Learning to crawl - China’s graduates look beyond Big Tech

With 11 million expecting to find jobs, optimism is in short supply among China’s new graduates, with employment prospects bleaker than ever.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP

By CHENG Yue, XIAO Fang

 

This year, China churned out another 11 million graduates. Many will quit college with a quite different outlook from previous cohorts. Optimism is in short supply. The employment situation in China, especially graduate employment, is perhaps at its lowest point since China’s great education program began.

Alibaba, Tencent and ByteDance are laying off employees. Plenty of big businesses like Li Auto and XPeng are dumping graduates almost as quickly as they once acquired them. Smart graduates are adjusting their career plans to steer well clear of big tech but there are far more who see no alternative but to dive into the loving arms of the usual suspects, demonstrating that there is not much on their minds but money.

Question of values

CHEN Xing got an offer after completing 13 written tests from 11 different companies, but many of her classmates have not found jobs yet. “It’s not easy. Some students from our school went to Huawei before, but I haven’t heard of any this year,” she said. “There are four written questions in Huawei’s technical recruitment test this year, and it is very likely that none of them can be done.”  

QIAO Ya applied to Meituan. In the week leading up to the written test, she spent half an hour a day practicing mock questions but was unable to solve the problems in the real exam. ZHANG Yang passed written exams at six tech companies but quickly tripped up. Questions revolved around his “experience” - internships unrelated to big tech. He failed repeatedly to get past the round. “Your understanding of operations is insufficient,” was the feedback from one interviewer.

LIU Ye, who had once interned at Tencent, also failed to get an offer. “Tencent’s assessment is very strict, and candidates need to be a perfect match before they are considered,” he said, closely echoing Tencent’s own PR and distancing himself from any personal failing.

Having been on a gravy train bound for a highly-paid destination almost since kindergarten, graduates are bewildered that simply yielding to the system is no longer enough. Graduates are now expected to be real participants in the real economy and actually work for the companies which drive the economy, rather than those which generate the most social-media kudos.

Chen Xing will join a local company in her hometown of Xi’an as an intern in June. Interviews were much more casual. “I was asked the same questions at big tech and my current company. The former kept throwing in-depth questions at me - they were only interested in what I didn’t know. Here, people are more interested in what I do know. I’ve been accepted on the basis of my skills, rather than rejected for my ‘weaknesses’,”

But Qiao has concerns. She went for interviews with several companies that she considered too casual for her tastes. The potential employers did not come up to the fresh graduate’s lofty expectations. For her, it reflected what she considered the non-standard management systems of such companies. For the companies, it reflects the non-standard aspirations of uppity interviewees. She already plans to change jobs within two or three years, oblivious to where the career path actually leads, but obsessed with the appearance of moving forward. She wants to go to a larger company with standard procedures. She wants rules and regulations that facilitate the appearance of progress.

Don’t blame Covid

Happily for businesses and graduates alike, few are now so committed to opinions like Xiao’s. Surveys show less than a fifth of this year’s graduates set their sights on enterprises with 500-1000 employees this year, while two-thirds of them opted for small companies.

While Tencent and Alibaba make empty pompous statements about this year’s glorious recruitment, the graduates we spoke to don’t know what the companies are talking about. No companies, big or small, are very keen to invest in this year’s crop of overtrained brains.

At one of China’s top universities, 60 percent of senior students haven’t found jobs, quite a rise since pre-pandemic days when 90 percent of graduates would have been sitting pretty by now. On-campus job fairs have been a disaster with Covid blamed for companies from other provinces being unable to attend. But the truth is, even of those companies who were able to attend, few showed up. The days of fast movement and high breakages have long passed.

Even those who hold offers are frightened by news of layoffs and contract terminations. Those who can’t find jobs continue to race on treadmills of interviews at their own expense for jobs that barely exist.

Entitlement natives

China’s recent graduates reached the gateway to their careers full of demands pretending to be ideals, expectations disguised as ambitions, and dreams masquerading as intentions. The strongest sense they share is the sense of entitlement.

It is a hard awakening to discover that they are entitled to nothing at all. It is shocking to step off the gravy train and begin navigating the world under the power of your own intelligence. Anxiety, disappointment and suffering, are sure to follow.