CHINA’S MEGA BANKS are ramping up their recruitment of fresh graduates as a record number enter the labor market, joining other state-owned firms in boosting employment even as lenders deal with plunging earnings and ballooning bad debt.

The four biggest state banks, led by Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. (ICBC), this month kicked off their autumn campus hiring, instead of in November as in previous years. China Construction Bank Corp. plans to add 16,000 graduates this year, up from 13,000 last year. Bank of China Co. will increase its hiring by 15% to more than 10,000, according to their advertisements. Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. (AgBank) already hired 4,500 people during the spring round.

“This is in direct response to the government’s call to protect jobs,” said Tang Jianwei, a Shanghai-based analyst at Bank of Communications Co.’s research institute. “Even though the big banks are facing pressure on their own earnings, they still need people to develop the business. Also it’s important for them to assume social responsibility.”

China’s largest banks have already been leaned on by Beijing to prop up the economy. They’ve been told to pump cash out to small- and medium-sized businesses and forgo profits by lowering interest rates and providing relief on trillions of yuan of troubled loans. Most recently, the government doubled down on pressure to get the major state-owned financial groups to cut salaries.

Together, the four biggest banks employ 1.6 million people and Construction Bank’s hiring plans alone approach the combined staff additions made by the largest US and European banks in this year’s first half. Chinese lenders are mostly looking to hire for customer service, wealth management, and information technology, according to job ads on their websites.

Representatives for ICBC, AgBank, Construction Bank and Bank of China declined to comment.

Yet the tens of thousands of new jobs are but a drop in the bucket. The record 8.7 million of fresh graduates face the bleakest job prospects in decades as the global pandemic has pummeled domestic demand and exports. While inching down recently, surveyed urban unemployment hit a record at the height of China’s virus outbreak in February. Unemployment for those of prime graduate age, 20 to 24, hovered at about 20% in July, according to the country’s statistics bureau.

A report by, one of China’s biggest recruiting websites, showed that more than a quarter of recent graduates were still looking for a job as of June after hunting for one year, a period during which most would have typically landed jobs in the past.

The government has repeatedly pledged support for jobs and rolled out measures such as increasing recruitment of post-grads, strengthening support for more flexible forms of work for graduates and promoting entrepreneurship among young people. The country’s other state-owned firms have vowed to provide at least a million jobs for the most vulnerable groups, including the newly graduated.

That has done little to help Crystal Wu, who graduated in July from one of the nation’s top universities with a degree in journalism. In her search, she found herself competing against people who already had work experience and at places receiving thousands of resumes rather than the normal few hundred. At the same time, with the travel ban, many students have dropped plans for study overseas, further tightening the jobs market.

“I knew it would be a tough market but this is even worse than I expected,” she said. Wu has opted for doing an internship at a non-profit in Beijing, but has also spent about 20 yuan joining a WeChat group run by a recruitment agency sharing tips on how to get a job at a bank. She prefers a policy lender such Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or China Development Bank.

Finance is a coveted job. The average annual salary for non-private financial industry employees stood at about 131,000 yuan ($19,000), the third highest among 19 sectors tracked by the statistics bureau and more than 40% higher than the overall level.

Combined earnings at China’s more than 1,000 commercial banks slumped the most in at least a decade in the second quarter as bad loans hit a record 2.7 trillion yuan. The banking regulator said over the weekend that COVID-19 is a centennial catastrophe and that financial industry will need to step up further to get the economy fully back on track.

Globally, the biggest US and European banks added 19,000 people to their payrolls in the first half of the year as demand for loans and other services surged during the pandemic and planned staff cuts were largely put on hold. Eight of the top 15 firms increased headcount this year through June, while only four reduced it with HSBC Holdings Plc having the biggest reduction. — Bloomberg