China’s future graduates will need skills to pay the bills
Published: Jul 05, 2015 07:33 PM

A distant cousin in my hometown recently consulted with me about his son's university options and choices of a major after the gaokao (China's national college entrance examinations) scores were revealed nationwide in June.

Bypassing my questions about his scores on each subject and the young man's personal interests, which would have helped me make some suggestions for him, the father only wanted to discuss which major can earn graduates the most money and which schools offer the best future as civil servants.

The naivety and idealism of this father are quite typical of post-60s generation Chinese parents who came of age at a time when university graduates in China were destined for bright futures. They were raised under the dictum that "knowledge changes fate" and led to believe that those with a university degree were considered the backbone of China's ascent. A university education, they were told, resulted in good social status and a stable income.

It might sound jejune, but in the context of the times - post-Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) following a decade of university closures - university graduates were precious and few.

Unfortunately, millennial students do not share their parent's idealism, and with good reason. In 2014, a total of 7.27 million university and college graduates in China flooded the job market. It was labeled as "the toughest year" for graduates seeking employment, who were forced to compete for jobs that simply didn't exist as the national and local economy entered a phase of "new normal" correction after a decade of breakneck growth. An additional 220,000 graduates joined the dog-eat-dog job market in 2015.

I tried relaying these figures to my cousin while explaining that the central government's own five-year blueprint might help him better understand the social and economic direction the country intends to take, but this father's aspirations for his child remain rooted in 1980's optimism; he selected for his son a major in management and administration.

Surveying today's bleak job market, can we honestly say that the country no longer needs university students? We can't; education will always be the foundation of a civilized and developed society. So what kind of graduates, then, should China's institutions of higher learning be producing?

An official with Shanghai's educational committee echoed these same questions at a recent conference on innovation preceding an announcement that the city's colleges and universities would forthwith be divided into two categories. According to the new policy, prestigious universities such as Fudan and Jiao Tong will remain dedicated to academia, research and development whereas other institutions will begin to place greater importance on the acquisition of practical skills and internationally recognized vocational certificates.

Under this new reform, it is hoped that future graduates will enter the job market with more bread-winning skills and abilities which will give them more employment opportunities beyond managerial or administrative careers, which heretofore have attracted a majority of new graduates.

I applaud the introduction of these reforms and hope that my cousin will too. Frankly speaking, I do not foresee that in four years there will be many vacancies in management and administrative positions for his son. As our economy recedes, the need for white-collar workers also becomes less; simply put, managers, administrators and general officer workers have become expendable if not utterly useless. Meanwhile, China desperately needs more skilled laborers in technology, mechanics and agriculture.

At some point in the next decade, there will come a point when white-collar workers in China will start earning less than their blue-collar contemporaries. Farmers, repairmen and construction workers will become the new elite and society will experience a major shift in social stratification. For those who don't want to be left behind, it's up to them to ditch the old mentality that a piece of paper issued by your university will guarantee you a good life.

As the proverb goes, a wise man submits to fate. Fate in fact is in our own hands. Dream of becoming a CEO or premier all you want, kids, but when you wake up you'll be needing some skills to pay the bills.