China's job market doldrums deserve greater attention
Job market doldrums deserve greater attention
Published: Mar 14, 2019 04:08 PM

Illustration: Luo Xuan/GT

There has been unprecedented attention given to employment at this year's two sessions, with the Government Work Report released last week elevating the employment-first policy to the status of a macro policy for the first time.

This implicitly indicates problems with the job market in the world's second-largest economy. 

There are signs that China's job creation machinery has been suffering glitches since late last year, pointing to wider concerns over a slowing economy which expanded merely 6.6 percent in 2018.

Usually, hiring activity in China picks up in November and December, but statistics from Chinese classifieds site showed this past November and December were quite different, according to Yao Jinbo, founder and CEO of

"While employers reported facing difficulty hiring during last year's two sessions, people are having trouble finding a job this year," Yao, also a deputy to the 13th National People's Congress (NPC), told reporters last week during the two sessions.

According to statistics from the National Development and Reform Commission, the country's top economic planner, the Small and Medium Enterprises Development Index stood at 93.0 in the fourth quarter, unchanged from the third quarter. A labor sub-index fell 0.2 points to 107.4 during the final three months of 2018.

In this data series, a reading above 100 points to expansion while one below the benchmark indicates contraction.

Meanwhile, there are some standouts that anticipate a brisk hiring pace for this year.

Stating that he was fairly impressed with the Government Work Report that placed the employment-first policy at a macro policy level, Zhang Jindong, NPC deputy and board chairman of Suning Holdings Group, China's largest omni-channel retailer by sales revenue, has revealed that the company has set a goal of adding 80,000 jobs, or a 32 percent increase in its workforce, for this year.

That being the case, it's important to understand that the glitches and concerns are not fearmongering, but instead, serve as timely warnings regarding structural problems in the job market.

For one thing, the country's internet sector, where opportunities still abound, has been hit with hiring freezes and layoffs since late 2018, although the affected companies generally claimed they were simply optimizing business operations.

Among those laid off or "optimized" are mostly highly educated people in their 20s and 30s with decent pay, arguably the most promising part of the country's workforce. Having benefited from an internet fundraising boom that has over the past few years acted as a catalyst in creating more internet related jobs, those joining the ranks of the unemployed in recent months have to swallow the bitter pill of slowing internet activities.

For these people and a massive number of new university graduates, a loose job market means they have to lower their standards to take any jobs available or wait for what they think truly matches their worthiness. If slowing activities in the internet sector are the culprit, the idealists might not find their desired job until activities pick up again.

Taking into account the rising cost of living in most Chinese cities and high pressure to pay off home mortgages or to save money to be qualified as a "house slave," neither scenario seems pleasant.

A graduate with a Master's degree from Peking University quickly became an internet celebrity at the beginning of the year after he posted a story of his experience as food delivery rider. The young man who quit a previous job in an office building actually resembles a philosophical "performance" artist, in that his taking a low-class job was an effort, per his story, to reconsider the realities of life. However, the story that has sparked a lot of contentions on social media portrays an inherent perception - well-educated people deserve good-paying jobs.

That points to a significant structural problem with the country's job market. As the internet sector scales back hiring activities, many young people's pursuit of a viable career will be inevitably affected.

For another, some small companies and factories have reported difficulty filling jobs. The tight part of the job market mainly consists of assembly line workers and skilled labor jobs, according to media reports.

These job openings in most cases fail to appeal to well-educated young people. Poor-educated, lower-skilled young migrant workers, for their part, also show an increasing lack of endurance. It's increasingly the case that many of the assembly line jobs that are associated with extra hours and low employment protection wouldn't pique the interest of young migrant workers. Making a living off toiling on production lines seems to have fallen out of favor with young Chinese people eager to savor life's pleasures.

The structural imbalance in the job market suggests other than generalized efforts to boost job creation such as reduced social security contributions by enterprises, there needs to be more problem-oriented measures that could include nurturing a pool of skilled workers and increasing training subsidies for small-scale businesses.

That, in addition to increased labor protection, might help with those struggling to hire enough people. As for challenges facing primarily the internet sector, it is hoped that stepped-up actions underway to set in motion a new science and technology innovation board in Shanghai will refuel the hiring passion, thereby addressing the other end of the job market woes.

The author is a reporter with the Global Times.