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May 19, 2009 – 7:01AM
Sun Yizhen considered her university degree in international trade the ticket to a prestigious career with a state-owned enterprise like Bank of China in Beijing. Instead, she found herself huddled against a freezing wind in a middle school parking lot in Huai’an, waiting to interview for a job with the local tax collector.

“I never thought I’d go for civil-servant jobs,” said Sun, 21. “But the financial crisis is something that none of us would expect. We’re just desperate.”

The global financial meltdown is taking a toll on this year’s 6.1 million Chinese college graduates and the 1 million still unemployed from last year. The government said the 2009 official urban registered unemployment rate may reach 4.6 per cent – a three-decade high – as collapsing exports drag gross domestic product to its lowest growth rate in nine years.

That is turning off the pipeline depositing new graduates with multinational corporations and state companies, forcing many students to lower their sights and consider the once-unthinkable for them: a civil-service career. The last test for central government openings attracted about 775,000 candidates – or 56 for every job, a 20 per cent jump from the year before.

Prospects aren’t any better in the US and UK. Just 20 per cent of graduating US students who applied for a job have one, according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. That’s down from 26 per cent last year and 51 per cent in 2007.

The US unemployment rate reached 8.9 per cent last month. Of the 35,000 students surveyed, 12 per cent had plans to work in government, compared with 8.9 per cent last year, spokeswoman Mimi Collins said.

In the UK, a December survey of 100 firms by London-based High Fliers Research Limited showed that they had reduced recruitment targets by 17 per cent since September and expected to hire almost 3400 fewer graduates this year than planned. The UK jobless rate was 7.1 per cent in March.

Yet the number of entry-level positions for graduates in public service increased by 51 per cent in 2008-2009. A third of 1017 final-year students from 30 universities say such work is more appealing now, the survey said.

China’s Communist Party is especially sensitive about student unemployment as it approaches the 20-year anniversary of the student-led Tiananmen Square uprising in June. The State Council said in January that creating jobs for new graduates was the government’s top priority.

“Students, please rest at ease,” Premier Wen Jiabao said in December while visiting Beijing University of Aeronautics and Aerospace, state media reported. “We are putting the problem of graduates’ employment on top of our agenda.”

The labor ministry said it would lend money to small- and medium-sized enterprises and subsidize salaries for positions in the countryside.

The China Disabled Person’s Federation received more than 4700 applications for a community-organiser position, said Wei Chunfeng, a human resources official there. The starting salary is 3000 yuan ($US440) a month.

“Civil-servant jobs just became suddenly attractive again,” Wei said.

China’s official jobless rate doesn’t include rural workers migrating from one province to another, a population the labor ministry puts at 130 million. A survey of the entire population last year showed the estimated unemployment rate may have reached 9.4 per cent, the government-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said in December.

Only 20 per cent of graduating seniors landed work in the first quarter this year, down from the historical average of 70 per cent, said Sherman Chan, a Sydney-based economist at Moody’s, an economic analysis unit of New York-based Moody’s Corp.

Since changes were introduced in 1978, China’s economy has averaged 9.9 per cent annual growth and is now the world’s third-largest behind the US and Japan. Wen says GDP must expand 8 per cent a year to create enough jobs in the world’s most populous nation.

The Washington-based World Bank, a multilateral lender established after World War II, predicts growth will slow to 6.5 per cent this year. China is one of five major economies – joining Australia, Brazil, India and Russia – that are still growing, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

By comparison, the world economy may contract 1.3 per cent this year, said the International Monetary Fund, the Washington-based lender with 185 member nations. The US economy shrank 2.6 per cent in the first quarter from a year earlier.

A dearth of opportunities for China’s best and brightest may present a challenge to Communist Party leaders, who say the economy must wean itself from dependence on low-cost manufacturing and develop the auto, shipbuilding and steel industries.

“Failing to find those students proper jobs would mean a great loss of human resources, thus irreversible economic loss over a long term,” said Li Xiangwei, head of the college graduate employment department at the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.

Students from the best schools who cannot find employment will go abroad for work or graduate school and may not come back, said William McCahill Jr., vice chairman of research firm JL McGregor & Co. in Beijing.

“For the U.S. it’s been a great source of innovation and technological growth,” he said. “That trend might be a bit accentuated.”

Eric Ma, 25, is earning his master’s degree in logistics from the Shenzhen branch of Tsinghua University – ranked in U.S. News & World Report as the No. 2 school in China. He interviewed unsuccessfully with Procter & Gamble Co. of Cincinnati and Lenovo Group Ltd. of Raleigh, North Carolina, and said he couldn’t even get in the door at Atlanta-based United Parcel Service Inc. and New Brunswick, New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson.

He said he beat out 1,000 others taking the test for a resource management position with the National Development and Reform Commission in Beijing.

“Graduating from the most prominent university doesn’t help very much this year,” Ma said.

Students are under great stress to succeed, said Li of the human resources ministry. China has a one-child policy. Parents in eight of the biggest cities — including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou – spend about a third of their incomes on education, according to the Beijing-based Horizon Research Consultancy Group.

“Every student carries the hope of the entire family, so there would be great social impact if they can’t find jobs,” Li said. “The government is under pressure.”

Civil service is nicknamed the “gold rice bowl” because of its stability, annual pay raises and benefits packages, Wei said. Most of the more than 10 million civil servants work in government and law enforcement, and in related agencies.

Sun, a slender 5-foot-3 (1.6-metre) woman, said she never considered that route while attending Beijing Technology and Business University. She interviewed to be an interpreter with Shenzhen-based Huawei Technologies, the nation’s biggest maker of equipment for telephone networks, and a customer- service representative with Beijing-based Bank of China, the country’s third-largest by market value.

Her worried parents encouraged her to take the civil- service test in November, she said in a series of interviews by phone and in person in Beijing. She focused on jobs outside the capital because she believed there would be less competition.

She said she expects to earn between 2000 and 3000 yuan a month. Her family calls her a “little gold collar,” meaning she can live comfortably as a civil servant because her hometown is less expensive than Beijing.

“It wouldn’t be my dream job, but when I look around at my classmates, I think, ‘Oh God, I finally got settled!”‘ she said.

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