University Graduates Earn Little More Than Migrant Workers

The migrant worker says the the university student: "You spent money to go to college, yet your income is the same as me who did not go to college!"

The migrant worker says the the university student: "You spent money to go to college, yet your income is the same as me who did not go to college!"

From Southern Weekend:

University graduate starting salaries close to those of migrant workers: Why go to college?

The gap between the starting salaries of Chinese university graduates and the wages of migrant workers is gradually closing, according to Cai Fang, a member of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress and head of the Institution of Population and Labor Economics of CASS (Chinese Academy of Social Sciences). Though he stresses that college graduates after a few years of working have far more salary raise opportunities than migrant workers, [this phenomenon] may still produce a kind of negative incentive effect: “Why go to college?”

China Youth University for the Political Sciences held the “Chinese Youth Forum” the day before yesterday.  Cai, Fang expressed during his speech that China’s demographic dividend period has passed, resulting in a labor shortage. At a certain level, this creates job opportunities, lifts wages, and and closes wage gaps between certain industries.

Cai Fang provided some statistics: Statistics for 2003, 2005 and 2008 showed that the average starting salary of college graduates stayed around 1500 yuan per month, but monthly wages for migrant workers rose from 700 yuan to 1200 yuan. Though the wage gap between these two broadened in the year 2009, the overall trend is that the gap is closing. He says, “China has never before faced this kind of situation, and it’s hard to predict how long it will last.”

Though Mr. Cai stresses that college graduates after a few years of working have far more salary raise opportunities than migrant workers, and that the investment in a college education will pay off eventually, he still worries this phenomenon creating a negative incentive effect. People may ask, “Why go to school?” This will lead to people dropping out of school earlier to make money earlier. “Why have children go to school? Why go to college? Then it’ll be why go to high school?”

Comments from Southern Weekend:

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At the end of the day, this is just discussing the issue of the utility of education. Education still has various important uses. Of course, if you can’t even feed yourself, you’re not going to have any energy to discuss anything else.


Even after having attended college, what use is it?

After graduation, “worked” at home for over a year before landing a job as a worker in a factory, wage barely over 1000 a month. [Going to college] only means that my education is higher a bit, which only serves to satisfy my vanity!!!


Actually, as a college student who hasn’t yet graduated, I’m really very worried about the future. The starting salary for college graduates is indeed not very high, and we’re no match against migrant workers when it comes to enduring hardship. However, these two types of people go into entirely different fields, and at a certain level cannot be compared. If this gap does exist or is getting worse, I can only say there is something wrong with our country.


If starting salary alone is used to reject [the value of] a college education, then this is truly a national disaster.


Don’t reject what you have already received. It is not what you have learned itself that is not good, it is that you are not using it well.


This is the disastrous consequence of education commercialization!

Education is always an undertaking, a lofty/noble undertaking!


These days, those that can be called real universities (training actual useful people for the future) can be counted on one’s hands and feed. The rest are just places where people waste their time. Some people are willing to spend money to go in and learn something useful and then begin working. Usually good occupations/industries (that require advanced studies) have good wages, so many people think going to college will result in high wages. But actually it is not like this. The point of going to college is because the work require higher learning ability, and more specialized knowledge, in order to work better. But the pay for this work may not be much, and the demand for certain occupations can be saturated. Going to college and high wages cannot be equated with each other. (This is why some people who have not gone to college can still become millionaires, whereas some who have gone to college can only go sweet streets) Moreover, the older they are, the more they treat getting into college like “taking the imperial examination”, believing that getting into college will automatically result in glory and wealth [in the past, passing the imperial examination often resulted in government posts that were accompanied with stability, privilege, and wealth]. Actually, China there are many jobs in China that are less demanding but no one is willing to do them.

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  • Personaly I feel that getting a college education is not always about getting money. Of course it is a major motivator, however getting a college education also helps you make better decisions and think more logically.

    For example if you compare someone from a rural village in China who has no education to a person from a rural village with even some level of college education you can naturally expect them to have a better life and perhaps make better decisions and have a more intelligent better wife or husband.

    • Chef Rocco

      College education is presumably investment for individuals and families in terms of personal finance and development, naturally, the investors are expecting financial returns.

      On the other hand, as investors, they should have patience and long-term view, potential from education is not equivalent to immediate gains upon graduation, success must be earned by handwork, creativity and contributions.

    • pervertt

      Completely agree. You might even get to marry an intelligent chemistry graduate from Peking University.

      • Chef Rocco

        She is a sicko, should be more suitable for a pervert. What is a pity that her hubby is a mismatch for her as a regular guy.

        • pervertt

          Hey, what’s wrong with marrying a chemistry graduate? You will never run out of household chemicals. Plus, she might come up with a knockout recipe that will blow you away.

