Employment Prospects for College Graduates in Hong Kong Limited during the COVID-19 Pandemic

The pandemic has strengthened my willingness to apply for another master’s degree program. I believed this is a hard year for every graduate.
  - HE Haoshen, a master's graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK)

Between January and September 2020, the number of labor force in the 20-24 age group decreased 12.1% and labor force participation rate fell by 5.6%, compared with 2019. Image - Paul Yeung–Bloomberg/Getty

It has been cold wintertime for all the fresh graduate students who graduated in the 2020’ summer to seek jobs. Companies are reducing jobs demand, laying off employees, and cutting the pays.

According to the government statistics, the latest 2020 July – September’s unemployment rate (seasonally adjusted) rose to 6.4%, which reached the highest point in 15 years. The numbers in 2018 and 2019 were both 2.9%.

From January to September this year, the labor force and its corresponding participation rate in the 20-24 age group increased -12.1% and -5.6%, respectively, compared with 2019.

In 2020, the labor force and the corresponding participation rate in the 20-24 age group will increase by -12.1% and -5.6% respectively compared with 2019. Source: Census and Statistics Department of Hong Kong

The data also shows the 20-29 age group's unemployment rate hit the highest number in 20 years – 9.76%.

A survey collecting opinions of graduates from Hong Kong’s eight universities shows that among all 84 respondents, 70.5% of respondents have graduated for more than 3 months but only 51.2% of them have found a full-time job after graduation.

More than 83% of the students think it is much harder for the graduates to find a satisfying job under the pandemic. The further data collected shows that 88% of graduates believe that the growing competition as a result of reducing employment demand in companies is the main challenge in the current job searching market.

Besides, 49% tell that they spend more time on job searching and 63.2% of the respondents will consider lowering their requirement on salary and welfare in order to get employed.

83% respondents feel more difficult to get employed and 49% tell that they spend more time on job searching under the pandemic.
Source: Self-made survey

What do the graduates say?

HE Haoshen (CUHK), WANG Wenjuan (HKU), and Kay ZENG (HKBU)

[1] “The pandemic has strengthened my willingness to apply for another master degree since I have failed to find a full-time job after my graduation,” said HE Haoshen, a master's graduate from the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) who currently took another master course on international language education at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

[2] "I think it is harder for fresh graduates to get a job under the pandemic, both theoretically and practically,” said WANG Wenjian, an undergraduate student of Economics and Finance of The University of Hong Kong (HKU), “I have friends who went for postgraduate study or even deferred their studies because they could not find a satisfying job due to the pandemic."

Will the graduate unemployment rate break the 2019 record? (Chart: Graduate unemployment rate in the past ten years)
Source: The University Grants Committee Statistics

[3] Kay ZENG, a graduate from The Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) Academy of Visual Arts who worked as a UX designer in EC Bento, a start-up company between March to July, also felt pressure from the global pandemic in terms of the low starting salary. “My salary at the time was $18,000 HKD per month. I think UX design is a professional job, and this could be considered as a low salary. I do believe that the pandemic has an effect on it because a supply chain company need to spend excessive transportation expenses and pay for their employees’ protective equipment. Thus, the salary that ends up in the employees’ hands will be lesser than what it should be.”  

Will the income of graduates decline for the first time in 2020 (Chart: The income of graduates has continued to grow in the past ten years)
Source: The University Grants Committee Statistics

What happened in industries?

Shoppers in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. Image: Reuters

[1] The graduates’ worriedness are not unfounded. L'Oréal (Hong Kong), a French personal care company Hong Kong Branch, streamed down hiring and increased the standards on candidates selection. “For the retail function, like customer service, we have already stopped hiring. Also, we have reduced 90% of our half-year and one-year internship program this year,” said Megan Tang, the Assistant Talent Acquisition Manager of L'Oréal.

“We do not reduce the starting salary, but we set higher requirements for the candidates. Previously you just need to have sales-based knowledge to work in a sales position. Still, now you need to have high learning agility and capability to quickly adapt to the fast-changing environment and the company’s requirements.”

