A student immerses herself in books in preparation for the upcoming National Civil Service Exam at a classroom in the Taiyuan University of Technology, Shanxi Province. The so-called "State exam" this year attracted more than 1.38 million eligible candidates across the country. Photo: CFP
Among the 1.11 million candidates who took the written test of the annual National Civil Service Exam, dubbed the "State exam," on November 27, less than 2 percent were lucky enough to pass the interviews - the second and final round before finally getting a job.
Background vetting and health checks are, of course, required, but the face-to-face interview is widely seen as the last obstacle before finally getting a steady position.
Instead of scaring away applicants, the fierce competition for these places results in a boon for private training courses that charge hefty fees, catering to the strong desire for what is known as a "golden rice bowl," or stable employment with good benefits.
Teaching for the test
The Beijing-based Huatu Education Group, a training company with over 100 branch schools across the nation, has courses focused on both the written test and interview.
The interview courses vary in content and price. On the website of its Beijing branch, a special VIP training course is marked with a price tag of 21,800 yuan ($3,506) - the highest of all their courses.
A teacher surnamed Liang said that although they do not guarantee their students will pass the interview, those who join the 10-day-long VIP course can receive a partial reimbursement if they fail.
"The VIP course enrolls at most 15 students, who are required to live and study at our designated location," Liang said, adding that compared with a regular interview course that is priced at 10,000 yuan and lasts for only six days, the VIP option has fewer students and tutors have more time to focus on each student.
An agreement between the students and the company is also signed before taking the VIP course, which stipulates that if the students fail to pass the interview or are not hired because they failed the health check or did not have the appropriate qualifications, at least 11,000 yuan will be refunded, Liang said.
This also applies to the 10,000-yuan course, which will reimburse students who fail at least half of the tuition fees.
A staff member with Huatu, who spoke on condition of anonymity, refused to tell the Global Times how many VIP students, on average, pass the exam and become civil servants; however, she said that they had students pass the test every year.
A similar VIP course is priced at 23,800 yuan at the Beijing-based Zhonggong Education Group, another company that is well known for its civil service training. The company claims on its official website that all payment is returned to those who fail the interview.
Students can also choose this exorbitant course at a lower price, normally 60 percent off, if they agree to the condition that no money will be returned in the event they fail the test.
Wu Yao, a resident in Guangdong Province, attended a Huatu interview training course for the exam in 2011.
"I heard that a friend passed the test after taking this course, so I took it too," Wu told the Global Times, adding that her course only cost 2,000 yuan, because she didn't stay in the designated hotel and no money was to be refunded if she failed the exam.
"In the first two days we were taught interview skills, such as how to present yourself and the appropriate etiquette. Later we were separated into groups for discussion on given topics and social affairs," Wu said.
Wu said the training was helpful as it made her familiar with the test procedures; however, it wasn't enough - she failed the test. "I talked too much and for too long, because I was still very nervous," she said.
A resident surnamed Pan in Jinan, Shandong Province, passed the test after taking a 10,000-yuan course at Huatu's local branch in 2008.
Pan told the Global Times he chose the high-priced course because "If I can be recruited by the civil service, I can earn the money back within two or three months. And if I fail, I could still have 8,000 yuan returned."
Echoing Wu's words, Pan said the training course imitated real interview scenarios and used questions that had been used in exam interviews over the previous few years.
"The simulations were so real that even the position of the table was the same as what I later saw in the real interview."
Phrases like "realistic simulations," "authentic questions" and "experts" or "exam insiders" are frequently used in publicity material for these training schools.
Pan said his tutor claimed to be a former government employee in charge of human resources before joining the training company, so he was familiar with the process.
Wu also recalled her teacher saying that he had been in the civil service.
On the websites of both Huatu and Zhonggong, the tutors are introduced as either MBA elites or professionals in the field of career training, with some of them listed as having experience in the civil service.
However, the State Administration of Civil Service under the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Securities has tried to distance itself from these companies. In October it issued a notice on the exam, which said that there were no official tutorial materials, and any claims that training courses used experts from this department were false.
The administration was quoted by the Guangming Daily as saying Wednesday that all experts and officials who participate in running the exam must sign a confidential contract that prohibits them from attending any these kinds of activities or disclosing related content to the media.
"These training courses won't see any slowdown as long as there is market demand," Lin Xinqi, a professor of human resources management from the Renmin University of China told the Global Times, adding that products such as reference books and training courses have become an industry, which also exists in other Asian countries.
Lin noted that though these training courses can make candidates familiar with the test to some extent, the civil service exam stresses the overall quality of an applicant, which cannot be improved through a short training process.
To ensure the integrity of the exam, he suggested that these training companies should be inspected to see if there are traces of corruption involving officials.
"The booming industry also reflects a lack of knowledge among new graduates on interview skills and career planning," Lin told the Global Times, adding that career skills should be an important course set in colleges.
"It is the university's obligation to teach their students how to communicate and how to present themselves."