How China’s Job Market Shapes its International Graduate Student Recruitment Landscape


In many countries, China is the largest sending country for international graduate students, and the landscape for recruiting these students has become increasingly competitive and complex. As more and more international universities vie for China’s outbound graduate students, its worthwhile to better understand what inspires Chinese graduates to go abroad, how they see graduate education in the context of their careers, and how international universities can adapt their recruitment efforts in light of the employment considerations of Chinese students.

This report begins by assessing the importance of career and employment goals in the choice to go abroad for graduate studies. We then outline the importance of direct engagement with prospective Chinese graduate students due to limited information on the Chinese internet about post-graduate job prospects. Next, we examine the short-term effects of China’s economic slowdown and predict that savvy graduate programs with robust travel plans in the coming year will fare well. Fourth, we examine job outcomes for Chinese overseas returnees and compare these with their expectations. Fifth, we look at which industries are most popular with Chinese overseas returnees. We conclude by offering recommendations to international graduate programs seeking to recruit more Chinese students. Key recommendations include:

  1. Make sure that your Chinese-language marketing materials emphasize career services for international students. Case studies of other students from China are always best.

  2. Because employability is a top consideration for Chinese applicants, it’s increasingly necessary to engage Chinese students to make the case for the value of your program. Data on job placements for Chinese students is poor and sparse, so aggressive recruitment travel and an active online presence is key.

  3. Some students go to graduate programs to avoid a cold job market. We expect this to be true in China in 2019-2021, so a more active approach in the coming year is more likely to reap rewards.

  4. Do your best to find or collect data about career outcomes for your Chinese graduates. While an overseas graduate education is a good investment, that’s not necessarily what your prospective students may be hearing in the news.

  5. Be aware of what jobs and industries are sought after in China, and adapt your Chinese marketing materials to match popular career ambitions.

How important are job prospects for your Chinese graduate students?

At the undergraduate level some students from China weigh other factors such as location, campus life, or the ability to broaden one’s intellectual horizons in a new country more heavily, but job prospects are the most important consideration for a majority of outbound Chinese graduate students. According to a study of about 2,000 students, 53% of Chinese graduate students said that the most important attributes of a graduate institution were “reputation of school with potential employers” and “quality of career preparation services”, higher than any other choice in the study. Chinese families value not only the skills and global perspective acquired at a foreign university, but they also value the signalling mechanism that graduate education, particularly at a well-known university may offer.

Chinese interest in graduate higher education also may owe to an indirect job-hunting pressure: finding a job right after undergraduate study can be very challenging and China’s domestic graduate admission test is grueling. From 1995 to 2014, the number of Chinese university students tripled from 2.91 million to 7.21 million, and the number of new jobs requiring a college degree simply hasn’t kept up with this growth. The average salary of a recent graduate from Chinese university was $674 per month in 2017, and more than 30% of all recent university graduates were unable to find a job within 6 months of graduation. China’s graduate entrance exams are notoriously time-consuming and likely nudge Chinese students to study abroad as they seek a leg up in the domestic job market by going to graduate school.

It is worth noting that most of the jobs that these students are seeking are in China. Since China’s economic opening 40 years ago, 3.13 million students have returned to China, about 83% of all Chinese students who graduated abroad. Graduates are attracted by the possibility of reuniting with family and friends, the expectation that it will be easy to find a lucrative and fulfilling job back home, and the various challenges and uncertainties of getting a work permit in their host country. Although many express a preference for finding a job in their host country, survey data indicates that finding a job in the host country is not a significant driver of interest to study abroad.

Source:WES Research & Advisory Services

Source:WES Research & Advisory Services

For graduate recruiters in China, it’s paramount to emphasize job placement data, a robust alumni network, and career services in Chinese-language promotional materials and web publications. This goes doubly so for universities that struggle with ranking and name recognition in China.

Poor information and fuzzy job statistics: the case for direct engagement with prospective students

While most Chinese students choose to go to graduate school in order to improve their job prospects, reliable and accessible data on job placements from international graduate programs is remarkably difficult to find in China. Anecdotal evidence abounds about the careers of “sea turtles” (haigui 海归), an informal term for Chinese overseas students who return home after graduation. Overall job statistics for “sea turtles” is fairly easy to find, but it’s considerably harder to find information that would actually help inform a Chinese student’s decisions like employment data by graduate degree type, institution, specific program or country of origin. There are many reasons for this. Some universities do not publish this information. Data is unevenly and inconsistently recorded. Sample sizes are quite small in some programs. Challenging though this is, it’s harder still to find this information from within China because of the “Great Firewall”, a system of controls and restrictions on accessing Western search engines, social media platforms, and news websites.

