Blue-col­lar jobs

Short­age of skilled work­ers makes vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion a more at­trac­tive op­tion for young peo­ple, as Su Zhou re­ports.

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Short­age of skilled work­ers makes vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion at­trac­tive

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing from ju­nior mid­dle school, Wang Shuai wan­dered around the Bei­jing sub­urbs that sum­mer won­der­ing what to do next. He loved to take things apart and put them back to­gether when he was kid, and fate lead him to Bei­jing In­dus­trial Tech­ni­cian Col­lege, where he “fell in love” with a CNC milling ma­chine.

And-Wang’s love af­fair grew when he learned the col­lege had been cho­sen to be the na­tional train­ing cen­ter for CNC turn­ing and milling for the World-Skills Com­pe­ti­tion, the bi­en­nial in­ter­na­tional flag­ship event for vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion and skills ex­cel­lence.

The Bei­jing boy, who was born in 1994, prac­ticed hard and his ef­forts were re­warded when he was cho­sen to rep­re­sent China in the 43rd World-Skills Com­pe­ti­tion held in São Paulo, Brazil, in 2015.

How­ever, the event proved heart­break­ing for Wang, who came fourth in CNC milling.

“It’s some­thing I re­gret,” said Wang, who is now one of the coaches at the col­lege. But, look­ing on the bright side, he said he hopes his stu­dents will win medals.

On Satur­day and Sun­day, more than 30 vo­ca­tional school stu­dents from the coun­try gath­ered in Bei­jing In­dus­trial Tech­ni­cian Col­lege to com­pete for 10 train­ing places for the na­tional CNC turn­ing and CNC milling teams for next year’s World Skills Com­pe­ti­tion. Af­ter high in­ten­sity train­ing at the col­lege, two will be se­lected to rep­re­sent China and com­pete for medals in Abu Dhabi.

World-Skills is known as “the Olympic Games of skill” and most of the events only al­low com­peti­tors un­der the age of 22 to par­tic­i­pate, although a few events ex­tend the age limit to 24-year-olds. Started in 1950, it aims to raise the pro­file and recog­ni­tion of vo­ca­tional skills, and show how im­por­tant such skills are for a coun­try’s eco­nomic growth.

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment hopes that par­tic­i­pat­ing in the com­pe­ti­tion will raise the pro­file of tra­di­tional trades and multi-skilled tech­nol­ogy ca­reers, as China has an acute short­age of skilled work­ers in these fields.

China first par­tic­i­pated in the World-Skills Com­pe­ti­tion in 2011, but com­peted in only six of the events. In 2015, it par­tic­i­pated in 29 events, win­ning its first gold medals in man­u­fac­tur­ing, weld­ing, hair­dress­ing, car paint­ing and milling. Next year, it plans to com­pete in 45 of the 50 events.

Zhang Lixin, head of the Pro­fes­sional Ca­pac­ity Build­ing Depart­ment un­der the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­sources and Social Se­cu­rity, said there is a good pos­si­bil­ity that the Chi­nese team will win more gold medals in Abu Dhabi.

But he said, “In terms of events such as car­pen­try, plumb­ing and heat­ing, we still need more im­prove­ment.”

Chang­ing sta­tus

Talk­ing about the chang­ing sta­tus of such skills in China, Zhang said that be­fore it launched re­form and open­ing-up, China was a planned econ­omy and blue-col­lar work­ers had a higher sta­tus in so­ci­ety than farm­ers, business peo­ple and aca­demics.

He said at that time there were eight skill lev­els for blue-col­lar work­ers. The treat­ment of a skilled­worker of the high­est level was equal to that of a deputy head of a State-owned fac­tory.

How­ever, af­ter the re­form and open­ing-up pol­icy was launched in 1978, the sta­tus of man­ual work­ers de­clined, as so­ci­ety be­gan to value uni­ver­sity ed­u­ca­tion and en­trepreneur­ship more as it sought to es­tab­lish a mar­ket econ­omy. White-col­lar jobs be­came more at­trac­tive to young peo­ple than blue-col­lar jobs.

This change was ac­cel­er­ated with the im­ple­men­ta­tion of ed­u­ca­tion re­form in 1990s, when the gov­ern­ment be­gan to dra­mat­i­cally ex­pand uni­ver­sity en­roll­ment. Many fam­i­lies be­gan to treat vo­ca­tional schools and col­leges as the last re­sort for their chil­dren.

“At this time the best ca­reer path for young peo­ple was con­sid­ered elite ed­u­ca­tion and be­com­ing a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial,” said Zhang. “Be­sides, the wage level of skilled work­ers in the man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try was com­par­a­tively low, and social sta­tus is de­fined by wage level.”

