A key path to plum finance jobs in China is being closed off as banks get more automated

Taking funds.
Taking funds.
Image: Reuters/China Daily
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In China, a job at a bank was once dubbed the “golden rice bowl” as it promised decent pay and a respected, secure career. Fresh college graduates who majored in finance didn’t mind being a bank teller for years, if it helped them get a more lucrative position in the future.

But now China’s mammoth state-owned banks are coming under pressure to cut costs as the economy slows and profits flatten. The big four state banks—Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), China Construction Bank (CCB), and Bank of China (BOC)—collectively slashed nearly 19,000 jobs in 2016, according to the latest company filings. It was the first time in almost a decade that the big four’s staff numbers shrank from the previous year.

Chinese banks employ an estimated 3.8 million people (link in Chinese), and these four account for almost half of the hiring. CCB, a top mortgage-lender, made the heaviest job cuts among the four last year in terms of both absolute numbers and share of total staff. BOC, meanwhile, cut the fewest staff among the four. BOC’s net profit for 2016 went up 2.6% year-over-year, the strongest growth among the four.

Chinese lenders traditionally see a surge in staff numbers in the second half of the year, thanks to summer hiring of college graduates, and a drop in the first half as workers quit their jobs after getting their year-end bonuses. The big four reported a collective 25,000 job cuts for the first half of 2016, and only added some 6,000 positions by year-end.

Human tellers are also being increasingly replaced by mobile services and automated self-service at bank branches. Transactions involving bank tellers accounted for less than 16% of total bank transactions in China in 2016, down 7% from the previous year, according to the Chinese banking association.

This is by no means good news for Chinese finance majors, who are graduating in greater numbers than ever. In 2015, over nine million college graduates held bachelor degrees in economics and management, making up a quarter of the total. The figure is only set to rise in the coming years according to estimates from the education ministry. Management—including everything from marketing to business administration—is the hottest major among Chinese undergrads, with the highest growth rate in enrollment in the past decade.