In China, economic uncertainties and increased competition in the private sector are pushing a record number of graduates toward less remunerative but more stable government jobs.
More than 1.5 million people registered for this year's national civil service exam, which was held throughout China Sunday. The number is 20 times greater than it was a decade ago. Other exams are being administered for provincial and local government positions throughout the country.
But only about one percent of the applicants will ultimately secure a government position.
Liu Jiehua, professor of population studies at Beijing University, says that Chinese university graduates, who this year number a record seven million, still dream of overcoming the odds because of the benefits government jobs have long offered in China.
“In the past we talked about 'grabbing the golden iron bowl,' and the golden content of the so-called iron bowl is still very substantial,” Liu says.
China's bureaucracy, one of the world's largest, is perceived as a more stable career path than the private sector, which Liu says has lost the dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit that it had during the first few decades of economic reforms, when many officials left their government posts to “jump into to the sea of commerce” and explore their options as entrepreneurs.
Now, students face fierce competition to get into the government sector.
The national exam is the first screening for candidates who, if successful at this first step, will then face further tests and training before landing an official position.
Aspiring government employees are required to specify their most sought after position, and list two backup choices on their application.
Some jobs are less popular, such as those within the China Earthquake Administration, which only received 24 applications, according to state-owned news agency Xinhua. But for posts in central government agencies in Beijing and customs and taxation offices in provincial or local governments, thousands of applicants vied on Sunday for a limited number of jobs.
Pathway to perks
Status is an important pulling drive for many test takers.
In a country where personal connections are often key for getting preferential treatment in hospitals, schools and courts of law, the relative power that comes with a government job is seen as a potential source of benefits and self-enrichment.
Wary of this perception, the Chinese government is encouraging the next generation of officials to practice what the Communist Party has been preaching since it took power, namely to serve the people wholeheartedly and avoid corruption.
Last month, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security said that China will recruit more people with “grassroots work experience” in this year's exam. Twelve percent of the test-taking opportunities were set aside for college graduates who have worked as village officials.
One 29-year-old surnamed Li, (not his real name) was a village official for three years before he took the test for a Beijing government civil service post three years ago. He now works in the agricultural department of a government district just outside Beijing.
He says that at the time, the government had established a program to help students in their careers by placing them in local administrations while they were studying, and encouraging them to continue a bureaucratic career after graduation.
“After three years of working experience at the local level, I had been assimilated by the system and I thought that working in the government was not a bad choice after all,” he says.
Li, whose salary amounts to around 700 US dollars a month, says that he earns much less than many of his fellow university graduates who pursued a career in the private sector.
Yet his bureaucrat's position comes with some perks.
“The income is low but the benefits are high,” he says, “Some good work units give purchasing cards, sort of like credit cards to their employees to use in supermarkets to buy groceries. Overtime is also well paid.”
More than anything else, Li thinks that it is the prospect of being in a position of power, and the possibility of abusing it, that lures so many graduates toward becoming government officials.
“It is enough that you manage a position with some power, and you can get many channels to get grey income,” he says.
Li believes that some people are fit for these types of jobs, but he does not count himself as one.
He is now sending resumes to private companies and hopes to find a job that better fits his character.
His family might not totally agree with his decision to let go of the "golden iron bowl," but in the end he says life is not all about material benefits.
“It's also important to do something that you consider worthwhile, and find your place in the world where you can realize your potential,” he said.