In China, Competition for Civil Service Jobs Keeps Getting Fiercer
In China, the rush to join the civil service shows no sign of slowing down. Applications for the civil service exam reached yet another record high this year, as Chinese graduates look to insulate themselves from an uncertain economy by securing access to the “iron rice bowl” of a stable government job.
The number of people who successfully registered for this year’s exam — which is set to take place in late November — surpassed 2.6 million, the highest total ever recorded, data from tutoring firm Offcn shows. It’s the fifth consecutive year in which applications have hit a new high.
Though the government keeps expanding its recruitment quota, the competition for places gets fiercer every year. In 2023, there are more than 66 applicants for every job on average, according to Offcn. That’s 24% higher than five years ago.
China’s civil service exam is used to screen candidates for jobs at government agencies ranging from taxation and customs to public security. Anyone between the ages of 18 and 35 with a college-level degree and no criminal record can apply.
Candidates first take a multiple choice test assessing their general knowledge and logical reasoning skills, and then compose an essay on a policy-related issue. The top three highest scoring applicants for each position will then automatically be selected for a job interview.
During previous decades, the civil service exam tended to be less intensely competitive, as many graduates chose to seek out higher-paying jobs in the private sector. But in recent years, the public sector’s iron-clad job security and cushy benefits have begun to look ever more attractive.
Today’s graduates often spend months cramming for the civil service exam, knowing that only a super-high score will be enough to secure an interview. Tutoring companies have emerged whose sole focus is to coach graduates on how to ace the civil service exam.
On the Chinese social platform Douban, users advertise for civil service exam study partners who must commit to revising for at least 10 hours a day. On the Twitter-like microblog Weibo, graduates complain of retaking the exam six times without success or finding out that they are competing against 1,000 other candidates for a job.
Competition for places is particularly extreme in China’s central and western regions, data from Huatu Education, another specialist tutoring firm, shows. The application-to-job ratio tends to be higher in the west — Tibet, Ningxia, and Guizhou — than in more prosperous parts of the country, such as Guangdong, Jiangsu, and Shanghai. (The only exception to this is Beijing — the home of most central government agencies — which has an extremely high number of applications.)
There are likely several factors driving this trend. Firstly, the western parts of China are less populated, have smaller economies, and therefore have fewer government jobs available. They also tend to have less dynamic private sectors, making public sector positions particularly attractive. In addition, China often lowers the entry criteria for applications in these areas, to encourage more people to consider working there.
In general, however, the Chinese government is becoming far more selective when it comes to hiring civil servants. As the popularity of the civil service exam soars, government agencies are setting ever higher requirements for applicants’ education levels, a Sixth Tone analysis of Huatu Education data found.
Out of nearly 19,000 available positions, only 56 are now open to candidates with a vocational college degree, down from 162 last year. Most of these jobs are hard-to-fill positions as police officers in border regions, such as Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia.
By contrast, the number of jobs that now require a master’s degree — or even a doctorate — is soaring. This year, more than 2,600 positions were only open to candidates with a postgraduate degree, up from 891 in 2019.
The Chinese civil service also tends to set specific requirements regarding applicants’ majors. Candidates with degrees in finance and economics are in high demand, as more than 60% of the jobs advertised this year are related to taxation. Liberal arts graduates, however, are once again fresh out of luck: They only qualify for a handful of the jobs on offer.
Despite the skyrocketing number of applications, there are a few jobs that China is struggling to fill. This year, 178 positions received no applications at all, and another 155 received only one, the Huatu Education data shows.
Usually, these jobs are unpopular due to their highly specific requirements. Raohe, a county in northeast China’s Heilongjiang province, for example, has been unable to find a border security official who is also a Russian language specialist.
Note: The data used in this article was compiled from Huatu Education’s online platform and Offcn by Zhao Zuoyan, a reporter at Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper. It is used here with permission.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: VCG)