure on yourself,” said Ms. Xu, who said she had a “pretty good” employment rate after advising more than 250 graduates this year. “It would look bad if you’re too far behind others.”
Ms. Xu said that when she visited companies, she tried to persuade employers to take more graduates than they were seeking. She said she prodded her students to secure job offers quickly and told them that they must turn in job offer agreements to the school by graduation day.
“I’m just very uneasy every day about why some students haven’t been employed,” she said.
As the pressure campaign on colleges intensifies, students and administrators are turning to extreme measures.
For $17 on Taobao, a Chinese e-commerce site, a vendor is selling fabricated employment offers from a manufacturing firm affixed with a company seal and registration number. Along with providing the document, the vendor will also respond to confirmation calls from the school or a local education department.
Jessamine Wang, 23, who majored in financial management at a university in Chengdu, in southwestern China, decided to take the civil service exam after applying unsuccessfully for more than 100 jobs. Her career counselor urged her to turn in a fake job offer from a company anyway, and threatened to undermine her government job prospects if she didn’t. Ms. Wang said she refused.
Lucia Xu, 22, gave her career counselor a fake job offer with a construction company where a family friend worked. She is planning to take graduate school exams this winter and won’t be looking for a job while she studies for the tests.
“If you don’t sign one, they will hassle you more and more frequently. The closer it gets to graduation, the harder they press,” Ms. Xu said.