Because the Great Firewall limits access to Google and other international search engines, many Chinese students get information about graduate schools through indirect sources. Perhaps the three most important sources are word of mouth from friends and classmates, study abroad agencies, and search results on Baidu and other Chinese search engines. Agents have a mixed reputation in China because of issues with reliability and perceived conflicts of interest, so even students who work with agents often look for other sources of information.

To better overcome the problem of information asymmetry, candidates are interested in direct communication with universities to learn more about the questions they can’t find answers for online or through agents. “I believe face-to-face interaction is the best way to learn about the school and the programs. The difference between communicating with agents is agents only talk about choosing schools from a very general perspective, such as whether it matches your college GPA, whether it ranks well, etc. On the other hand, because reps know their school well, they can show you what you can really achieve at their school in specific matters, such as jobs, courses, campus vibes, etc. That is why I believe talking to school representatives is much more useful,” said Bingxu Cheng, a postgraduate applicant we interviewed at a local education expo.

Undergraduate and postgraduate candidates are both interested in direct communication, there is a slight difference between the two. Postgraduate candidates value direct interaction, and face-to-face interactions leave deeper impressions about a school. This is particularly true for graduates, since they’ve often had prior experience interacting with admissions officers in international education fairs or information sessions. And unlike their undergraduate counterparts, Chinese universities seldom have in-school counselors who are equipped or prepared to help them with international graduate program choices.

In this context, we think it’s immensely important to travel to China to recruit graduate students and to come prepared with good information about job prospects, success stories from your Chinese alumni, and localized marketing materials and digital assets to capitalize on the conversations that you have with prospective students in China.

“Winter is coming” and why that’s a good thing for graduate recruitment in China

Robin Li, CEO of leading search engine Baidu, wrote at the start of 2019 that “winter is coming”, and it seems that hiring is slowing down in key sectors like banking and technology. Last year, the Chinese economy grew slower than it ever has since 1990. In 2019, the economy is expected to grow by 6.2%, as the effects of the trade war begin to take effect (most of the current slowdown owes to a government campaign to decrease public debt, a slowdown in infrastructure spending, and a cooling housing market). General confidence in the economy appears to be decreasing, as many consumers downgrade their consumption at the end of this year: app-based ride hailing, food delivery services, and imported car purchases are on the way down while cheap substitutes like bike-share ridership and cheap food like instant noodles are on the rise. While the Chinese government may negotiate an end to the trade war and is generally effective at navigating economic challenges, we nonetheless expect that the Chinese economy will slow down in 2019.

The effects on recent graduates, particularly those with only an undergraduate degree, are acute. A survey by China Market Research Group of around 40 graduate-hiring companies found that more than 80 per cent were not increasing their headcount compared with last year. More than half had decreased their openings, with the banking section being hit worst. Outside observers have long doubted official unemployment statistics from the Chinese government, and according to private surveys on leading Chinese job recruitment websites, job postings declined by 27% in the third quarter of 2018, with postings at technology companies declining by 51%. On top of slowing growth rates and trade tensions with the US, many employers are implementing a hiring freeze, ahead of uncertainty about an announced restructuring of China’s social security tax which would dramatically increase labor costs.

Earlier this year, we concluded that graduate, certificate, and continuing education programs may be able to increase enrollments from China as the Chinese job market tightens this and next year. The logic goes that working professionals as well as final year university students, facing a difficult job market, would find graduate programs more attractive not only because they allow the candidate to delay their entry into a difficult job market, but through programs like Optional Practical Training, may also be able to pivot to a job market other than China’s if the economic downturn persists. News of a rise in graduate enrollments from China would likely come as welcome news for graduate programs, particularly those in the US which saw a net decline of international students last year. While the recruitment space for some graduate programs like MBA programs is more sophisticated and competitive, we expect that graduate programs that travel to China, market actively on local internet platforms, and build strong relationships with Chinese undergraduate programs and other partners will have a good year in 2019.

Making the economic case for a graduate education

Recent data clearly and convincingly suggests that Chinese overseas returnees earn more at their jobs in the long run and pick up more “future-proof” skills, particularly for those with a Chinese BA/BS and an international graduate education. Much has been made of the mismatch between the expectations and realities of overseas returnees’ job prospects in China, but in the long run, an overseas graduate education is a sound investment.

