Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    China’s Grads Can’t Pick a Career. I Tried to Help.

    The author, a longtime tech worker, offered to mentor young female professionals looking to break into the male-dominated field. It was more difficult than she expected.
    Feb 23, 2024#gender

    Last November, I made an offer to members of the popular “Women in Tech” discussion group on social networking site Douban: free career counseling, no strings attached.

    Thanks to their rapid growth, high salaries, and aggressive hiring, China’s tech companies have topped most graduates’ wish lists since at least the 2010s, when I first entered the workforce. But as the market became more saturated, tech hiring has slowed, and jobseekers have found themselves competing against each other for a dwindling number of jobs.

    As a woman who has worked for three of China’s top tech firms, I’ve seen and experienced a lot in this industry, and I wanted to pass on my knowledge to a new generation. Over the past few months, I’ve worked with over 40 young women, helping them focus their job searches and polish their resumes. In the process, I’ve realized that many young women are qualified to work at tech firms or other desirable companies, but they lack self-confidence and the ability to self-promote. This is keeping them from finding their dream jobs — and employers from finding them.

    Tough choices

    Early one morning, I received a lengthy PDF file from a 24-year-old woman in the southwestern province of Sichuan. She had an impressive resume, with experience in jobs ranging from administrative work, advertising, and media to home renovation. She spent her spare time making music, doing charity work, and running an e-commerce store. Her goal was to find a job with more room for growth.

    When I read her personal statement, I sensed both her curiosity and her confusion about the tech industry. For instance, she didn’t understand the options given in the drop-down list on the recruitment website, like “business development,” “product operations,” and “product manager.” This was common among my mentees: Many jobseekers don’t know what the jobs they’re applying for really entail. Those who get hired often discover that the actual work experience is not what they had imagined, which leads to anxiety over whether they should stay or jump to another job.

    One reason is colleges’ failure to prioritize preparing young people for the workplace. Training courses on career planning offered by many universities are perfunctory. They offer only generalizations about the mental aspects of job-seeking or the employment landscape, ask freshmen with no work experience to write down their career plans on a blank piece of paper, or require students to take questionable psychometric evaluations.

    The career counselors students have access to are often overstretched. For example, I found one contract counselor who, in addition to advising IT students at a top university, was also working with employees of a domestic staffing agency, and an airline company.

    Perhaps due to the shortage of high-quality career counseling services, social media, including the Douban group I mentioned above, has become a key platform for young people to learn about the tech industry. But online information is fragmented and unorganized, and the way their algorithms work may limit users from exploring more diverse careers.

    Sensing a business opportunity, some private companies have organized training camps in which they take prospective tech workers to shadow employees at prestigious companies for a week or two. But these programs primarily target high school and college students applying to foreign universities; they are tools for polishing the students’ resumes, not for giving them real work experience. Other programs are more practical, helping recent graduates polish their resumes and offering them referrals or internship opportunities at large companies. But those can cost as much as 50,000 yuan ($7,000), equivalent to several months’ salary for a new hire. That makes it prohibitively expensive for college students coming from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

    For the most part, young people are left to figure out their careers while on the job, instead of prior to entering an industry. And the resulting trial-and-error process can slowly erode their self-confidence while delaying their professional advancement.

    “Cogs in the machine”

    Many of the jobseekers I’ve worked with are experienced professionals with excellent work performance who nevertheless feel that everything listed on their resumes is too basic. This tendency to underestimate their contributions and capabilities limits many women’s career advancement, leaving them trapped in lower-level positions.

    In recent years, cynicism about the workplace has proliferated on social media. Sayings like “everyone is only a cog in the machine” and calls to “lie flat” are common. As the late anthropologist David Graeber points out in his book “Bullshit Jobs,” the high degree of division of labor in corporate organizations has left countless workers performing boring, unfulfilling work.

    I understand this disenchantment with corporate culture in all its pomp and inauthenticity, but I worry that my mentees are losing the confidence to change the status quo. Once accustomed to being a cog, it’s difficult to imagine becoming anything else.

    Setbacks on the job market only reinforce young people’s negative self-assessments. They might attribute their joblessness to lacking a field-specific proficiency or their low salaries to a lack of experience. Women in particular also face probing questions about their marital plans and other personal matters, which erodes their confidence in equal treatment and reasonable pay. With low self-esteem, jobseekers are unable to present themselves to interviewers with confidence.

    Moreover, China’s tendency to measure graduates by what university they attended, rather than their accomplishments, also holds many promising jobseekers back. For example, I worked with a young woman from an average university who had built a successful personal social media brand with tens of thousands of followers by her sophomore year, but she still felt that her background was mediocre and her work experience inadequate.

    Bureaucratic supervisors and human resources managers have only seconds to spend reading each resume they receive. Sometimes applicants need to take a risk. I once received two resumes from a graduate student who wanted to work in gaming: one listed her internships at state-owned enterprises and Japanese teaching experience, while the other featured her fan fiction, a dozen video game genres she had played, and her interest in designing RPG games. The latter resume showcased her passion and potential for the industry, so I encouraged her to rework it and send it out. A month later, she messaged to tell me that she had found an internship at a gaming company.

    The myth of (in)compatibility

    As competition for coveted tech jobs increases, it stands to reason that companies would be able to pick and choose the best candidates. But whenever I ask company managers and headhunters whether they’re satisfied with the quality of their applicant pools, the answer is a resounding “no.”

    As Chinese tech firms have pulled back on hiring in recent years, they have begun emphasizing what they call “compatibility.” With tightened budgets, tech companies want to reduce the cost of trial and error by prioritizing young applicants with strong work experience whose past roles align well with the open position and who can quickly slot into the team without additional training. But the industry insiders I’ve spoken to say that very few candidates actually meet those conditions.

    Curiously, in browsing through the emails I receive asking for help, I often find that candidates’ personal stories are a perfect match for their desired jobs. But when I look at their resumes, I see a jumbled mess of text that fails to convey their relevant skills and experience.

    It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on: Faced with a valuable opportunity, young jobseekers want to list as many of their strengths as possible. But all too often, it backfires.

    The barriers keeping candidates and employers from finding each other are a two-way street. The candidates don’t know what the interviewers want, and the interviewers often lack the patience to identify the candidates’ strengths.

    The problem is especially acute for college students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. Many of them possess strong professional skills but lack the cultural capital and social know-how to convey those skills to recruiters.

    Not all of these problems will be easy to solve, but there are so many parts of the job search and recruitment process that can be improved to better connect candidates and employers and to bridge the gap between jobseekers of different genders and socioeconomic backgrounds. China’s young jobseekers deserve better support and treatment. Only then can they unlock their true potential.

    Translator: Katherine Tse; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: Wang Mengshi/VCG)