College Graduates Compete for Jobs Sweeping Streets

Tong Peng spent six months discovering his bachelor’s degree was “worthless” before deciding to apply for a job as a street sweeper.

He graduated from college in Harbin in June, 2012, not expecting to find it so tough to find work with a college degree. He tried over and over but failed, his last shred of dignity crushed.

Tong changed jobs three times in rapid succession, working first in a factory making cans, small and large. Next, Tong worked as a warehouse administrator in a pharmaceutical factory, handling colorful boxes of medicine. That was followed by a gig passing out flyers for an insurance company.

The jobs were dull and unstable at best, offering him a salary of less than 1,000 yuan [$150] a month and not much hope for the future.

In September, his mother burst into Tong’s room with a newspaper ad, excited that the city of Harbin was looking for street sweepers, a chance at a solid job with the state. He lacked the courage to say no.

“This is government employment with full benefits,” his mother emphasized. “What’s wrong with sweeping the streets? We won’t go bankrupt as long as the government doesn’t.”

A heavy metal fan who played guitar through four years at college, Tong decided to heed his mother’s advice. He was tired and disillusioned: “Hard work isn’t about realizing a dream, but living a better life,” he said.

In mid-October, the Harbin Municipal Urban Management Bureau said it had received more than 10,000 applications for 457 jobs in the city’s service industry. Of the 7,186 applicants who paid the application fee, 2,954, or 41 percent, were college graduates. Twenty-five applicants held a master’s degree.

In one district alone, there were 721 applications for twenty jobs as sanitation workers.

Tong was intimidated: “Who knew it was so tough to become a street sweeper?”

Two city hotlines rang around the clock, receiving 1,000 phone calls a day. Due to high demand, recruiters extended the application deadline by a day. One company quickly established a class specifically designed to train recruits applying for jobs at the sanitation department, charging them a “discounted” price of 580 yuan [$90].

One applicant, twenty-six-year-old Zhang Landi, spent 25 yuan [$4] on test preparation materials he then offered to share for free online. Within three days he was contacted by more than one hundred interested netizens, most of them Harbin college graduates.

Tong began to see why the jobs were so hot. First, they were government jobs with full benefits, stable for even the worst candidates. Second, the jobs offered a Harbin hukou, or residence permit. Third, employees who received outstanding performance reviews for three years could be promoted to management positions.

Seeing the insurance clerks working around him, with their anxiety-induced bad complexions, Tong went home early to review the application materials.

He pored over Sanitation System Specialized Knowledge Problem Sets, a booklet asking deep questions such as, “When sweeping the streets, can you push a broom?”

“It’s easy but it needs to be taken seriously,” Tong said. “Many people say we lack ambition, but getting government employment with full benefits is our biggest ambition.”

“A Sense of Stability”

At the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the kind of government jobs Tong and his peers are fighting for today were established to provide a public service. These jobs were the building blocks of the planned economy—organized by the government, planned by the government, and paid for by the government in order to fulfill its will.

Over the decades, the system has grown enormous. China now has about 1.3 million government institutions paying nearly 30 million employees. These jobs account for more than 30 percent of the national government’s annual expenditures. And Harbin, an old industrial base, is home to more than 8,000 such institutions with more than 200,000 employees.

Twenty-six-year-old Liu Lin is a temporary worker for the Bin County government in a suburb of Harbin. He has suffered through odd jobs doled out every day over the past two years. Though he has no specific assignment, he must do what the boss asks. But as a part-timer, he has no social security, no chance for promotion, and often doesn’t get paid on time. He decided to quit and apply to drive a street sweeping truck. An official government job, that’s all he wants. “You can become a cadre in a government institution, that’s the essential difference,” Liu said.

More and more young people are fighting to get government jobs. In Harbin’s recruitment drive, 8,723 applicants took a test competing for 388 positions in 2011. One job alone—as a tour guide to the Northeast China Martyrs Memorial Hall—drew 1,300 applicants.

Sociologist Sun Liping says that by the end of 2006, the average pension drawn by government-affiliated public service sector employees was twice that of workers in the business sector. With the development of the national reform of allowances and subsidies, the gap in pension benefits will widen.1

Of the 8,000 or more frontline sanitation workers currently employed by the city of Harbin, fewer than 10 percent have education beyond high school. Sixty-two percent are fifty years old or older, and 23 percent are older than seventy years old. Wang Yong, deputy director of the Harbin Sanitation Management Bureau, expressed high hopes for the new recruits: “We hope to improve the quality of sanitation workers.”

