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China’s ‘blank paper’ graduates fear years of remote learning and no experience make them unemployable

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  • With no internships and degrees earned mostly online, what are 11.58 million students to do when recruiters say employers will ‘just wait for the next batch of graduates’?
  • Firms are still recovering from three years of zero-Covid, and many are reluctant to roll the dice on inexperienced applicants in a ‘challenging’ business climate

After fishing for more than 50 positions across various job portals, Connie Xu finally got a nibble – the chance to interview for an internship with a company in a major Chinese city.

The 22-year-old, who graduated this month with a degree in Chinese language and literature, considered herself a good candidate for the position, with the necessary skill set and classroom experience from projects at university. So, the Guangdong native travelled 90 minutes for the interview, anticipating that this could be her shot at gainful employment.

It did not go as she had hoped.

“They said I’m a greenhorn. In the words of my interviewer, I am a piece of blank paper without any actual work experience,” she recalled.

A jobseeker interacts with a recruiter at a job fair in Beijing on June 9. Photo: EPA-EFE

After fishing for more than 50 positions across various job portals, Connie Xu finally got a nibble – the chance to interview for an internship with a company in a major Chinese city.

The 22-year-old, who graduated this month with a degree in Chinese language and literature, considered herself a good candidate for the position, with the necessary skill set and classroom experience from projects at university. So, the Guangdong native travelled 90 minutes for the interview, anticipating that this could be her shot at gainful employment.

It did not go as she had hoped.

“They said I’m a greenhorn. In the words of my interviewer, I am a piece of blank paper without any actual work experience,” she recalled.

So, she continues to search. And she is hardly alone in struggling to find a job, especially among her fellow fresh graduates – all 11.58 million of them – entering China’s workforce this year.

The unemployment rate among Chinese aged 16 to 24 continued its rise in May to an all-time high of 20.8 per cent, up from the previous record-breaking 20.4 per cent in April.

China’s highly restrictive zero-Covid policy, which endured for nearly three years of the pandemic and featured citywide lockdowns, was abruptly abandoned in December, but the effects continue to be felt among the world’s largest workforce.

Much of the class of 2023 spent nearly all of their formative college years cut off from in-person learning and internships, and now many are struggling to convince employers that they can handle a real job.

Four years of university, and we were stuck on campus for three years,” Xu lamented.

Miriam Wickertsheim, a Shanghai-based recruiter for foreign companies, said that fresh graduates she spoke to recently – those who studied for their undergraduate degree from 2019 to 2023 – feel more unattractive to recruiters after basically earning their degrees online.

A jobseeker interacts with a recruiter at a job fair in Beijing on June 9. Photo: EPA-EFE

After fishing for more than 50 positions across various job portals, Connie Xu finally got a nibble – the chance to interview for an internship with a company in a major Chinese city.

The 22-year-old, who graduated this month with a degree in Chinese language and literature, considered herself a good candidate for the position, with the necessary skill set and classroom experience from projects at university. So, the Guangdong native travelled 90 minutes for the interview, anticipating that this could be her shot at gainful employment.

It did not go as she had hoped.

“They said I’m a greenhorn. In the words of my interviewer, I am a piece of blank paper without any actual work experience,” she recalled.

So, she continues to search. And she is hardly alone in struggling to find a job, especially among her fellow fresh graduates – all 11.58 million of them – entering China’s workforce this year.

The unemployment rate among Chinese aged 16 to 24 continued its rise in May to an all-time high of 20.8 per cent, up from the previous record-breaking 20.4 per cent in April.

China’s highly restrictive zero-Covid policy, which endured for nearly three years of the pandemic and featured citywide lockdowns, was abruptly abandoned in December, but the effects continue to be felt among the world’s largest workforce.

Much of the class of 2023 spent nearly all of their formative college years cut off from in-person learning and internships, and now many are struggling to convince employers that they can handle a real job.

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“Four years of university, and we were stuck on campus for three years,” Xu lamented.

Miriam Wickertsheim, a Shanghai-based recruiter for foreign companies, said that fresh graduates she spoke to recently – those who studied for their undergraduate degree from 2019 to 2023 – feel more unattractive to recruiters after basically earning their degrees online.

“Their interviewers said they only learned remotely, so there were fewer social activities and fewer opportunities to work face-to-face, to develop teamwork and social skills,” she said. “Employers said they would just wait for the next batch of graduates.”

She added that many small, private Chinese companies, which traditionally provide the first jobs for a lot of fresh graduates, suffered during the pandemic and are still trying to recover.

“Even if companies are putting up job openings, they are replacement positions instead of expansions. These are not positions that could be junior or graduate level,” Wickertsheim said. “It takes quite a lot of time and resources for a company to take a fresh graduate and teach them to a point where they are adding economic value to the company.

“At the moment, when the business climate is challenging, a lot of companies are reluctant to make those kinds of investments, especially when young graduates often have a certain turnover [rate] and higher volatility.”

At the same time, a lot of young people now are holding degrees that are simply not in demand, said Wickertsheim, who has worked in China for more than 13 years.

“Graduates a decade ago studied engineering or finance or accounting, because this is what their parents or teachers recommended to them, so they could for sure find a job. Now, a lot of people have been brought up in a growing economy, and they are more at liberty to study something they find interesting, so that might make it a little bit more challenging to find work.”

Meanwhile, China’s youth unemployment rate keeps breaking records and continues to spark heated discourse across the country.

With one out of every five members of the 16-24 demographic unable to find a job, the central government has vowed to address the worsening trend that comes at a time when a bumpy post-pandemic recovery has led to weak consumer demand and mixed investor sentiments.

On June 1, China’s Ministry of Education announced a nationwide 100-day campaign “to guide graduates to take the initiative to seek jobs, and help more college graduates find employment as soon as possible, before and after leaving school”.

So, she continues to search. And she is hardly alone in struggling to find a job, especially among her fellow fresh graduates – all 11.58 million of them – entering China’s workforce this year.

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