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Chinese graduates hate their low paying jobs, but are hopeful about the future

Yesterday I shared the answers my former students gave to a short survey I sent them. Today we’re going to look more closely at the data, and try to get a better understanding of the lives these recent graduates are facing.

As I am currently living in Nanjing, where salaries have been moving steadily upward for my friends graduating from one of China’s best universities, it was very interesting to see that the top salary among these 9 from Guangxi was only 2,500 RMB. The average was just 1,842 RMB, which is slightly below the national average for urban residents (1,998 RMB/month). Only 3 of the 9 students reported salaries above that average, two of those earned 2,000RMB/month.

The second surprise for me was how little they worked. I think we often get the idea that Chinese workers are not only overworked, but also underpaid. While none of these students made as much as a Foxconn assembly line worker, only one of them worked nearly as many hours. My friends in Nanjing earning higher salaries, worked far longer than these recent graduates. From the 8 students that reported their weekly hours, the average was 37 1/4 hours per week. There was a clear division between public school teachers (27 hours per week) and employees of private companies (43 hours per week).

This brings me to my third finding, low satisfaction and low levels of loyalty. 67% of the respondents reported that they were not satisfied with their work (compared to 33% in the U.S.), with most of them citing low pay as the reason for their dissatisfaction. As a consequence, 78% said they would try to find a new job in the next year. This should serve as a reminder to foreign companies operating in China, that even though people are willing to work for a low salary, a few thousand yuan per month does not buy employee loyalty. As Hillary stated clearly yesterday, if the company offers opportunities for promotions, she’d stay; otherwise she would take the skills she gained working there to their competitors.

It seems while teaching may be a very low paying job (1633RMB/month vs. 2166RMB/month), the hours worked per week make it one of the more relaxed options. Teaching also offered a better hourly wage (16.5RMB/hour vs. 12.9RMB/hour) than anyone earned in a private company. Unfortunately, none of the rural teachers reported being satisfied with their jobs, and all of them planned to find a new job within the next year. This shows that hourly wage doesn’t matter nearly as much as the possible monthly wage, and this is consistent with what I have heard from virtually every other Chinese friend. I think most of the teachers would be more satisfied working longer hours if it meant higher monthly wages (perhaps providing tutoring to struggling students?), and it might make staying in the rural schools that need them more attractive.

The final take-away from this short survey, is that in spite of low salaries and even lower rates of satisfaction, recent Chinese graduates are overwhelmingly hopeful about their future. Even David, whose quote to all of you was that, “Life Sucks,” reported that he was hopeful about his future. The only respondent who was not hopeful, had one of the lowest hourly wages earning just over 10RMB/hour ($1.65) as a primary school teacher. This is consistent with what I am seeing with my friends in Nanjing, even though many of them are not satisfied with their current jobs, they have been able to hop from company to company in search of something better.


  1. I was thinking, is their dissatisfaction with the low pay because of having to pay off the debt for their university studies? I don’t know how the PRC higher-education system works. Do the average uni student pay all or bulk of the tuition fees, or does the state subsidises any significant proportion of those fees? If they have to service their university debt (all or a substantial portion of it) but seeing only a slight increase in pay after getting their degrees, I can understand even better why they are unhappy with the low pay of their current jobs.

  2. MM says:

    27 classroom hours a week is quite a lot for teaching, depending on how much preparation and marking they have to do in their ‘free’ time.

  3. Jerome Cole says:

    They are making only slightly more than unskilled housekeepers. I have to wonder if a college education was worthwhile for them.

    • That’s exactly what I was thinking. Rightly or wrongly, people go to get a university education/qualification in the hopes of bettering their earning power. But if people are like you said earning slightly more than the unskilled, I would think I’d be unhappy about it.

  4. dudepp says:

    It seems a little unbalanced when making comparisons in pay if you don’t consider pay structures, doesn’t pay rise by experience in china (excluding unskilled labour jobs)?

  5. Lorin Yochim says:

    RE @MM’s comment on teaching hours, if this is classroom teaching hours, it is, in fact, remarkably high in the Chinese context. Depending on subject taught and context of teaching, at the low end teachers teach only 80 to 120 minutes per day. As @MM suggests, this does not take into account administrative duties of teachers. If it refers to hours spent including teaching and preparing, it is a very low number, and one wonders if this small group of teachers are working in a probationary type arrangement. There is an enormous body of research documenting teachers total hours of commitment in their jobs and all but none of it comes to these conclusions. The problem is fairly simple: the findings are deceiving due to a mismatch of data collection and data analysis techniques. The data does tell us something worthwhile, because it does give a sense of the breadth and depth of the experiences and feelings of Tom’s respondents as young workers. The statistics produced, however, are entirely meaningless with respect to the conclusions drawn.

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