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Jobs crisis poses challenges and presents opportunities

AT first university graduate Yang Hua was embarrassed when he had to go to the wet market at 6am to shop for the freshest bok choy, tofu, pork and other food to fill customer orders.

He had to jostle with other shoppers, examine the produce, haggle and then deliver it himself.

After all, he had a degree in business administration and shouldn't have had to stoop to this kind of menial, unskilled work.

"Initially I was a bit ashamed to be buying fresh food for other people," says Yang, one of the founders of shopping and delivery Website

It was started in Shanghai last November by 10 unemployed university graduates from Shanghai, Wuhan (Hubei Province) and the northeast.

"But from another angle, we are actually doing e-commerce," says the young man from the northeast. "After you work as a food shopper and delivery boy, there's nothing you cannot do." He got a taste of reality.

Yang and his fellows are a success story in the gloomy job market confronted by fresh university grads in the global economic crisis. They are enterprising, but most are risk-averse and the idea of a start-up, encouraged by the government, doesn't hold much appeal.

Across China, 6.1 million college and university students will graduate this year, adding to the 1 million known unemployed graduates from last year.

In Shanghai, 158,000 college and university students will graduate this year. Excluding those expected to continue their studies, around 127,000 graduates need to find jobs.

For Yang, business is getting better. He no longer has to go shopping. There are 70 to 80 employees, about 20 percent of them university grads, and Yang and his fellows plan to add another 10 to 20 for customer service and IT support.

But everyone will have to start from the bottom, elbowing their way, bargaining and delivering, grateful for a tip.

Yang and his friends had to dramatically lower their expectations for a high-status, well-paying first job with a private company after graduation.

Because of the global economic downturn, a degree in China - so passionately pursued for years - is no longer a passport to success. Many hopes were and are pinned to the piece of parchment.

As jobs are so scarce, graduates face difficult choices: Should they hunt for work despite the odds and lower their expectations? Continue their studies and collect another degree, riding out the crisis? Or take the civil service exam and hope to get a slot? Take a risk and start up a business, toiling without guarantee of success? Move to another city or western China? Live off their parents who invested heavily in their only child, paid tuition and hope to be repaid?

Prospects are perplexing.

This is a high-pressure time. For years degrees have been considered passports to job success. Parents pressure their only child to excel in school, get into a good college, get an excellent job, make good money and take care of their family.

When the jobs aren't out there, the slaving for good grades doesn't pay off right away. Anxiety rises when graduates have to improvise. The idea of striking out on their own and starting a business is unsettling to most.

The central and local governments have taken steps to help graduates find work. There are slightly more civil service job slots. Grants and incentives are provided to some lucky young entrepreneurs. The government also provides cash and other incentives to those who move for work to rural and underdeveloped areas.

Lucky grads

There are lucky graduates like Xiao He from Shanghai University, who finally got an accounting job at a bank and a satisfying salary.

"I made many applications and tried giant companies like the 'Big Four' accounting agencies. But mostly there was no response," Xiao says. She feels insecure and worries about her future in the bank.

"There are many elements that influence success: abilities, opportunities and guanxi (connections) - it's very complicated and I'm not confident about all of these."

So, she plans to study in her spare time for an advanced degree.

"If my career doesn't go well, maybe I'll quit and study abroad.

Many Chinese graduates study abroad, but in these hard times those whose families can afford it may aim for advanced studies abroad right away, avoiding the job market for now.

Going abroad

Conan Gao from Shanghai International Studies University plans to study English literature at a US university after he graduates in June. He is waiting to learn in May if he has been admitted.

"Competition in today's job market is too heated for us undergraduates because we only have a bachelor's degree - that's not competitive enough," he says. "And, after four years of study, we still have no job experience."

More graduates are taking the post-graduate exam, he says, "because of the depressing job market." And again there's so much competition and everything rides on that one score.

"So I choose to study abroad as there's less competition," he adds.

This year, 96,456 college students have taken the post-graduate exam in Shanghai, 6.6 percent more than that in 2008, according to Shanghai Education and Examination Institute.

Study in China

Many graduates can't afford to go abroad or study for a master's degree in China - putting off the day when they face the job market.