Li Yi, the environment section chief of the bureau, was surprised by the flood of recruits: “We anticipated 1,000-2,000 applicants, but not 10,000.” Li acknowledged that the government benefits were the greatest draw. To prevent high turnover, the bureau announced contracts of a minimum of five years for the first successful applicants. If they quit early, they lose the benefits associated with the job. As the senior sanitation worker in charge of Harbin’s Nangang District Square, Liu Yumei worries that younger workers might quit. She rises at 3:00 a.m. each day and is on duty by 4:00, standing for eight or nine hours as she cleans 7,000 square meters.

Liu, a full time sanitation worker for eighteen years, is the only government employee with full benefits on her team of one hundred workers. She earns 2,200 yuan [$353] per month, compared with the temporary workers’ salaries of 1,600 yuan [$256]—barely enough to get by on. From her point of view, the job’s great comfort is its stability—the pension after retirement. She can’t forget a sixty-year-old temporary worker, too old to sweep the streets and so poor that he had to return to work on the farm.

For Tong Peng, 23, stability is the scarcest resource. He hopes for stability against the odds. After filing his street sweeper application, Tong often observes the temporary street sweepers in their forties and tells himself: “I’m different from them. They’re temporary workers and I’ll have a government job with full benefits.”

The Excited Mother

Li Shengfeng, 22, applied for a job as a street sweeper at his forty-six-year-old mother’s insistence. A small-time clothes peddler, she was impressed that “the sanitation bureau is bigger than my tiny market stall.” A recent college graduate, Li was reluctant to apply at first. Born in 1990, Li grew up the son of a mother who worked in a large state-run garment factory and a father and grandfather who, during the 1980s, worked in a successful state-run factory repairing machinery.

In the late 1990s, a government plan to reinvigorate state-run enterprises inside three years brought about widespread layoffs. Li still remembers that when he was little his father told him proudly that his whole family were “the nation’s workers.” He never expected their “iron rice bowl” to be taken away overnight. In desperation, his mother started her peddling. His father borrowed money and bought a small truck to start a moving business. Today, his family of five lives in a forty-square-meter [430 square feet] two-bedroom apartment. At the time, the sudden change in his family’s fortune and the dire straits in which they found themselves sparked doubt in Li’s mind about government jobs and the “iron rice bowl.” Nowadays, he listens to his mom: “Companies can go bankrupt, but how can a nation go bankrupt?” she says. “Let alone a sanitation bureau, which is part of the public service?”

During the frequent slow cycles in the clothes peddling business, sometimes his mother can’t sell more than ten items each month. She constantly whispers to her son: “We should have confidence in our nation.” Based on what he sees around him, Li agrees. After graduation, he worked as a mechanic, a supermarket stock clerk, and an administrator in a steel warehouse. The longest job lasted for one month. Meanwhile, one of his peers got a job in the cigarette factory where his parents worked, easily earning a monthly salary of 6,000-7,000 yuan [$1,000]. “The rich work in a cigarette factory while the poor take the street sweeper jobs,” Li complained, finally applying for the sanitation job. “In the end, cleaners are still government institution employees and work for the nation.”

Still, Li had a hard time imagining that the street sweeper job had drawn so many applicants competing for the post.

Twenty-six-year-old Zhang Landi was considering quitting his white-collar job at a heating company in Harbin because it has “no security, no pension.”

Liang Zhiwei, a bus driver with a monthly salary of 5,000 yuan [$850], still regards a job without a pension as “too dangerous, not worthwhile.”

Nearly every applicant for the street sweeper job mentioned a pension and stability. So did Li. His father, now nearly fifty years old, is still running his small truck around the city, but its brakes don’t work that well. He’s exhausted, but tells Li, “You are still young, but you need to plan for the future.”

And Li is planning, counting on being transferred to a management position: “I am willing to wait. I can climb higher until the people ahead of me get old.”

  1. In 2010, China’s central government began preparations to address a widening wealth gap between rich and poor. The “national reform of allowances and subsidies” is a part of that ongoing project.—ChinaFile