Monday, May 25, 2009

Ryan Pyle Blog: University Unemployment


University unemployment across China is a scary thing. Let me explain why in this space. (Picture above, a migrant worker walks through a job market in Dongguan, China)

Graduation has past, and the prospects of finding employment for China's 6.1 million graduates (a number that will increase to 7m next year) is bleak. How bleak is it? Well for starters engineers are applying for jobs at coffee shops and a large amount of students are taking up an offer by the government to work three years in the countryside in a local government position, in turn the government pays off your University fees. After spending a lot of money, time and energy moving to the cities to complete their education, many from this years crop of students are headed back to rural China. But can they be happy with that? Is there a choice?

This downturn in China is severe, don't be mistaken. While the GDP figures might be massaged to look impressive things within the borders are no where near as robust as they were in 2007 and the first half of 2008. But is that such a bad thing? My wife runs a small business in China and in 2007 she was furious at how she would spend her time and energy training new graduates only to have them jump to other companies every 4-6 months, that was possible then as the cities were booming, and people were always in demand. These days are different, she hasn't had an employee leave in over a year now. My reason for bringing this up is that for the last 2 decades no one has seen a bad year, or even a bad month in many cases. Jobs were plentiful and salary increases were regular. Now things have changed. The employed are doing everything they can to keep their jobs and everyone knows people who are looking for work; and looking forward this, I feel, is a healthy experience and it will create an employment pool that respects their jobs, their employers and the economic environment much more than before. When China does emerge from this downturn there are a lot of people, including myself, that believe the country will emerge much stronger than it was before.

Now without looking too far ahead, what about the ranks of the unemployed now? Without being a overly negative about the situation the government is responding well to a crisis which, in their eyes, could lead to civil unrest at some stage. Campuses have occasionally, in the past, been places where emotions run high; be it during the Tiananmen days of the late 80s, to the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in the late 90s, or the Anti-Japanese protests that swept the country in 2005. And government officials know and understand this. That's why they are offering some graduates up to USD7,300 in loans to help them start their own businesses, which could see a mini-boom in entrepreneurial activity in the coming years; but that is optimistic.

After watching so many university graduates before them become soaked up by China's rapidly growing, and increasingly dynamic economy; this years group can't feel but left out in the cold. Where will their fancy titles, name cards, cars, and apartments come from? How will they join the ranks of China's mass consumers if they can't pull in an income?

This is, as a photographer, something that I would like to keenly document. However actually photographing inside a job market is often frowned up as a foreign photographer and I've been kicked out of many before. But those shots you see of thousands of students pushing and shoving through the entrance of a job fair do really occur, and the scene at the job markets will most likely become more intense in the coming months as more and more graduates fight for fewer and fewer resources.

The big question remains as to what the unemployed might do? Will they choose to under-employ themselves in the countryside? Will they begin looking at ways in which their government is failing them and demand change? Only time will tell, I know I'll be watching.


Ryan Pyle

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Ryan Pyle