Richard Gu from Tongji University has just learned his score in the post-graduates' entrance exam - it's not bad. Now he's waiting for the announcement of the score line for entrance.

"I really hope I can succeed since I've devoted all my time to study. It would be terrible to fail to get into grad school because I have no experience in finding a job. I had no time to do such a thing before."

Civil service

Another option is working for the government. Graduates used to look down upon common civil servants and take for granted they would enter the far better-paid private sector.

But government service is now more popular than ever in the shrinking job market because it's "secure and stable." So the civil service exams are thronged. Graduates see that private companies have folded and laid off workers; that sector is less secure.

In Shanghai, more than 40,000 people took the latest exam, 2,541 more than last year, but it's not easy to get hired.

After passing the exam and an interview, less than 10 percent of those who took the exam will finally become civil servants.

Laura Zheng from East China University of Political Science and Law passed the exam and is awaiting the result of her interview.

"Civil service is very secure and the salary is good. I think my personality is suitable. It's much easier than working in companies since there's less pressure," she says.

In addition to security, the salary and benefits of civil service have been improving slowly.

Start up

Going it alone, starting a business and toiling for uncertain profit is virtually everyone's last choice if they cannot find a job.

The government and universities encourage young entrepreneurs and there are grants, tax incentives and other benefits.

According to a 2007 city government survey, only about 1 percent of college graduates started their own business. And of those, only 2-3 percent could really succeed. The numbers are probably higher today but the prospects are still daunting.

Sarah Yang and civil servant-wannabe Zheng are classmates. Yang has deliberately chosen a riskier course as an entrepreneur. She just quit her office job to take the plunge.

"I want to open a shop with my friends, selling clothes and little toys," says Yang. They hope to get financial support from the Communist Youth League Committee of Shanghai. A grant from the league would free them from paying house rent and other fees for a year.

Although the economic crisis is a major cause of the job crisis, there are other reasons: rapidly expanding higher education, the belief that a degree ensures success, the phenomenon of what some call "diploma mills," lack of practical skills and unreasonably high expectations for success and money.

"Many graduates lack practical abilities," says Zheng who hopes for civil service.

"This is a problem of our education system. Unrealistic expectations are another big obstacle."

Starting from scratch: Don't be afraid of failure

Fei Lai

Although starting a business is a last resort for most graduates, some people are risk-takers. They thrive on adventure, toil to realize their ideas and actually succeed.

Xin Jiewei, 25, is a pioneer entrepreneur in the animation industry. He has operated his own business, Wincool Animation Studio, for more than two years since he graduated from Tongji University in Shanghai in 2006.

He was one of the first group majoring in animation.

"The environment for university graduates to start a business is getting better and better," says Xin, the general manager. "Many senior alumni kind of envy the preferential policies that we can enjoy today."

Xin got 80,000 yuan (US$11,670) from the Shanghai Technology Entrepreneurship Foundation for Graduates and started from scratch with classmate Chen Jingyang at the end of 2006.

There were frustrations and problems, as Xin had no work or company management experience. He turned for advice to successful businessmen and read books on management.

Business is pretty good. Family and friends are supportive.

"Encouragement is all we need. A genius could be a real genius with support," Xin says. "And a guy with no talent could be also be a genius if he gets encouragement that gives him confidence."

The company is now a team of five young, passionate animators. It offers animation production, design for publications, event planning and manufacturing self-developed products such as paper bags and postcards with original designs.

Xin does work for big names like China Mobile, the country's largest mobile phone operator, and Shanghai Television Station.

"Further development and getting more clients are the most urgent issues," says the general manager.

"Young people should do something they like. Persistence, responsibility, passion and no fear of failure are essential to be an excellent entrepreneur from scratch."

Xin's willingness to take on adventure is seen in his enthusiasm for nature and sports.

He has explored the Tibet Autonomous Region where beautiful cloud formations remind him of animation and inspire him. He is fascinated with Nepal.

"Some souls never rest. Travel gives meaning to life," he says.

"The art form of animation is a mix of tranquility and movements. Together with the sound, it expresses ideas and feelings to the full."

As a young and enterprising manager of a start-up, Xin is a model for other young college graduates.

Wincool Animation Studio

Address: Room 8008, Bldg 1, 335 Guoding Rd

Tel: 5566-6129



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