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Urgent Need to Promote Vocational Education

In 2003, less than 60 percent of university graduates found jobs in some parts of the Yangtze River Delta. However, things were very different for their blue-collar counterparts coming out of the vocational schools.

Over 95 percent of the students who graduated from the vocational schools found employment. What's more, in Suzhou City, average salaries for senior fitters are much higher than those of master's graduates.

One company actually offered an annual salary of 300,000 yuan (US$36,200) to get a senior moulder. This was at a Technical Talent Fair, held in Fenghua City, Zhejiang Province. The shortage of skilled workers has become quite a bottleneck holding up industrial development on the Yangtze River Delta.

Employment rates among university graduates were running at just 60 percent in Nanjing City last year. However about 99 percent of students from the Nanjing Communications Vocational School found jobs. Almost half of the students who will graduate next year are already fixed up with jobs with companies eager to use their skills. Sources at the school say the students can go on to earn 1,500 yuan per month (US$180) in a regular automobile repair shop, or double that in a Sino-foreign joint venture.

Over 10,000 skilled workers are urgently needed in the 700 foreign and Sino-foreign joint ventures in the industrial center of Wuxi City, Jiangsu Province. At least 25,000 skilled workers are needed every year in the Suzhou Hi-tech Industrial Development Zone. Some companies in Kunshan City have offered as much as 280,000 yuan a year (US$33,800) to recruit new "senior fitters".

Though 10 enterprises were offering salaries as high as 6,000 yuan (US$720) per month to skilled workers in Hangzhou City last year, they still couldn't get properly qualified staff with the skills they required. In today's labor market, the services of skilled workers are selling like hot cakes down on the Yangtze River Delta.

For example, over 100,000 new skilled workers are needed every year in Nanjing City, but only 10,000 are trained in that city. Among the city's pool of 562,000 skilled workers only 7 percent are categorized as "senior workers" and 1 percent as "technicians". Meanwhile the city has only 99 "senior technicians" and most of these have already retired.

Shanghai is famous for its equipment manufacturing industry but even here the ratio of "senior technicians" is only 6.2 percent. This does not compare favorably with the corresponding ratio in developed countries, where it is in the range of 30-40 percent.

China has set up 3,790 vocational schools to train its much needed technical talents. However, these attract fewer applicants than the universities. Falling rolls have led some vocational schools to move into different roles and some have even closed down.

In Suzhou City, 72 year-old Zhang Xuping is an expert on the arrow shaft loom. He said, "It takes four or five years, or perhaps even longer, to master the necessary techniques. Nowadays few people are prepared to devote such a long time to training." He is saddened that there is no one for him to pass his skills on to.

Why is China so short of skilled workers while so many academic graduates are experiencing difficulties in finding and keeping their jobs?

The underlying reason is that the whole of society seems to be blindly aiming for higher education degrees. Just as they did in feudal times, many people in China today look down on those who work with their hands as well as their minds. And just like parents in other parts of the world, most Chinese parents hope their children will be able to go on to university and benefit from a higher education. There is a common misconception that it's difficult to find a good job without an academic degree.

Meanwhile many enterprises are failing to recognize the importance of training their own skilled workforce. Then they find themselves having to offer inflated salaries to employ essential skilled workers such as "senior fitters" when with better foresight they might have trained their own.

With China facing shortages of homegrown skilled workers, many are being recruited from overseas with high salaries. For example, a privately run enterprise in Zhenjiang City employed a blue collar worker from Italy at 800,000 yuan (US$98,600) a year. A human resources company recruited a "senior technician" from Japan to work in Shanghai at 700,000 yuan (US$84,500) per year. And there are other costs involved. One enterprise in Jiangsu Province found itself with a bill for 1 million yuan (US$120,000) for insuring its Indian workers.

China's shortage of skilled workers will hamper its development as one of the world's manufacturing giants. Experts are pointing out that the long-term answer does not lie in recruiting blue-collar workers from overseas to fill the gaps. They say it is crucial that the nation should train its own skilled labor force.

(China.org.cn by Wu Nanlan, June 21, 2004)

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