CHINA: Pressure to improve graduate job skills

China is coming under growing pressure to make its graduates more employable as it faces its biggest unemployment crisis in decades. More than six million students will graduate this summer, joining more than one million of last year's class who are still unemployed and several million more workers who have lost jobs since the slowdown of the global economy.

Though the economic climate has aggravated the problem, experts say Chinese graduates are ill-equipped for the job market. "We used to think [students didn't get jobs] because they hadn't studied hard enough but feedback from the labour market suggests they are lacking certain skills," says Yang Dongping, an education expert at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

International companies have long complained about the lack of appropriately skilled Chinese graduates. "Companies have to invest significantly in training and development to bring their new hires up to par with their peers in other countries," says the American Chamber of Commerce in a white paper on doing business in China, published in April.

It is not only foreign companies that struggle. At a job fair in Beijing, local employers were unanimous in their views on the quality of graduates. "Schools [universities and colleges] teach very little that can be useful for future work. It's all exam oriented but the students have no practical skills," says Wang Qian from the human resources department of a photographic equipment company.

This mismatch of needs is becoming harder to ignore. The drive to make higher education more widely available in 1998 led to a surge in graduate numbers, now about four times the number 10 years ago. With the global slowdown shrinking the number of jobs available for young graduates, Beijing has been forced to tackle the problem.

In his address to the People's Congress in March, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao said education at all levels must focus on promoting all-round development of students. The curriculum needed to be reformed so that students had more time to "think, practise and create", and higher education institutions needed to offer courses to "meet the needs of the market and China's economic and social development".

Action has been slow, however. A proposed reform of the system has been delayed for years though a plan is scheduled to appear this summer, made more urgent by fears that millions of unemployed graduates could threaten social stability. A report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences last month revealed that fewer than half this year's graduates had found jobs.

Meantime, the government has unveiled a package of short-term measures. In January it urged research institutions to hire graduates to participate in projects and is also encouraging graduates to take jobs in rural areas or enlist in the army, offering grants and reimbursing student fees as incentives.

But experts say this will do little to alleviate what is becoming a permanent problem. "You can't learn anything from peasants. You need to be with decision makers," says Dr James Song, Director at Waterville Inc, a talent management firm in Shanghai, and a professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Song was also sceptical of the government's initiative to give subsidies and loans of up to CNY2 million (US$293,000) to small companies that hire new graduates. "That won't make companies take on graduates when they still have to turn them into productive people," he said.

A programme launched in April to create 1 million new internships in the next three years could prove more useful. Beijing said it will collaborate with companies to help unemployed graduates add to their work experience.

Yang believes the higher education system "forgets to pay attention to students' total qualities, especially their ability to communicate and deal with people". Students spend too much time in class and not enough time socialising, he added. "We have far more class hours than the US. Students need more opportunities to work with campus organisations and do other activities, such as internships."

Feng Hao, a 23-year-old graduate from Henan province attending the job fair, agrees. "Most students spend all their time in the library and don't get out and see new things. It's not good for us."

Other graduates seem to be tackling their lack of practical skills on their own. Local media report that rising numbers are turning to vocational colleges to improve their chances of finding a job. Some suggest that students from these institutions are not facing the same difficulties in finding work.

Jia Shaohua, who teaches a course on how to set up an online business at Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College, claims that around three-quarters of his graduates are now running their own companies. "More and more students are hoping to get into my school but we can only take 2,800 students per year so admission is tougher each time."

But while vocational training is now in acute demand, most people still believe university education to be far superior, says Song. "People still don't understand that the purpose of education is to produce useful people, not to glory their parents."

That might change if China's proposed reform of university education fails to make a difference to graduates' job prospects. "People have high expectations for this plan but we're not sure yet how far it will go," says Yang.

The experts say young people may simply need to change their expectations. "The sentiment is still, 'I'm entitled to a job'. They expect a lot from the employer and don't take responsibility for their own success or growth," says Song.

This contributes to a high turnover rate in companies. Ma Meng, a young employee with NCI insurance, one of the recruiters at the job fair, says most graduates hired by his firm last year had already left. "This is tough work and graduates lack the ability to confront frustrations in this job. They don't know how to deal with challenges so they just leave."

At Yiwu Industrial and Commercial College, Jia makes sure his students are prepared for the real world: "If you sit there and wait for help, nothing's going to change. What I tell my students is, take the initiative."

* Dominique Patton is a freelance journalist based in Beijing.