Death carries such a strong stigma in China that the number 4 is widely avoided because it sounds like the Chinese word for death. Yet more than 5,000 new college graduates desperately seeking work swamped a recent job fair held by Shanghai's funeral industry.
A record 6.1 million graduates are turning to some unexpected careers that they might have spurned in boom years but that look promising in the slowing economy — everything from undertaker to public restroom attendant.
"There are still taboos about this business in China," says Cao Baofu, whose parents opposed his joining the Shanghai Yishan funeral home a decade ago. "So I was shocked we received 400 applications at the fair."
The global economic downturn is to blame, Cao says. "We've never had so many college graduates applying."
This flood of graduates worries China's leaders, who want to maintain stability. Students are trying to enter the workforce as millions of migrant workers are unemployed because of fewer manufacturing jobs. The government is counting on people to buy more goods to help the economy rebound.
Making the situation even more difficult, the new graduates are attempting to start their careers as 1 million graduates from last year are still looking for work. In recent months, the government has asked employers to create jobs and called on students to be less choosy where they work.
"College students, laid-off workers and migrant workers waiting for jobs are my biggest concern," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told job seekers at an employment center last month, according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.
Wen urged students to choose jobs in rural areas. If they do, after a few years, they're promised entry to graduate school or residence permits to live in big cities.
Chinese officials are on "red alert" over unemployment, says Wang Kan, a lecturer at the China Institute of Industrial Relations in Beijing. "The government fears that unemployed university students and migrant workers protesting about lost jobs could create a real, independent labor movement. The graduates have knowledge, and the migrants have physical power."
Since the second half of 2008, Beijing has introduced several policies to create jobs as the economy slows. China's Labor Ministry vowed to find work for about 80% of the graduates, Xinhua says.
There are jobs out there for graduates willing to take them. After a national recruitment drive, two women were recently picked to be "Lavender Angels" to promote a town in south China that grows lavender.
In Nanjing in eastern China, a public restroom — named "fragrance" — limits its recruiting for an attendant to "a beautiful female" with a postgraduate degree or higher. When the city of Suzhou needed maintenance workers for 58 public restrooms, 870 people applied, including more than 40 college graduates.
"It is easier than in previous years to recruit college students because of the severe job pressure," says Song Rui, manager of Sichuan Sisters, a nanny recruitment service in Chengdu in Sichuan province.
Zhao Guangxu, who majored in home economics, worked as a nanny the past two summers while in school and endured jokes from his friends. " 'How could a man do a women's job?' they asked me, no matter how hard I explained the advanced system of child care in Western countries," he says.
Zhao is head of recruitment for Sichuan Sisters and will hire 1,000 college students this summer — both women and men — to work in Beijing.
"My parents didn't like my major at first, but now they have seen the results. The most important factor was that one of my relatives went to America and did a similar job," says Zhao, 24. "I believe this industry has a bright future in China."
Choosing smaller companies
Graduates must be "less choosy and more reasonable and realistic," says Wang Jian, marketing manager at 51job.com, China's leading recruitment website. "In the past, all students wanted to work in Top 500 companies. Now I tell them to choose smaller, private companies."
The slowing economy is good news for Fu Chunbao, manager for a chain of stores that sells wedding dresses.
He had few takers last December when he was trying to hire sales clerks for his two Beijing stores. In June, applicants flocked to his booth at the Yonghegong job fair as Fu planned to open another store. "The economy is worse now, and there are fewer jobs, so I have more people to choose from," Fu says.
Trying for one of those jobs was Han Bing, 22, an advertising major who just graduated from Beijing Technical Vocational College. After attending 10 job fairs in June — and 10 interviews — Han has abandoned any hope of landing a career in advertising.
"If I can't find a suitable job in sales, then I'd consider working in a funeral parlor," Han says. "But I wouldn't tell my parents."