      • Albino

        Hope this ‘intelligent’ chemistry major doesn’t know much about Thalium.

  • jpp

    Hmm well it depends on what you want. Lots of my University students are shocked by how little they can actually earn when they leave Uni.
    A close friend of mine has a pretty good job but he told me he only earns about 3500rmb a month and he is one of the higher paid employees in his division.

    • jpp

      Oh and btw he is a senior employee for the department that checks and quality controls domestic and imported food in China.

  • Bokamba

    I believe an American college education (which is what I have) is worth it for most people. From my observations of the Chinese educational system, a Chinese college education is far less likely to be worthwhile, because it tends to be too focused on memorizing specific knowledge. As a result, unless Chinese graduates go into a field which requires that specific knowledge, their education will be nearly useless. I don’t think I’m qualified to comment on any other countries.

    • Chad

      Granted I went to a Canadian university, but I know people who were educated in the US as well in good schools (Carnegie Mellon, Cornell) and that’s what university is about for most majors except math, physics, and engineering – a hell lot of rote memorization. At the end of the 4 years, you get a chance to actually apply it in a Masters or phd program…

      We have the same situation here. The gap between blue collar (vocational) and white collar (college) isn’t as great as before because there’s demand for the blue collar worker but many don’t want to do it because of status and because a physical disability is much more likely to end your career as a blue collar worker than a white collar one.

      • da mao houzi

        Canadian education standards are much higher than American. An american university degree is equal to a Canadian college degree. High school graduates in the usa do not qualify for Canadian science programs in university without additional studies.

    • Meh

      Yeah, there are many colleges that focus on memorization and does not teach the students how to apply what they know. There is nothing more useless than a person with a degree in something earned just by memorizing material from class. There is a sea of college grads like this looking for jobs.

  • Chris N.

    College is about learning to learn and proving you can work hard. Most things you learn are relatively general. Most of what you do in a job is learned on the job, unless you were learning a specific skill in college. If you had a business and wanted to hire people to work in an office setting, would you rather hire a community college business major or a Harvard history major? Not everyone goes to a Harvard so you distinguish yourself at your own school. Schools give you the opportunity to do this through grades, projects, clubs, volunteering, competitions, awards. The critical thing is that these opportunities have meaning. If everyone got a 4.0 you couldn’t tell who was smart and who wasn’t.

    Do Chinese universities sufficiently allow students to distinguish themselves among their peers? Or are they just another drop in the bucket? Can hiring companies tell the difference in ability among students? Did the schools grade fairly, award awards fairly, give students the chance to hold responsibility to prove themselves? Did the students care about any of this?
    And…do Chinese Ph.D students actually know how to conduct original research, or is copying 30% of another’s work and BS’ing the other 70% sufficient?(copying 30% is allowed) Are they held up to the same standards as other universities in the world?

    • da mao houzi

      I recently proof read a Chinese Master’s thesis. I would fail it if it was a grade 11 paper.

  • Max

    Migrant workers also work in harsher conditions that are often risky to their health. If people feel that their college education is a waste because their white collar job’s salary is similar to migrant workers, they should get their heads checked.
    People working in dangerous conditions deserve decent wages.

  • meh

    The first comment points out the short-sightedness of assessing the utility of education, but my experience of Chinese graduates is that they do this all the time. By their own admission, they say that university in China is limited to a very narrow focus around your area of study. If you don’t go to a top 10 school, you are basically going to a trade school. Even if you attend a top 10, chances are you will know little outside of your area of study.

    Even mathematical areas like engineering and the sciences are not exempt from this trend, as Chinese undergraduate studies tend to go very deep into a subject, not broad like in the West. I recently worked with a graduate who had studied physics at Shanghai Jiao Tong who was very competent with Fourier series, but had no idea what Fourier transforms are. I once interviewed a QingHua computer science grad who said he would be fine with C++ but that he didn’t feel comfortable with Java. I told him despite some important differences, they are very much the same, and that going from C++ to Java, those differences will not pose a problem. After 6 months on the job, he still was coding in C++. We had to crack the whip, and shortly thereafter he left of his own accord. He seemed happy until we asked him to switch, but his mood quickly soured after that, it was very weird.

    • cdn icehole

      A typical computer programmer mentality. I’ve dealt with BBx programmers who thinks the language is all that and refused to learn any other languages. I’d avoid hiring those types of employees.

    • ##BlothaLonely##

      Just FYI, the computer users are also alike.. I’ve met hundreds of users in Japan who won’t give up their shitass cobol-mainframe programs for a latest open systems applications..