[2] Julio Orr, the founder and CEO of Happyer, a career navigation online platform, mentioned, “There is an approximate of 50% vacancies drop on their company’s platform compared to what they have expected in a normal employment environment.”

From the company's point of view, Julio has somehow changed their recruitment methods, “Instead of hiring full-time graduates, our company has opened a lot of non-paid internship opportunities to students during summer.” He believes that this is a way to “ease the company’s internal pressure and to offer students a chance to practice themselves in the workplace at the same time.”

The digital economy market is expanding under the epidemic. Image: Startupr.hk blog

[3] Despite the severe condition in the traditional employment environment, the rise of the gig economy, which is the free market system where temporary positions are common and organizations hire independent workers for short-term commitments, has brought new opportunities and chances for the young graduates from a brand-new aspect.

Since the biggest impact of the pandemic is shifting everything online, Dr. Chandra Yanto, from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, indicated that “the pandemic has accelerated the trend of the gig economy, boomed the digital labor market, and provided more chances with freelancers and people who wanted to seek alternatives and opportunities during the pandemic.”

“Workers are being laid off in the restructuring companies. People have to survive. One of the easiest ways is going online,” Dr. Chandra Yanto added, “People's online activities are increasing under the pandemic. Entrepreneurs sell their expertise and skills online, comedians create Youtube channels, and teachers start offering online tutorials, etc.”

However, he also mentioned that young people should not be depressed by the situation since everybody could pick up new skills online to increase their competitiveness.

How do universities help graduates?

Project SEED Post. Source: HKBU Career Center Websites

It is worth noting that students are starting to seek counseling help in job searching under the pandemic. According to the HKBU career center data, there is a 50% year over year increase in the number of students seeking career counseling, which shows students suffer in job-seeking under this outbreak and need more extra help from the school to get through this period.

Angelina Chan, the career development manager of the Hong Kong Baptist University (HKBU) career center, said, “Due to the impact of the epidemic, enterprises began to adopt the mode of mixed virtual and physical internship, in which the flexibility, as well as the students' problem-solving ability requirements, were increased compared with the previous requirements. In addition to the challenges of competence, there is also a relative increase in employers' expectations of graduates due to resource constraints.”

“The number of vacancies is down, but the government and companies are also taking measures to help the graduates on their employment, so the situation is not too gloomy,” said Chan. “HKBU has set up Project SEED (Student Engagement, Enrichment, and Development) under which the university works with alumni and supporters to offer a range of educational opportunities to enhance students’ personal attributes and readiness for career development.”

How does the government predict the employment market?

Law Chi-kwong, Secretary for Labour and Welfare. Image: Jonathan Wong, Yahoo! News

"While the local epidemic situation has started to ease gradually in September, the global pandemic is still fluctuating in a rising trend, and the overall economic situation remains weak. The labor market will remain under pressure in the near term", said Dr. Law Chi-kwong, the Secretary for Labour and Welfare.

What should we be looking forward to?

Hong Kong Government (HKSAR) plans to create 30,000 time-limited jobs in public and about 5,000 short-term interns for young people. Source: news.gov.hk

The Government will allocate resources for creating jobs. Around 30,000 time-limited jobs will be created in both the public and private sectors in the coming two years for seasoned professionals and fresh graduates of different skill sets and academic qualifications.

Positions available for fresh graduates include those requiring professional or general skills, such as graduate programs in building surveying, town planning, estate surveying, land surveying, and engineering, researchers, and executive assistants.

Besides, the Government is expected to recruit over 10,000 civil servants this year for filling vacancies arising from retirement or the creation of new posts. Some 6000 new posts will be created in 2020-21 for enhancing the existing services. The government also planned to recruit about 5,000 short-term interns this year, increasing about 3,000 positions over last year.

Although the government is doing a great job in trying their best to put the pandemic affection on ease, “there is a danger of spending too much on helping the employment environment,” said Dr. Chandra, from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

“Doing too much will easily put a serious burden on the government budget and may cause a deficit in the following years causing the government to reduce public and social service expenses.” He added.