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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.