Image: Woman gets cleaning instruction
Vincent Yu  /  AP
Once an office worker, Xiong Xuhua gets cleaning instructions at a school for domestic workers in Guangzhou, China, on Wednesday.
updated 2/19/2009 2:39:56 PM ET 2009-02-19T19:39:56

She majored in English and loved her job as an office worker in China's once-booming export industry. But now Xiong Xuhua is jobless and in training to be a housekeeper, a fate she is too embarrassed to tell even her husband about.

Wearing a blue apron with a white Hawaiian floral print, Xiong spent a recent day at a school for domestic workers practicing how to use a squeegee to clean a window without leaving streaks across the glass.

"I haven't told anyone in my family, not even my husband, that I'm going to do this kind of work," the petite 24-year-old woman said in a hushed voice as she looked down at the ground with a blank face.

China's economic slump has sidetracked the careers of thousands of university graduates who studied computers, management and other fields. Now, many professional women are scrambling for jobs as nannies and housekeepers — work they never would have considered before.

It's a jarring change for an educated elite in a society where university students are called "Proud Children of Heaven." Parents warn kids they will wind up as nannies or cleaners if they fail to study. Many are getting their first taste of domestic work after spending their childhoods being pampered by their own nannies.

The job search will only get tougher this year when 6.1 million college graduates enter the market. They will compete with 1.8 million graduates who finished school last year but have yet to find work. More than 23,000 graduates flooded into Beijing's first job fair after the Lunar New Year holiday earlier this month to apply for only 4,000 positions.

China has no statistics how many female professionals are now working as domestic help, but anecdotal evidence suggests the numbers are growing.

Cong Shan, general manager of Guangzhou Home EZ Services in Guangzhou, China's southern business center, said that until last year, she had never had a university graduate apply to her company, which trains and places domestic workers. But since August, 90 percent of the 500 to 600 women who have applied have higher-education degrees.

Jobs at multinationals dry up
The popular job-search Web site 51job.com is seeing more university graduates and white-collar workers looking for lower-status jobs, said Feng Lijuan, the company's chief career adviser.

Image: Woman gets window cleaning instructions
Vincent Yu  /  AP
Xiong Xuhua, left, is taught by her teacher how to use a squeegee to clean a window.
"The decline of new jobs is an undisputable fact. Many multinationals stopped their campus recruiting last October," she said.

While female professionals are turning to domestic work, China's legions of unemployed male graduates don't have that option and either remain out of work or settle for other less-desirable jobs, such as restaurant or retail work. Cong said her agency has yet to receive an application from a man.

Xiong, the former office worker, was trying to be upbeat while she trained at Cong's agency, where maids practiced their skills in a large kitchen and a model luxury apartment with a bedroom and bathroom. Xiong tried to clean the window with the squeegee three times with little success.

"I told a former classmate what I'm doing, and she said I shouldn't look at it as housekeeping. She said what I'm really doing is managing a household and educating children," said Xiong, who graduated from Central South University of Technology in the southern city of Changsha.

'Damn economic crisis'
Xiong's face lit up when she talked about her previous job at a company that made metal parts for machinery, which she said paid 3,000 yuan ($440) a month, including housing and food. She said she corresponded with customers all over the world with instant messages and e-mails written in English.

But then the company got slammed by the global crisis, and she was laid off in January, just a few weeks after her wedding. Unable to find another office job, she replied to an Internet ad for nannies.

"I still like office work. It's all I ever wanted to do," she said.

Li Li, 25, has a degree in management from a university in the western city of Chongqing but now cleans and cares for the two children of a German couple in Guangzhou.

"It's very hard and competitive to find jobs now, thanks to the damn economic crisis," she said.

Li now makes 2,700 yuan ($390) per month. That is well above the 1,200 yuan to 1,500 yuan ($175-$220) average monthly salary that a 51job.com survey found new graduates were making in 2007-08.

Some find nanny 'too extreme'
But the potential for higher pay has yet to boost the low status of child-care work.

"Yes, it is so hard to find jobs — but being a nanny is too extreme," said Sherry Zhu, a dentistry student at Capital Medical University in Beijing. "It's such a waste of years of studies on your expertise."

He Jing, 25, wept with frustration as she recounted her tumble from being a logistics company manager with a bachelor's degree in computer science to working as a housekeeper.

Her employer in the western city of Chengdu failed in December. After a fruitless hunt for a comparable position, He — pronounced "Huh" — moved to Beijing, leaving her husband and 1-year-old son in Chengdu.

Now she cooks, cleans and feeds pet birds and fish for two brothers. Her husband and 1-year-old son stayed in Chengdu. She is paid $290 a month — more than she earned in Chengdu.

"If I had a choice, I wouldn't have traveled all the way up here to do this," she said. "But I have a baby at home to feed."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments