China’s well educated garbage men – Sorting through the waste of superfluous degrees

When you hear the words “migrant worker,” what kind of person comes to mind? Are they young or middle age? Are they poor? Are they educated?

While “migrant worker” seems at first to describe a fairly uniform group of lowly occupations – factory and construction workers, aiyis, taxi drivers, etc. Their backgrounds are actually quite diverse, and the term covers a far larger group of people than we might expect. So large in fact that over 55% of those between 14-35 living in Shanghai are counted as “migrants.”

Many of these people are ambitious college graduates entering a workplace with little need of higher education degrees. As a colleague from a Chinese charity recently told me, a large number of people working at factories like Foxconn are actually college educated but have no better prospects. Additionally, many of the students I taught in Guangxi now occupy low sales positions or factory jobs in Guangdong that only offer a few thousand RMB per month. One student recently told me that she’d left her sales job to become a teacher in rural Jiangxi due to the low pay and long hours.

What’s crazy is that these jobs are actually starting to require college degrees, even though they have little need for such educated people. This shows that there is both a glut of college graduates and too few jobs which require higher education.

The best evidence of this comes from an article published by the People’s Daily entitled “200 apply for 20 trash-sorter jobs.” The job required a college degree, and even attracted a number of postgraduates. While the salary was rather attractive at 4,000RMB per month (attractive in Guangzhou), this probably isn’t what drew so many applicants. As one hopeful applicant said, “Garbage classifiers for the city government are government employees, who can enjoy stable income and other social benefits,” and added that this was especially important at a time when the country’s economic situation was “not-so-good.”

This seems like a monumental waste of talents and resources. Not only could one probably find a qualified garbage sorter for much less in Guangdong, but why are college graduates looking for work in the dumps if China’s economy is as resilient as the gov’t is claiming?

My final year of teaching in Guangxi, I had a student who was considering dropping out of school. As his teacher I wanted him to stay in school, and helped his classmates stage something of an intervention on his behalf. They pleaded with him not to leave, but the young man said (in Chinese), “My English is terrible, our college isn’t famous, and experience is more valuable than education.” His classmates started crying; they told me later it was because he was right – college was a waste of time when there weren’t jobs for them.

5 responses to “China’s well educated garbage men – Sorting through the waste of superfluous degrees”

  1. sinostand says:

    I’ve heard from some that a college (or post-grad) degree is actually very often a liability now. When the manager sees two applicants he assumes the college grad will feel more entitled to better pay and treatment. So he goes with the less educated one.

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  3. This ‘high education for low jobs’ seems to be a worldwide trend for quite some years now. There was a jobs fair two or three months ago here in Hong Kong, and one company was putting out job positions for (if memory serves) half a dozen ‘security guards’ (i.e. watchmen) that needed only basic secondary-school education. That got several hundred applications from university graduates. If the situation is like this in Hong Kong, I shudder to think what it’s like in China.

  4. dudepp says:

    your student was right, unless he could afford to emigrate, China does not produce enough highly skilled jobs or have enough exclusive blue chip companies to sustain the highly educated.
    Experience and connections outweigh are probably the best ways of landing a decent job.
    It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

  5. Chopstik says:

    The value of the degrees themselves might also be of some debate as well. There is, unfortunately, a perception among some that some degrees in China are bought as easily as anything else and thus they (and their holders) are not worth the paper they are printed upon. This will only compound the issue that you (Tom) have discussed above – and it will only be worse when they are looking for opportunities outside of China.

    I wonder what your students’ opinions are in this regard?

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