In search of security, graduates opt for state-sector jobs

July marks graduation season for young students leaving the ivory tower in China. This year the number of fresh graduates from Chinese universities is expected to be 10.76 million, an increase of 1.67 million on 2021’s figures. This will create a new record. As the development of higher education in China reached massification a decade ago, the employment of graduates has drawn much attention from all walks of life.

This January, China’s top-ranked higher education institution – Tsinghua University – released the Employment Quality Report for the Class of 2021 on its official website. By observing the career choices of graduating students from prestigious universities in China, we can speculate on employment trends, young people’s career preferences and the issues they are considering when choosing where to work.

There will be more than 7,400 graduates from Tsinghua University in 2021, which is a substantial increase when compared with previous years, and there are two main tendencies: pursuing higher academic degrees and seeking employment, which are respectively responsible for 35% and 60% of the total number of graduates.

Where did Tsinghua’s fresh graduates choose to go for their further studies? There are only 517 new graduates, representing 7% of all students, who chose to study abroad, which is the lowest number in the last three years and approximately 1,000 fewer than before the beginning of COVID-19.

Preferred destinations for study abroad

Among the abovementioned 517 study-abroad graduates with bachelor or masters degrees, the preferred destinations are consistent with those of the 2020 class. The United States ranked highest (230), followed by the United Kingdom (90) and Singapore (50). Apart from those leaving home for study, nearly 30% of Tsinghua graduates participated in entrance exams for postgraduate or doctoral admissions in China, a slightly lower share than in 2020.

Where did over half of Tsinghua’s new graduates hunt for jobs? Nearly 3,670 graduates of the class of 2021 (the remaining 60%) left the ivory tower and signed employment agreements with employers, and that number is an 8% increase on 2020.

In total, state-owned enterprises and corporations accounted for almost 70% (2,570 of the 3,670), with most working within the bureaucracies of the Communist Party and the Government of China (15.8%), public universities, scientific institutes, research-oriented organisations (30.3%) and state-owned companies (23.8%).

The remaining 30% of the employed group chose to seek positions in private enterprises and foreign enterprises.

Traditionally in China, some positions come with guaranteed job security, as well as a steady income and benefits. These positions – known as ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs – include military personnel, civil servants and employees of the hundreds of state-owned enterprises, and can be roughly compared to the English concept of a ‘job for life’.

Job security

From Tsinghua’s new graduates, we can see that young people’s career decisions are changing silently in China. A need for the kind of stability, security and peace of mind offered by these ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs may be one of the most critical factors in the post-pandemic period.

The growing number of applicants for the National Civil Service Examination (Guokao) in recent years also exemplifies the above phenomenon. There were more than 1.5 million applicants for the 2021 Guokao (an increase of 110,000 from last year).

Similar to the situation in previous years, those positions with fewer requirements for factors such as professional competence and work experience are the most favoured by young candidates. A position in an ordinary post office in Ali City, Tibet region, has drawn media attention with 20,000 people applying for the post.

Likewise, the number of applicants for the 2022 National Postgraduate Entrance Examination (Kaoyan) has reached a new record of 4.57 million. This is a jump of 800,000 from 2021, and about twice as many as the 2.38 million who applied in 2018.

Despite the remarkable increase in candidates in 2022, the estimated admission rate remained stable, showing that there is little interest in significantly expanding numbers.

Comparisons with Taiwan

Does the above phenomenon only occur in mainland China? We might gain insight into future trends if we look at what happened in Taiwan two decades ago.

The late 1980s were a golden age for Taiwan’s economic development as Taiwan became one of the ‘Four Asian Tigers’ alongside Singapore, South Korea and Hong Kong. Back then, Taiwan’s young generation was keen to get into business and to set up companies rather than take jobs in the civil service with steady but low wages.

However, as a result of the financial tsunami since 2008 and the subprime mortgage crisis, Taiwan’s economic development has slowed down.

In this unstable context, the number of applicants for the civil service examination has been rising year on year and the positions of postal servants and other unattractive grassroots jobs have become more popular.

This change resulted in the emergence and expansion of teaching and training, as well as associated support, in relation to the examinations needed to access these positions.

For more than two decades we have witnessed this swing in career choice among Taiwanese youth. This probably reveals the complex trade-offs when it comes to employment conditions, lack of confidence in economic revitalisation and anxiety about social transformation.

What new graduates need

It is the employment status of elite graduates from China’s prestigious universities that inadvertently attracts mass discussion and media buzz. For example, a few years ago one graduate from Peking University sold pork at the farmer’s market; one doctoral alumna from Tsinghua University returned to the countryside to do agricultural work; and students from Zhejiang University set up their own online shops on Taobao (one of the leading Chinese online shopping platforms).

With both opportunities and challenges co-existing after the pandemic, a career strategy that promises high yields despite unstable conditions seems reasonable.

In comparison with private enterprises and the ups and downs of the financial industry, ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs can provide a clear promotion path, a stable monthly income, complete medical insurance and a relatively respectable social status.

Thus, after weighing the pros and cons, the majority of graduates are flocking to the ‘iron rice bowl’ jobs and industries.

Since the 1980s, when China moved into a market-driven stage followed by Reform and Opening-up schemes, the majority of Chinese people have generally accepted that people can choose their own path and have a certain degree of mobility.

We therefore need to maintain an open mindset and a good understanding of the variety of job-hunting that has followed. Tens of millions of new graduates are graduating on an annual basis. So it is important to track their need for security, stability and job satisfaction.

Bojun Zou is a doctoral candidate at the School of Education at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and a lecturer at Changchun Institute of Technology in China. Bojun’s research interests focus on internationalisation in China’s higher education. E-mail: