‘Rustification’ revival to create jobs, reverse brain drain
Features | Education | Labour and Migration
In an ambitious drive to increase access to higher education, China’s college and university enrolment increased from around six million in 1998 to 21 million in 2005. But with the flood of new graduates, individuals are having a tough time finding jobs in an increasingly competitive labour market. Li Mu (李沐) reports on government interventions designed to alleviate graduate unemployment by encouraging young job seekers to "Go west, go down to where motherland and people are in greatest need."
"I want to stay in Beijing, and get this complex feeling about going back home," admits Xiong Fengyang (熊风扬), a student from a rural area who recently graduated from a university in Beijing.
Ashamed of failing the entrance exam for graduate school, which required a year’s preparation and coincides with the peak recruiting season, Xiong found himself left with meagre job opportunities after the considerable investment of obtaining his Bachelor’s degree.
So earlier this year he joined the queue to apply for a government post as a rural administrative assistant.
In 2006, Beijing’s municipal government started to offer competitive packages to graduates signing three-year contracts as administrative assistants in the municipality’s rural areas. This was in response to a 2005 State Council circular that stressed the importance of creating opportunities for graduates to “go down” to counties and villages as part of the solution to unemployment. Other provinces have followed suit with their own rural job creation schemes for graduates.
Beijing municipality plans to employ 8,000 graduates within three years. These “village officials” will enjoy an average starting salary of CNY 2,000 per month—higher than the starting wage of Beijing city civil servants and higher than the average graduate wage as estimated by Beijing Labor and Social Security Bureau—and it can rise to some CNY 3,000 in the third year. The job also comes with hukou registration, the legal status granting Beijing citizens privileges that are coveted by outsiders. And they are promised preferential treatment in civil servant tests and graduate school entrance exams after three years’ service.
These incentives are offered to assuage growing pains in the job market after the first batch of students from expanded college enrolment graduated in 2003. The supply of college graduates is calculated to be growing by 16 percent in Beijing annually, far exceeding the growth of white collar jobs.
Not keen to go
Yet according to a survey conducted by Beijing Municipal Bureau of Statistics, more than 60% of graduates reject the idea of taking a job in less developed rural and western areas even if they are not offered employment in the nation’s capital.
It is unclear what effect the rural service scheme will have on long-term employment trends, according to the Observer Group (中央财经大学守望者实践小分队), a student group that conducted field research in 22 villages of Beijing’s outlying Pingu District(平谷区). The group’s findings, published in China Reform Daily (which is affiliated to the powerful National Development and Reform Commission), suggest that much of the work done by graduate rural administrators is routine paperwork, and that villagers perceive this as having limited impact.
“I think that’s hardly surprising if graduates are placed to do minor jobs. They hardly know what the villages they are serving actually need, and what they learned in school may not be helpful,” says Chen Linsong (陈林松), a Beijing-born software engineering graduate. He feels that ICT is what villages need most, and that he would be able to do some “real work” such as providing computer skills training and website building, to boost efficiency and communication.
One graduate rural official, who prefers not to be named, says that he decided to break his service contract, because he wanted better job prospects and more income for his family. “Despite everything, government policies are very vague about the placement of these 8,000 people. Even if I can get to work as village head, I won’t be satisfied with a monthly salary of about CNY 1,500 out of their village budget. The experience won’t necessarily be helpful in the tougher job market three years later,” he says.
Despite these doubts, big cities like Beijing can offer rural and township opportunities that are more attractive than other places in China. There are now six applicants for each job in Beijing’s rural areas, according to a report in The Beijing Daily.
In less developed areas, students can get stranded in “Go down” projects because of a scarcity in local job openings. The China Youth Daily has reported that some graduates have worked for years in villages of Hainan, China’s most southerly province, but that their wages are much lower than general civil servant level. Despite the province’s promises of preferential employment policies, the newspaper says, these graduates cannot get jobs they want in local government and institutions even after two years of service.
Volunteers go west
After working for four years in township hospitals in Guangxi Autonomous Region, Mei Chunjing (梅春进) is now a vice director and chief of staff where he works. He is thankful for the opportunity provided by a state-led Go West Program that brought him to Guangxi from relatively prosperous Jiangsu Province.
Mei was one of the first batch of Go West volunteers. Started in 2003 by the Communist Youth League, the program has recruited over 50,000 graduates to provide volunteer service in education, health care, agriculture and cultural development in western provinces. As well as receiving a stipend, a State Council circular issued in 2005 promises the graduate volunteers preferential policies in civil service tests and graduate school entrance exams.
But it has not all been plain sailing. Shen Jinhong (沈靖弘), a Party official in charge of the volunteer project in poverty-stricken Yuzhong (榆中) township in Gansu Province, points to a mismatch between upstream volunteer selection and local job openings. It is often hard to find teachers with a relevant education background, Shen says. “We will do what we can to keep the right person, but firstly we must have people with the talent and attitude that we need,” he adds.
Limited fiscal resources and comparatively low local wages also cause problems for the scheme in poorer areas like Yuzhong, which sometimes has to turn away potential employees with the intention to stay, Shen says.
Yu Yiping (俞轶平), a teacher volunteer who served in Guangxi for two years, said that the academic background of many graduates does not often fit the local situation. Even those who have aptitude and physical fitness for the work often find that other factors such as family relations stand in the way of their settling down in the west. “I grew accustomed to the locality and really liked working there, but I do have to take care of my parents back in Jiangsu,” Yu explains.
Many “Go West” volunteers also complain of having to start from scratch when they return to find jobs in the east.
“The government has not promised to secure jobs for volunteers, so we have to rely on ourselves,” Yu says. “Basically from my experience, no company or institution ever hires people just because you’ve returned from volunteer service. So initially I’ve got the feeling of being left out.”
Volunteers say they are meeting tough competition in job hunting. This year alone, more than 750,000 graduates have entered the job market, a 22.2% increase on last year. Some volunteers also say that their volunteer work had little to do with their major field of study, creating additional disadvantages.
According to a survey recently cited by Youth League chief, Lu Yongzheng (卢雍政), by October 2006, 60 percent of Go West volunteers had returned to eastern and central China to look for work but their employment rate was only 53%.
Officials say they are making efforts to ensure that favorable policies for volunteers are implemented and that their social security issues are taken care of. The Youth League has held special job fairs for volunteers from Beijing and Shanghai.
It remains to be seen how far the Go West Program will succeed in diverting intellectual resources to China’s less developed areas. A nationwide survey of graduate employment from 2003 to 2005 shoes a drop of 5.9 percent in the proportion of those working in big cities as against those working in smaller cities, town and rural areas.
Yet, points out Yu Yiping, “It takes more than a few thousand volunteers to develop the west.”
Li Mu graduated this year in Journalism and English from Beijing Foreign Studies University. A contributor to the “We Observe the World” student blogzine, Li will start an MA in the Missouri School of Journalism this autumn.