      Sometimes, I feel deeply lonely just at the thought of such people~~

    • Sorry boys – but when it comes to being an “expert” in a computer language – i.e. more than stringing a few Do Loops and If Else Statements – I find it akin to learning another human language. And when you think about the amount of languages that have come and gone over the last 50 years (Assemblier, COBOL, FORTRAN, PASCAL, ADA, BASIC, C, C+, Java, and the range of ‘visual’ languages) – it is not hard to see that programmers have a high burn out rate. Then again, find that one ‘speciality language’ that needed to maintain a few essential ‘black box’ systems – and you have a 30 year and a gold watch job.

      And in the end – wasn’t that the entent of having a college and/or university degree? To have the knowledge and skills to land a career that would not be so temporary in nature – like ‘migrant work’?

  • Yurp

    Do you believe a college education is “worth it?”

    It depends on the field your degree is in. A lot of the time it’s not worth it. If you want to go to college to get a degree in philosophy, you’re welcome to do so, I can’t say it will help you get a job though…

    I know plenty of friends my age who never went to college, they have been earning for 5 or 6 years now, and they’re doing pretty well for themselves.

  • Of Canada

    In developed countries this trend is not unusual. Most college graduates cannot expect that their first job is going to pay as much as their peers who started working in warehouses as forklift operators, or plumbing or landscaping or mechanics or whatever and have already reached their upper earning potential in those menial jobs while you were studying in college. Many who just invested a year or 2 in trade school and learning on the job will continue to create more wealth than the BA’s and MA’s in Canada. It’s all about offering or creating something of value. Supply and demand.

    • red_five

      I completely agree. Canada is also regressing back to a resource extraction dominated economy where trades, industrial tickets, and other experience-oriented skills are in very, very high demand and pay very well. Latte and moleskin this work is not. It’s really tough in a very macho environment…but that is where the jobs are…not the much vaunted, but yet to materialize knowledge economy.

  • cdn icehole

    Do you believe a college education is “worth it?”

    Always. It open doors which most blue collar workers cannot enter. I remember hearing from the local news that 60% of teenagers graduates from high school. The rest went straight to the oil patch making more money in a few years than a white collar worker in a decade. Unfortunately for the drop-outs, most of them are still unemployed due to the recent downturn in the economy.

  • I wonder what the starting salaries of Beida, Tsinghua, Fudan etc. grads are?

    • Alikese

      Very little. Graduate assistants in the US don’t make much money.

  • Jack

    College education is nothing but indoctrination by the elite who rule this world…its a worthless piece of paper that you get when you does not matter if you are in China or US..

    The facts have to slave your ass to some big corporates all your life for peanuts while furthering their agenda. The world is not what you think it is…it works differently…the guys who sacrifice their soul get to the top…there is no such think as hard work..only slavery…

    Never ever go to any school or college…home school your children..they will earn more

    • Joe

      I agree, but also think they should go to school a little simply to diversify their outlook on life.

    • Tommy

      Don’t home school your kids. Socializing is 50% of school and even more important in the business world.

    • Rick in China

      You’re a fucking idiot Jack, clearly someone who has given up because he personally failed at life, and wants to take down others. Conspiracy theory for the win.

      • bobiscool

        Well, I wouldn’t say he’ wrong exactly, just overly pessimistic.

        Even if that’s the case, there are the people who run the show; and it’s possible to become one of them.

        And without a college degree, it’s much harder to do so.

    • da mao houzi

      My medical degree certainly has worked for me, I make $500,000.00 per year working 3 days a week. I think the 13 years was worth it.

    • wongasu

      so they became the next Jaden Smith?

  • Shing Chuang

    Rampant income tax evasion renders salary data meaningless. What about fringe benefits – housing, company cars, and meals? What about guanxi and social status?

  • WHOREmoanized DICKtator

    A college/better education helps you slip into the elite coup and become a DICK-tator. This planet is basically DICK-tated by bunches of hypocrites who are having at least a college degree in the pocket…. Even though you don’t want to dictate, a better education helps alot in daily working life….
    so stop being myopic and grown some brains and foresights

  • Jiang

    Soon, it will be like this. Plumbers earning more than lawyers. Car mechanics earning more than doctors. Carpenters earning more than bank employees. Left behind are lawyers trying to fleece from them all.

  • Irvin

    It really depends on how you measure “worth”. If you only measure it in money then it isn’t worth it, if you’re a college graduate and still only measure it in money then it definitely isn’t worth it since you’ve learned nothing.

    Beyond learning and whatever results of seeking a college education, it is also an experience. Not to mention a place to expand social networks in addition to expand our worldly perceptions.

    I do agreed that on a pure knowledge stand point one tends to learn more from wikipedia or books. But there’s a difference between knowledge and wisdom, where college fails to impart in knowledge it makes up for in wisdom through your experience there.

