The mer­its of on-the-job train­ing vs. a for­mal education

There’s a long-run­ning de­bate over what mat­ters more—for­mal learn­ing or learn­ing on the job. On math tests, Amer­i­can teens per­form worse than Danes, Lat­vians, and Kore­ans. But how much does that mat­ter?

Bloomberg Businessweek (Asia) - - CONTENTS - Sarah Chen and Tom Las­seter

So ar­gues Joseph Stiglitz, a No­bel-win­ning econ­o­mist at Columbia. He says so­ci­eties need to em­pha­size life­long learn­ing, not just school.

World Eco­nomic Fo­rum in Davos, the pres­i­dent of the Bei­jing-based Asian In­fra­struc­ture In­vest­ment Bank, Jin Liqun, said he didn’t know him. Nei­ther did Xu Jinghong, chair­man of Ts­inghua Hold­ings, the in­vest­ment fund of Bei­jing’s Ts­inghua Univer­sity. Pang, of the chem­i­cal fed­er­a­tion, says some Chi­nese con­sider it “odd” that Ren gets along so well with for­eign ex­ec­u­tives. “This is quite un­con­ven­tional for a head of a cen­tral SOE.”

In the world of state-run com­pa­nies, where non­de­script men wear­ing short-sleeved white shirts and baggy wind­break­ers are the norm, Ren is known to flash cuff links on a pin­striped sleeve. “Most of our em­ploy­ees are Chi­nese, but you can also see there has been a sub­stan­tial in­flu­ence from for­eign man­age­ment,” says Michael Koenig, a for­mer Bayer ex­ec­u­tive who be­came chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of an im­por­tant ChemChina sub­sidiary in Jan­uary. “Com­pared to what I know from other Chi­nese SOEs, we are more open, more in­ter­na­tional.”

Ren be­gan his as­cent in northwest Gansu prov­ince, a poor min­ing re­gion next to the Gobi desert. He grad­u­ated from the eco­nom­ics depart­ment of a lo­cal univer­sity—even­tu­ally earn­ing a mas­ter’s de­gree—and joined the state-run Chem­i­cal Ma­chin­ery Re­search In­sti­tute, where he was the Com­mu­nist Youth League sec­re­tary. It was a recipe for a do-noth­ing bu­reau­cratic ca­reer.

In 1984, Ren bor­rowed 10,000 yuan (about $1,500 at cur­rent ex­change rates) from the in­sti­tute to start the BlueS­tar Chem­i­cal Clean­ing Group. His first em­ploy­ees scrubbed tea ket­tles as Ren took the most re­li­able path to power in China and be­came BlueS­tar’s Com­mu­nist Party sec­re­tary, ac­cord­ing to his bi­og­ra­phy. He made an im­por­tant ally: a woman named Gu Xi­u­lian who was the for­mi­da­ble head of the chem­i­cal in­dus­try min­istry from 1989 to 1998. She was also on the Com­mu­nist Party’s pow­er­ful cen­tral com­mit­tee for 20 years. Ren trans­formed BlueS­tar from a scrub­bing op­er­a­tion into ChemChina, a na­tion­wide con­glom­er­ate of hun­dreds of chem­i­cal com­pa­nies. Gu de­clined to com­ment.

Ren’s per­spec­tive on po­ten­tial prob­lems may be gleaned from a ChemChina news­let­ter. It re­viewed

the Pirelli deal by say­ing, “Econ­o­mists ex­pect the merger to have a 25 per­cent chance of suc­cess and a 75 per­cent chance of fail­ure.” Not to worry, it con­tin­ued, ev­ery­thing will work out.

The bot­tom line Ren Jianxin, chair­man of Chem-China, ad­heres to Xi Jin­ping’s strat­egy of ac­quir­ing tech­nol­ogy and ac­cess to new mar­kets.

*THE TESTS IN­CLUDE THOSE DE­VEL­OPED BY THE PRO­GRAM FOR IN­TER­NA­TIONAL STU­DENT AS­SESS­MENT AND TRENDS IN IN­TER­NA­TIONAL MATH­E­MAT­ICS AND SCI­ENCE STUDY; DATA: ERIC HANUSHEK, LUDGER WOESSMANN, HOOVER IN­STI­TU­TION, IFO IN­STI­TUTE

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