Song Fangzhi, pro­fes­sor of Bei­hang Uni­ver­sity, who has been the leader of China’s CNC turn­ing and milling teams for the World-Skills Com­pe­ti­tion from the out­set, said skilled man­ual work also fell out of fa­vor be­cause such skills re­quire time and ef­fort to mas­ter.

“Many par­ents don’t want their chil­dren to en­dure the hard­ship,” he said.

Wang Saichao, a coach at Bei­jing In­dus­trial Tech­ni­cian Col­lege, said when he was a stu­dent, he prac­ticed CNC turn­ing more than 13 hours a day, and his arms would be­come swollen.

How­ever, the trans­for­ma­tion and up­grad­ing of the Chi­nese econ­omy has re­sulted in a grow­ing de­mand for skilled work­ers. For ex­am­ple, one sur­vey by the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­sources and Social Se­cu­rity found that Shenyang Ma­chine Group needed at least 100 ap­plied tech­nol­ogy en­gi­neers dur­ing the en­ter­prises’ strate­gic tran­si­tion, but it had less than 50 qual­i­fied work­ers.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­search cen­ter on ed­u­ca­tion and the open econ­omy at the Uni­ver­sity of In­ter­na­tional Business and Eco­nom­ics, the short­age of skilled work­ers in the coun­try may be as much as 33 mil­lion.

Skilled work­ers ac­count for 20 per­cent of the to­tal num­ber of em­ploy­ees in the coun­try, ac­cord­ing to the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­sources and Social Se­cu­rity, but only five per­cent of these work­ers are con­sid­ered highly skilled.

Song of­fered the shoe in­dus­try in Wen­zhou, Zhe­jiang province, as an anal­ogy for the sit­u­a­tion China is fac­ing as it pur­sues eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion and up­grad­ing.

“At first the shoes pro­duced in Wen­zhou were copies and of poor qual­ity. Then, although the shoes were still copies, they were of good qual­ity. Now the shoe in­dus­try in Wen­zhou has many in­ter­na­tion­ally fa­mous brands of its own.”

“Be­fore, man­u­fac­tur­ing in China em­pha­sized quan­tity,” he added. “But we are now fo­cus­ing on qual­ity, in­no­va­tion and be­ing en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly.”

Zhang of the Pro­fes­sional Ca­pac­ity Build­ing Depart­ment of the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­sources and Social Se­cu­rity said that as the coun­try is mak­ing ef­forts to en­hance its skills train­ing at vo­ca­tional schools and raise the wages for skilled work­ers more young peo­ple will be at­tracted to these pro­fes­sions.

“For ex­am­ple, we have urged vo­ca­tional schools to get rid of their reliance on text­books and fo­cus on prac­ti­cal train­ing. In this way, stu­dents can ac­quire very high lev­els of skill be­fore they grad­u­ate. Out­stand­ing stu­dents will re­ceive their skill cer­tifi­cate,” said Zhang. “This is some­thing new. Be­fore, peo­ple could only gain the cer­tifi­cate by work­ing.”

But Zhang cau­tioned it would take time for so­ci­ety to truly ap­pre­ci­ate skilled work­ers again.

How­ever, Wang Shuai said his par­ents ap­pre­ci­ated his choice many years ago.

“They think it is great that I have a skill,” said Wang. “As they think I don’t have to worry about los­ing a job.”

"Many par­ents don’t want their chil­dren to en­dure the hard­ship.” Song Fangzhi, pro­fes­sor of Bei­hang Uni­ver­sity and leader of China’s CNC turn­ing and milling teams for the World-Skills Com­pe­ti­tion

In terms of events such as car­pen­try, plumb­ing and heat­ing, we still need more im­prove­ment.” Zhang Lixin, head of the Pro­fes­sional Ca­pac­ity Build­ing Depart­ment un­der the Min­istry of Hu­man Re­sources and Social Se­cu­rity

PHO­TOS BY ZOU HONG / CHINA DAILY

Vo­ca­tional school stu­dents par­tic­i­pate in a skills com­pe­ti­tion in Bei­jing on Wed­nes­day. The 10 win­ning com­peti­tors will train for the na­tional CNC turn­ing and CNC milling teams that will com­pete in next year’s WorldSkills Com­pe­ti­tion, a bi­en­nial in­ter­na­tional event known as “the Olympic Games of skill”.

A con­tes­tant com­petes in the CNC turn­ing na­tional com­pe­ti­tion held in Bei­jing on Wed­nes­day.

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