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Lessons from China’s Current Employment Crisis.

by Benjamin Skye | September 14, 2010 | Newsletters 0 Comments

On the Rise: Beijing's ever-changing, ever-growing skyline serves as a metaphor for the continual rise of the Chinese economy.

On the Rise: Beijing's ever-changing, ever-growing skyline serves as a metaphor for the continual rise of the Chinese economy.

The remark “because it was made in China” is often made in reference to a product that is either inferior in quality or design. Typically, these remarks are obviously made in good humor, and are often reflective of a more positive picture – that China’s economic prowess has been experiencing a boom unlike any other witnessed in human history. In fact, China’s recent displacing of Japan as the second strongest economy in the world behind the United States should serve as an encouragement to the Chinese citizens of the bright future awaiting their motherland. Even as the prospect of China establishing itself as the undisputed leader in world economy looms large, there still yet remains one obstacle that may prevent this dream from becoming a reality.

The Education section of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine recently featured an article by Dexter Roberts highlighting the plight of job-seeking graduates in China today. The article, titled, “A Dearth of Work for China’s College Grads”, reports that over a quarter of the college students who graduated from Chinese universities in 2010 have yet to find jobs, citing various reasons for this employment crisis.

Looking to the future: China's current crop of university graduates are faced with a competitive job market with extremely bleak prospects. Over 25% of 2010's graduates are still unemployed.

Looking to the future: China's current crop of university graduates are faced with a competitive job market with extremely bleak prospects. Over 25% of 2010's graduates are still unemployed.

The article quotes Zeng Xiangquan, dean of the School of Labor Relations and Human Resources at Renmin University of Beijing, stating that the number of graduates have tripled since 1998 causing the rate of increase in college-educated individuals to far exceed the growth of white-collar job opportunities in China. This boom in university admissions was instigated by the Chinese government about a decade ago, believing that such a move would contribute to greater economic benefits. Part of this plan included shifting the nation’s economic model from cheap manufacturing to one based more on innovation. Unfortunately, the educational model which China relied upon to develop its economy was flawed – leading to the mass production of college graduates who fall short of what companies todayneed in terms of skills.

This in turn has slowed down the salary increases for entry-level white-collar jobs forcing many graduates to have to choose between having a low-paying job – one that does not sustain the living costs of working in the city – and returning to their villages, where the cost of living is much lower, jobless. While it may seem that this issue may be resolved by the ever-increasing number of foreign companies setting up base in China – a phenomena that should be equated with a rise in job opportunities, these foreign business entities are not really doing much to “absorb this surplus labor”. The reason being, as suggested by a white paper published in May by the American Chamber of Commerce, that those companies that do hire these Chinese graduates typically discover that they “have to invest significantly in training and development to bring their new hires on par with their peers in other countries”.

It is important then to view China’s graduates’ struggle as an example highlighting the importance of having a holistic educational model. One that is capable of preparing its students in meeting the demands of the 21st century work environment. Here are some of the complaints voiced by employers regarding the state of Chinese graduates:

1. “Chinese college students are not trained to work collaboratively, be creative and innovative, or take risks.”

- This deficiency, according to the article, is a result of China’s Communist Party’s decision to model their education system after that of the Soviet Union. When the new regime came to power in 1949, they replaced China’s comprehensive universities with Soviet-style schools that produced graduates “narrowly focused on skills seen as necessary to manage a heavy industrialized, planned economy”. In other words, the Soviet educational model produced robots, not individuals who could think and learn for themselves.

Patriotism: Chinese citizens gathering in the streets for China's National Day celebration. The Chinese Communist Party's rule significantly undermined the nation's education system.

Patriotism: Chinese citizens gathering in the streets for China's National Day celebration. The Chinese Communist Party's rule significantly undermined the nation's education system.

2. “Chinese students lack working experience, especially in a multinational, diverse environment.”

- This problem is directly related to the sociological make up of the Chinese community. Since so much of China’s large population remains rigidly homogeneous, in addition to the traditional idealization of communal living and value systems, most Chinese students struggle to adapt in a diverse environment where differences between people create tension. As globalization becomes a new buzz word of the 21st century, college students are expected more and more to be able to engage with different cultures and worldviews. For this reason, studying abroad becomes more and more a necessity and a need.

A picture of the rush hour crowd in Beijing: China is home to over 1.3 billion people, over one-sixth of the world's population.

Subway madness: A picture of the rush hour crowd in Beijing. China is home to over 1.3 billion people, over one-sixth of the world's population.

3. “Chinese students are only good at the theoretical, and not on the practical.”

- One aspect of the Chinese education that has survived is the traditional emphasis on rote-memorization. According to Renmin University’s Zeng again, “The teacher stands and talks, talks, and talks. The students sit and listen, listen, and listen. We overemphasize theory and don’t [do well] when it comes to the teaching of practical skills.” University students produced by Chinese universities seem to only excel at regurgitating information – a potentially useful but generally obsolete skill in a world filled with computers and devices that have taken on the tasks of memorization. What employers today need are students who can synthesize knowledge and utilize it in such a way that it leads to new summits of innovation.

Chinese students in the classroom: The traditional emphasis on rote memorization in education does not produce students ready for the challenges of the 21st century workplace.

Listen, listen, listen: A picture of Chinese students in the classroom. The traditional emphasis on rote memorization in education does not produce students ready for the challenges of the 21st century workplace.

In light of all this, ELI 360 believes that it is extremely important for college students today, not just in China alone but all over the world, take into account what employers today are looking for when considering what university to attend. Elements such as a holistic educational system that emphasizes creative and innovative thinking, as well as the opportunities to work in a foreign and diverse culture should be at the forefront of the list of things the student is looking for. It is no longer sufficient to take the most convenient or popular choice when it comes to picking a university to attend. Otherwise, the student runs the risk of becoming an “inferior” product, unfit for the challenges of working in the 21st century.

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