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Get smart, not just book smart

IT'S not a matter of degree - Chinese students have lots of degrees - it's savvy hands-on experience that many employers demand these days in a tough job market. Fei Lai reports on getting smart.

Job competition is fierce for college grads, and many lack the practical, hands-on experience that businesses are seeking. Chinese college students have plenty of classroom time and book learning, but that's not enough. They're getting smart.

Real-world business competitions and programs are offering a way for students to acquire skills and a competitive edge before they step into the job market. These include Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), L'Oreal Brainstorming and Junior Achievement, among others.

Increasingly employers who can pick and choose from an enormous, competitive talent pool are seeking to hire young people with real-world skills - and fresh graduates often do not get the preference they once expected. They are no longer the cream of the crop.

The economic downturn makes for desperate times.

Every year, nearly 6 million Chinese college graduates enter the job market and everyone is trying to get an edge.

Some students are honing their skills in business competitions - talented competitors have an edge in the job market - and students are rushing to compete.

"Students who are involved in competitions can gain practical experience that is more sought-after than just academic degrees," says James M. Hulbert of Johnson Controls Inc, which provides innovative, environmentally friendly products and systems for auto making, building construction and other fields.

"SIFE lets them apply classroom learning to real-life situations. This sets them apart from students who are just attending classes and reading books," Hulbert says.

Take Xu Luyin and her team from the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics who won second prize at the 2009 SIFE China National Competition held in the city last month.

They presented a profitable paper-recycling business.

First prize went to a team from Guangdong University of Foreign Studies. It will represent China at the SIFE World Cup in Germany this October.

The runner-up Xu, a junior at the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics, toiled with teammates for a month on their presentation. Often she didn't go to sleep until 2am.

SIFE is an opportunity for students to develop and demonstrate their practical knowledge, talents and business savvy. Judges are business people, industry leaders and academics.

"University students today consider these business-related competitions a golden opportunity to get closer to big brands, enrich their school life and develop themselves," Xu says.

"The pressure of finding a job is enormous. Some escape overseas for further studies, but I like challenges and want to form the right attitude to face the pressures both in career and life," she says.

Dedicating to cultivating global managers for the future, this year's SIFE China competition attracted students from 38 universities, including Fudan, Peking, Tsinghua and Sun Yat-sen universities.

SIFE is win-win for students and employers, says Hulbert, regional director of leadership development, Asia-Pacific, at Johnson Controls Inc.

"The competition for graduates is increasing tremendously and the economic recession has caused many companies to be more careful about hiring - they are more selective and resourceful in their recruitment investments," Hulbert says.

For companies that have limited resources and cannot visit lots of campuses in China, SIFE brings quality students to them.

"Students gain from exposure, communities benefit from the focused efforts of students and companies are exposed to quality students and issues that are important to them," Hulbert says.

In late April, Zhu Zhihui, a 21-year-old advertising major from Fudan University, won the national championship of L'Oreal Brainstorm, an international competition for college juniors. Each year they come up with a product - this year a perfume - develop it, package it and market it.

They learn about brand marketing and corporate finance.

Zhu and two teammates will compete in Paris this month for the world championship against winners from 40 countries and regions.

They competed against 12 teams from universities such as Shanghai Jiao Tong University and Zhejiang University.

"Business sense is the first thing we gain from the competition," says Zhu. "We get a wonderful opportunity to get close to the real business. We three players have been like brothers and sisters for the past seven months."

Their seven months of preparation were difficult. Zhu and his teammates had full-time internships, and only started team work after returning from work around 8pm.

"At last, we made it. The happiness comes not just from winning, but also from how we were able to win," Zhu says.

Cheng Shi'an, director of Fudan University's advertising department, says the competition will enhance participating students' knowledge and can help their careers.

Not all good contestants can win but many competitors have been hired by world-class enterprises, according Cheng.

The competition is one of the major ways L'Oreal recruits in universities worldwide. Since 2000, 22 percent its trainees worldwide have been selected through the competition. In China, it's almost 30 percent.

Junior Achievement (JA), an international non-profit organization, is another avenue of competition.

Luo Ying, vice president of program and development for JA China, says it's also important for university students to learn business ethics.

"Through business-related competitions, we want to foster future business leaders of ability and integrity," she says.

All the major international competitions require English-language presentations and the desire for jobs in international enterprises encourages more students to study English - and take part in English-speaking contests.


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