    Experiences includes friendship, extra curriculum, relationships, sexual relationships…….and other things one can only find in college.

    It didn’t help me make any money directly being self employed as I am, but I wouldn’t trade my time there for anything.

  • LookiLoo

    I dont see what the big problem is, most construction workers and truck drivers in the states dont have higher education, nor is it needed and they make waaay more money than a new graduate student.

    Chinese people have a mentality that education = value = pay, but in reality and in the rest of the world, your pay = the value you create irregardless of your education.

    You can have a doctorate but as long as you arnt creating anything of worth, then you wont get paid.

    • Chad

      I think it has more to do with the fact that the average college graduate makes more than the average high school grad. As the article mentions, college grads have much more potential for growth. This is true anywhere.

      Granted you can make a lot of money as a bus driver or carpenter too over here, that’s not the average situation for a high school or vocational grad.

  • Joe

    For many careers, I feel a college degree is simply a mutually shared delusion like paper currency.

  • Albino

    Degrees (diploma’s) from colleges are worthless. From Universities they’re questionable at best.

    While some teachers and schools take themselves seriously students are customers and the customer is always right (always passes). This is why when too many students fail the teacher is bad, not the students.

    I read an article a few years ago that Beijing Uni failed 450 students. The parents were furious, blaming the Uni for their lazy offspring’s failings. Their case was rejected by the courts when the students attendance records were presented, showing they were too busy playing games in net cafe’s and had no time for class.

    The problem with the Chinese education system is the lack of quality. In a system where everyone passes by default, fail quota and a non-cheating student being a bad student, a degree is worthless.

    This is why a professor (which is a title, not degree) is not permitted to practice or teach in the ‘West’. Usually they have to retake their degree, simply because they know very little to nothing.

  • jd lang

    so most kids in this country sacrificed a childhood and spent a fortune for nothing……..what a messed up country. The Chinese education system is an elimination process start to finish, it’s not there to nurture people, it is there simply to weed people out, otherwise this country wouldn’t be so backwards. Asked a third year college student what they wanted to do, gave me a blank stare………..odd………….

  • Bob

    Ahhhh the uneducated migrant worker (or in the US country, the uneducated unskilled worker) thinks that because their starting salary is the same, that means they’re equal.

    While the uneducated worker MAY be able to get a raise close to inflation each year, the educated worker will at least double their salary in 5-10 years.

  • Alikese

    The degree is being devalued because everyone has one, this is happening in America too.

    When every family operates under the belief that all kids have to study 10 hours per day and go to college to become an office worker, that’s what they do. Then when everyone has a degree it is no longer valuable. It also leaves a smaller pool of people willing to do the manual labor jobs like plumber or construction worker, and their salary rises.

    You can’t have a country of 1.3 billion middle managers in short sleeves and a tie.

  • geez a job

    welcome to the real world. go to any western country and you will see fast food chains and hotels with staff doing menial work, many of them are graduates with 1st honour degrees. They cant get work in their field of expertise because they were ill advised four years previously when they enrolled in a degree program or the economic events have meant they cant get work in the area they want.

  • Brett Hunan

    Anyone else read this in the times last month?

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  • Li RuiKe

    I think the main point here is that Chinese colleges are failing to produce graduates who are valuable.
    Having taught in Tsinghua for 5 years, I can tell you that the system is a joke. Teachers care about nothing but their own careers, which have no relationship to producing high quality graduates. Why should students do their own work when the teachers never do? Students don’t have to work to pass. 98% of entrants graduate. The government gives money to the schools based on guanxi and kickbacks, like everything else in this corrupt country. Why does Beijing have so many “top” universities? It’s all about access to money and power. No one cares about educating the masses. If the people were really educated, then the government leaders would be in big trouble.
    Also, in China, students rarely take employment before graduating from college, so they have no idea how to be a good employee. They’re used to their parents giving them everything and doing everything for them. They are pathetic employees because they’re so spoiled. Chinese college graduates are completely unqualified to earn a graduates salary upon graduation. It makes sense that migrant workers who know how to work hard earn the same money.

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  • This economic recession will pass like a bad memory. University graduates will again be appreciated for their breadth of learning and intelligence. There will always be a need for intelligent people, be they university grads or not.

    I am just not sure about China. With all the new universities that have popped up graduating huge classes each year, I see similarities to mass marketed shoes. Combine China’s university grads, many who come from other places in China and you get an educated migrant worker, with no labour protections and less ability to handle themselves in the workforce. This often puts Chinese graduates at a disadvantage, as the prof from Qinghua states.

    For all the recent grads on here, suck it up. Better days are forthcoming.

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