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China's Ant Tribe: millions of unemployed college grads

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Six million students graduated last summer, up sixfold from a decade ago, and two million of them are still looking for a proper job, competing with still-unemployed graduates from earlier years.

"There are lots of people going for each job,” complains Deng. “That means that companies raise the bar.” GE, for example, told him he would need a Masters degree for an entry-level position, he says.

Plan B: Join the Army

Students have got the message, and many are doing what they can to avoid the commercial job market. The number of college graduates who enlisted in the military this year rose more than threefold from 2008 figures, according to Defense Ministry figures. More than a million graduates took this year’s Civil Service exam – nearly twice as many as in 2006.

At the same time, fewer high school students this year took the gaokao, the college entrance exam, thus turning their backs on the magic key that Chinese young people have always prized for unlocking the door to prosperity.

Even those graduates who have found jobs to suit them are finding life a lot harder than they had expected.

Bent over a 75-cent plate of noodles in a crowded restaurant one recent Saturday lunchtime, Zhang Haijuan is one of them. Like Deng, she too studied biomedical engineering. But instead of rushing to Beijing upon graduation four years ago, she stayed in the province of Henan, where she had studied, and did a boring job in a yeast factory for a couple of years.

That gave her the work experience she needed to land the job she has now, as a quality controller in a Beijing factory making medicines, Zhang says.

But she still earns only 2,500 RMB ($370) a month, which is no more than the average urban worker earns in China regardless of their academic achievements. The only place she can afford to live is a tiny bed-sit in Tangjialing, a warren of dorm-style buildings on the very edge of Beijing where an estimated 50,000 young people like Ms. Zhang have found cheap lodgings.

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