The coronavirus outbreak is denting the prospects of this year's record 8.7 million-strong Chinese university graduating class, with many students stuck at home just as the corporate recruitment season usually swings into high gear.
Graduates are worrying less about catching the virus than the impact it will have on their careers as company-organized recruiting events on campuses across China are pushed back or canceled amid nationwide bans on public gatherings to avoid the spread of disease.
"Companies are recruiting fewer people than last year and competition will get even more fierce. I can't be sure if I'll be able to find a job," Di Qingyu, a philosophy student at Nanjing University, told Reuters via WeChat.
The period after Lunar New Year is normally high season for student job seekers, of whom there are 400,000 more than last year.
With many firms hit hard by a collapse in consumption and shedding workers already, students trying to get their foot on the ladder are bracing for an unusually competitive market. The approaching job hunting season is likely the last time they can secure an offer before graduating in June or July.
The proportion of companies seeking more than 500 new employees fell by more than half after the outbreak to just 2.2%, according to a report from Zhaopin, a recruitment website.
There were steep declines in demand for graduate students in particular in the ten days after Lunar New Year compared to a year earlier, according to data compiled by GoguData.
A growing number of firms have started to lay off workers as the epidemic, which has killed more than 2,100 people in mainland China and infected over 74,000, takes its toll on small-to-medium sized businesses.
One recent graduate, who wanted to remain anonymous, told Reuters her job offer at a tech startup in Beijing was canceled after someone in the office caught the virus. The job was later offered again if she joined in mid March, but she isn't sure if the company will keep its word.
A fourth-year student in optics surnamed Huang said he saw positions he'd been interested in previously removed from company websites, and he thinks he missed other opportunities as firms were not able to come into colleges.
"I understand," said Huang, who declined to give his full name because the virus is a sensitive topic in China and he did not want to jeopardize his job prospects.
"I think companies really have no alternative."
Policymakers have vowed to ward off large-scale job losses. But graduates will face a "complex and severe" situation in the first half of this year, Ministry of Education official Wang Hui told a Beijing press conference last week.
Joining the army, volunteering in China's generally poorer western regions, or entering village-level government are among the career options that will be promoted, said Wang.
Di said she's not interested in any of these options. She'll soon finish her internship at a media firm - which she's completing online after the office closed due to virus controls - and hopes to find something before then.
"Those looking for jobs need to adjust their mindset and prepare for a drawn-out battle," said one company, Mianbao Qiuzhi, that offers career advice and training services for students, in an article posted on its WeChat account.
"As soon as businesses regain their strength, one position will be sure to see a hundred applicants," it said.
If Huang doesn't find a job this spring, he plans to try again in the autumn, when there's usually another round of hiring.
One place he won't be looking for jobs is the catering and entertainment sectors. Both have been hit especially hard by the outbreak.
"As far as I can, I'll avoid the industries that have struggled to resist the epidemic," Huang said via WeChat. "I'd worry that other things might happen in the future."