For many job seekers in China, opportunities for work are best found in coastal cities such as Shanghai, where more than half its 24 million people come from other parts of the country.
But as the cost of living continues to rise and the Chinese economy slows, some are considering returning home to look for work.
Those who do, though, are also finding it hard to leave.
Wang Congran left his home in Henan province when he was 15 and has lived mostly in Shanghai since then. He tried working in a factory for awhile, but once he switched to window washing, he was hooked and now prefers a different sort of production line.
“I am used to the work and if I had to do something else, if I had to work in a factory, I don’t think I could stand it,” Wang said, adding that the pay for factory work is not that good.
For the past year or so, he said, finding window washing jobs has become increasingly difficult. China has more than 200 million migrant workers, individuals like Wang who flock to the cities for jobs and opportunities.
In many ways though, Shanghai has become his home. Wang and his wife live in the city, and like many other migrant worker couples, their children live hundreds of kilometers away with their grandparents in their hometown.
He said the slowdown has affected his wife’s work too. Before, she could work 12 hours a day and get overtime pay. Now, he said, the TV factory where she works has limited her to eight hours a day.
The couple would like to stay in the city, but soon they may have to make a choice. Their current residence, which has been an affordable place to live until now, is slated to be torn down.
“It’s hard to say [what will come next],” he said. “If the house my wife and I are living in is torn down, we may have no place to stay. Shanghai is much too expensive,” Wang said.
As one of China’s preeminent coastal cities and a major financial center, Shanghai has long been a source of jobs and a magnet for job seekers. Every day job fairs are being hosted across the city. At one recent job fair, more than a hundred young entry-level applicants were first crowded into a lecture hall and then funneled into glass-door meeting rooms for smaller group interviews.
The majority were either recent graduates or soon to be graduates.
Niu Chuanzhao, who graduated in 2015 and is from neighboring Anhui province, worked for a short while last year in Kunshan, which is not far from Shanghai. He came to Shanghai in February and said he is having a hard time finding a job.
In college, Niu studied city planning, but like many of the other applicants at the fair, he was applying for a job in a call center.
“For many jobs, employers are looking for individuals with work experience,” he said. “And that is a big challenge for recent graduates.”
This year alone, Chinese authorities have said there will be as many as eight million new graduates joining the country’s workforce. Some argue that if you add the number of high school graduates who are not pursuing a higher education, the number is even higher.
Much like Niu, Li Yue graduated last year and worked for a time in China’s northeastern city of Harbin. She studied construction at school, but said she was willing to take any opportunity that might come her way.
“There are just too many people in China and too many university students,” she said, as she smiled and laughed. “And there are many people who are much more talented than me,” she said.
Sitting beside Li was her friend Liu Xuedong. Also from Harbin. Liu graduates this year, but is frustrated because without a degree, she can only apply for internships.
“Pay [for internships] is low and doesn’t include housing,” she said. “If I can’t work in Shanghai it will be too expensive [to live here].”
The cost of living in Shanghai is something that weighs heavily on many.
Dai Yan, a design coordinator who has been living in Shanghai for seven years, said that since she moved to the city, her rent has almost tripled. At one point it got so bad that she tried returning home. But after a month in her home town in Jiangsu, she realized that she was no longer accustomed to life there.
“The contrast between the environment in Shanghai and back home is too big,” she said. "Especially with my friends and their mindset and way of life there. It’s hard to fit in.”
Despite the economic slowdown, some say opportunities are still good in Shanghai, especially in the information technology industry.
Geng Qian came to Shanghai four years ago and works in online sales. This summer, she plans to leave Shanghai and go to Beijing for IT training, where she hopes to learn more about APP design and see what new opportunities unfold there.
“As long as you want to learn there are still always opportunities for younger workers,” Geng said. “I am just an average person and it may be difficult to be really successful… but I can work on something I can change, like improving myself.”
She said that from her perspective, going home to find work is really not an option.
“Some may complain and whine about Shanghai, but that’s all it is [just complaints] because they can’t give up the opportunities and higher salaries that are here,” she said.
And until that changes, many are likely to stay put, and other job seekers will keep on coming.