Source: the Center for China and Globalization and Zhilian Zhaopin

Source: the Center for China and Globalization and Zhilian Zhaopin

Many recent graduates come back to China with sky-high expectations for the jobs that await them back home: high salaries in hot industries with significant creative autonomy or a strong sense of purpose in their work. However, the reality of the job market is quite different from what they expect. Salaries for most are less than $1,000 per month, and job-seekers often must settle for job functions unrelated to their course of study or unconnected to their personal passions. In a 2018 survey, 80% of returnees found that their actual income was lower than their expectations, while vanishingly few found jobs with pay that beat their expectations. The phenomenon of disillusioned returnees who languish in low-value-added jobs (particularly those with only an undergraduate education) and those who spend many months unemployed has lead to the advent of a new slang term: haidai or seaweed, a far less flattering play on the slang for overseas returnees, haigui, or sea turtles.

Source: Center for China and Globalization

Source: Center for China and Globalization

While these gloomy stories attract clicks and sometimes makes headlines, it misses the far more important underlying truth: that returnees, particularly graduate level returnees, make more money in the long run and have better career advancement prospects. Some of the disappointment in earnings also owes to the fact that inflation in China is growing faster than wages, meaning that both domestic and international graduates are earning less in real terms each year. But the evidence is clear that an international degree is beneficial. In 2017, the average salary of returnees was 17.2% higher than that of the domestic equivalent. Returness find jobs faster as well: in 2018, 82% of returnees found a job within 3 months.

Source: Center for China and Globalization

Source: Center for China and Globalization

In 2018, 78% of employers indicated a preference to hire returnee candidates with a master’s degree, which is 15% higher than the 2017 survey results. Crucially, 65% of employers are more willing to recruit students with a Chinese undergraduate degree and an overseas graduate degree, with many mentioning that such students with dual higher educational backgrounds were best suited to the “glocal” nature of the Chinese economy.

What industries do Chinese returnees choose, and which industries choose them?

Chinese returnees tend to have diverse preferences in terms of industries that they hope to enter, but demand for returnees is quite concentrated in a few industries.

According to a widely distributed survey conducted by one of China’s largest job recruitment platforms, the IT industry is the most sought-after industry for returnees, overtaking the financial sector. Of the 16.2% of returnees who preferred the IT sector, 42% graduated with a computer science or natural science major. Surprisingly, professional occupations such as consulting, law, and accounting, which are traditionally coveted and perceived as safe choices, have begun to lose their charm compared to more exciting industries like media and entertainment or more purpose-driven work like education.

The picture from the employer’s side was quite different. The education, finance, and IT industries had the strongest demand for returnees, but education was far ahead of the others, while media and entertainment were much less interested in overseas returnees. Among the education industry, 3.1% of advertised positions had a specific requirement for candidates to have an overseas study background, several times higher than positions in other industries.

Source: Boss Zhipin

Source: Boss Zhipin

Summary and recommendations

So what can international graduate recruiters take away from this snapshot of the Chinese job market?

Takeaway 1: Most of your Chinese students are most concerned with finding a job when they return to China within a few years of graduation. Before you go to China, make sure that your Chinese-language marketing materials emphasize career services for international students and the value of your alumni network in China. Be ready to showcase studies or tell success stories of Chinese graduates who have found jobs in desired companies or fields.

Takeaway 2: Attending local recruitment fairs and keeping a presence on the Chinese internet are key to engaging Chinese students and to overcoming the information asymmetry about career placements. Chinese students prefer to get information about graduate programs directly from institutions whenever possible because of the unreliability of information from agents and the challenges in finding good information about career outcomes for graduate programs from behind the Great Firewall.

Takeaway 3: Macroeconomic factors are likely to make the Chinese job market especially competitive for the next two years. Some students will postpone their entry into a challenging job market by going to graduate school. In 2019 and 2020, hitting the road in China will help connect you with students looking to avoid a cold job market at home.

Takeaway 4: There’s been some soul-searching in China about the economic value of an overseas education, with many stories from disappointed returnees. Know that the data is on your side and that, particularly at the graduate level, an overseas education is a good long-term investment for Chinese students. The more information you have about Chinese graduates from your program finding good jobs, the better.

Takeaway 5: Although Chinese returnees are very sought after in the education sector, many Chinese graduate students aspire to enter other industries like IT, finance, media, and entertainment. Highlight how your program may prepare a student for a successful career in one of the “hot” industries among Chinese returnees.

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Cody ZhouComment