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Graduates Struggle to Find Jobs In Slow Hong Kong Economy - 2002-05-07

Hong Kong's economy is in a slump and unemployment is at a record high. University graduates are not immune to the territory's economic malaise, and a growing number of them go straight from school classes to the unemployment office.

Carmen, 22, will be graduating from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in June with a degree in accounting. She started sending out job applications in September, but none of the 30 or so employers she contacted has offered her a job.

"I feel that it is too difficult to get a job because the economy is too bad, and there are too many graduates," she said.

Carmen is not alone. According to the government's latest employment figures, the number of job vacancies in February was down by 50 percent compared with the same month last year. The unemployment rate in Hong Kong stood at a record seven percent in March, and economists predict the number will go up in the next few months as universities pour about 14,000 new graduates onto the job market.

Just how bad the problem is can be seen from the number of people who crowd Hong Kong recruitment fairs. Last Month, 10,000 job seekers turned up when American International Assurance had 5,000 jobs to fill. And some 1,500 people came to an airline's recruitment fair in March to fill just 30 positions. Carmen was among those at the airline's event, but was not among the lucky ones who got hired.

Graduates are lowering their job expectations. Wing Lam will get her degree in accounting in June. She said she no longer cares where she works. She would be willing even to go to mainland China to get a position. "I don't care about the salary; I just want a job. I surely don't mind working in mainland. It is challenging and I can learn to be independent," she said.

Desmond graduated from the University of Hong Kong last year, and his dilemma is common. "I want to be a management trainee, but they require at least one to two years of working experience. It is impossible for a fresh graduate to have such an experience," he said. After two months of fruitless job search, Desmond gave up his dream of a job in management and took an administrative position in an insurance company.

Students willing to work in the mainland do not have it easy either. Companies there are also looking for experienced workers and new graduates are too green for them.

Unable to find a job - any job - many Hong Kong university graduates decide to stay in school and continue studies even in a different field. Jenny is one of them. She got her undergraduate degree in liberal arts, but, following in her friends' footsteps, decided to stay in school and get a teacher's certificate.

"We do not want to be teachers actually; we just want to have an offer. The salary of teacher is really high," she said.

The average starting salary for a teacher is about $2,200 a month, more than twice the average starting salary liberal arts students can expect in other jobs.

Louisa Li, director of the career center at the University of Hong Kong gives graduating students one key bit of advice: If you can't find a paying job, get a job that does not pay. The experience in the workplace may be invaluable and will pay off later.