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Lack of skilled workers makes life hot & cold
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The G-20 summit has given me and some of my colleagues a chance to visit the United Kingdom for the first time.

We've been learning English and using English in our work for nearly four decades, ever since Richard Nixon made his historic visit to China in 1972.

Although Nixon was an American president, we're more familiar with British terms, British place names, and British history than those of any other country. We have been constantly reminded that the UK has the best universities, the best financial services, and above all, the most skilled workers and crafts people.

That may be, but two days after we arrived in London, my colleague reported that he still had not had a decent shower. Try as he might, he could only get cold water to come out of the showerhead in his hotel bathroom.

A couple of hotel attendants checked the pipes and found nothing wrong. On the third day, the hotel's head of maintenance took a look while we were having breakfast. He came back in a few minutes, smiled, and said to my colleague, "You've had hot water all along!"

But only if he turned the diverter to the right, or cold water, side. Apparently, a worker got the pipes reversed during the hotel's recent refurbishment.

This wasn't the first time we encountered such carelessness. Over the past decade, many of my friends and colleagues have had experiences like this but always in China.

In the rush for growth and profits, entrepreneurs and government agencies tend to overlook the need to train workers, typically migrant workers from rural areas who now do almost all the work in construction and plumbing in urban centers.

We certainly didn't expect this to happen in the UK, with its vaunted tradition of craftsmanship. Nor is my colleague's annoying experience unusual.

Marie, a retired teacher and long-time family friend, had the same problem when she moved into a new flat near the old London City Hall, now a Marriot Hotel.

The first plumber she called didn't even see the need to fix the problem. "You now know you get hot water when you turn the knob to the blue side, so be it," he said.

It took a long time before Marie could persuade a second plumber to do the job right. However, she had to convince him to do it and show him how, for the sake of her young granddaughter, who sometimes stays with her.

These stories point to a serious issue facing both China and the developed countries: how should growing, urban centers treat migrant workers?

In China, most young plumbers are migrant workers from rural areas. They have the freedom to come and go, but it is almost impossible for them to become legal residents of the cities in which they work. Because of their temporary status, employers are reluctant to train them.

In European countries such as the UK, it seems more and more immigrants from former Eastern European countries or the Middle East have taken up blue-collar jobs, such as cooking, cleaning, construction, or plumbing.

Generally they are poorly trained, as my colleague's experience suggests. Of course, reversing the pipes in a hotel shower is not the end of the world. But taken together, such things become a part of daily life. They form an impression, in this case not a good one. And they lead to a suspicion that carelessness and lack of training may be detracting from the healthy development of a city or a nation.

E-mail: lixing@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily April 2, 2009)

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