Trade Schools Offer Hope for Rural Migrants in China
By Corrine Dillon, NY Times, June 2, 2013
BEIJING—When he was 14, Li Yangyang’s prospects were grim. A middle school graduate who moved to Beijing with his parents from the countryside in 2009, he worked long hours in a restaurant for less than 700 renminbi a month.
Then a fellow rural migrant, who had also moved to Beijing, introduced him to BN Vocational School, China’s first tuition-free, nonprofit vocational secondary school.
Now 17, Mr. Li is studying hotel management and hoping to enter an industry in which the starting salary is more than triple his old wage of about $100 a month. “I feel lucky to be at B.N.V.S.,” he said, as he prepared to apply for internships at the capital’s luxury hotels. “My future is much brighter, and I have more opportunities because of it.”
For those like Mr. Li, the children of China’s 200 million migrant laborers, vocational schools offer the promise of better-paying, more stable work than their parents had.
Courses cover a wide range of subjects, often depending on the needs of the region. In Liaoning Province, an industrial area in the north, automobile repair and construction are popular. In cities, students opt for tourism and customer service; the niche skill of air-conditioning installation and upkeep is in particular demand.
While China has long had state-run vocational schools, critics say that they are bogged down by bureaucracy and overwhelmed by the huge number of youths who need training.
Private enterprises like BN Vocational School can fill that gap, but only with the outside funding needed to be able to train poor students for free. Founded in 2005, it is supported by charities (the China Youth Development Foundation and Ford Foundation), corporations (Citigroup, Wal-Mart, Caterpillar and Bank of America) and both the Chinese and foreign governments. It also runs schools in seven other Chinese cities.
While newly minted university graduates face a tight job market, skilled vocational school graduates are in high demand, with employment rates above 95 percent between 2007 and 2011, according to a 2013 report by the Chinese Society of Vocational and Technical Education.
China’s labor force is huge, with more than 75 percent of the country’s population between the ages of 20 and 49, but the average worker’s education level is relatively low. According to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, only half of China’s 140 million urban employees can be classified as “skilled.”
About one-third of domestically produced products cannot pass quality-control tests because workers are not qualified enough to operate the machinery, resulting in a loss of 200 billion renminbi a year, according to a 2012 report by Yan Hao, a recently retired senior research fellow at the National Development and Reform Commission.
Most of the Chinese population is at the prime of their working lives; but this so-called “demographic dividend” is set to end, according to economists. China’s labor force is predicted to peak at 751 million in 2015—and age and decline from there. There will not be as many young workers to replace those retiring out of the market.
"The government will need to get greater productivity gains out of a smaller work force to continue to grow the economy," according to Xiaoyan Liang, a senior education specialist at the World Bank. As China transitions to a more skill-based economy, investing in technical and vocational education training can help bridge this gap.
One of the biggest challenges to vocational education is the traditional Chinese bias in favor of a university degree, Dr. Yan said.
"Parents would prefer to send their children to university because there is higher social status associated with attending college," Dr. Yan said. "But because so many college graduates end up at a job that is no different in wage level from the vocational school grads, this attitude is gradually changing."
"There is a lot of pressure on the government to help new graduates find jobs, and so they are trying to persuade young people, particularly those who failed the college entry examination or cannot afford college tuition fees, to attend vocational school and graduate with a guaranteed job," Dr. Yan added.