Wearing a pink apron, 19-year-old college student Zhang Jingjing listened attentively in an early morning cookery class, recently. Up until now she had not even cut vegetables but here she was, starting from scratch, to learn to be a qualified housekeeper.
Zhang was one of 28 Beijing college students put through the paces in housekeeping by Chuanmeizi Housekeeping Service Company, a brand name in this filed that has come under the media spotlight recently.
As the Spring Festival comes closer, many housemaids in the capital are heading home to reunite with their families and the shortage has created a chance for college students to take up housekeeping as a part-time job.
That morning, Zhang and her fellow students waited for likely interviews by visiting employers.
Zhang said it was no longer easy to find a part-time tutoring job in Beijing. That was why she had decided to also consider options in babysitting, caring for the old, and household cleaning.
"I do not see it as inferior work. At least I can learn how to communicate better with people," she said.
In fact when Ms Wang, in her 60s, came looking for a housekeeper to take care of her 8-year-old grandson, now in China from the United States, the students made a beeline for her.
Their enthusiasm was triggered by the fact that the boy spoke excellent English. "I do not expect the college students to do much house work in my family. I simply want to find someone to help with my grandson's learning," said Wang.
Most of employers who walked in for casual interviews said they were really looking for a temporary older brother or sister for their children.
While ordinary housemaids earn between 500 and 800 yuan, the salaries for college-educated housekeepers range between 1,500 and 2,000 yuan ($192.30-$256.41).
"It is a bit expensive, but worth the more qualified service," said Wang.
Chen Feng, a computer major, was one of the first college students to find employment that morning. The employer was impressed with his robust health and computer proficiency.
Chen said he had to play three roles in the employer's family as teacher, brother, and bodyguard to their teenage son. He had to teach the boy computer skills, discipline his behavior, play with him and also ensure his safety when outside.
According to Chen, he also has a contract with Chuanmeizi, under which the company is responsible for his training and service quality but will take a cut from the salary paid by his employer. Usually the company takes 30 percent of the salary from those who work less than six months. For those working more than one year, the company will take 10 percent.
Wang Xuyun, 24, a TCM postgraduate student from the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine, said that he hoped to provide families healthcare services, adding that he was not looking at family chores.
"I want to put in practice what I have learnt. Finding a job in the hospital is becoming more and more difficult. It will not be a bad choice to work as a family doctor," he said.
According to Song Rui, general manager at Chuanmeizi, bringing the capital's college students into the housekeeping market was still in the trial stages. He said a lot of them actually came looking for a tutoring job.
"But I am glad to see more college students willing to take up housekeeping," Song said.
Since 2003, the originally Chengdu-based company has helped more than 600 college students find housekeeping jobs. According to Song, there is a big demand for well-educated professional housekeepers. Poorly-educated rural women who can only do simple tasks such as cleaning are unable to meet the needs of some high-income families, he said.
"They need a housekeeper who can not only deal with daily housework, but also help educate their children and manage the family's daily expenses."
He believes the housekeeping service will become increasingly specialized. College students have their own particular areas of strength such as education, arts, medicine, foreign language and nutrition. They can provide the kind of quality service the common housemaid cannot, he said.
"I would like college graduates to look at housekeeping as a stable job. We may be soon looking at a group of professional housekeepers earning a high salary and enjoying a high social standing," said Song.
However, the reality is vastly different. Since January, Chuanmeizi has brought in more than 100 college graduates from Southwest China's Sichuan Province to Beijing's housekeeping market. Few of them are looking at making it a full-time career, as in popular perceptions housekeeping is still not seen as a "decent" job.
Wu Sha, a 21-year-old graduate with a major in property management from Deyang of Sichuan Province, has been working as a housekeeper for the past one month. Her daily responsibilities include cooking, cleaning and washing.
Though her employer promised that she could later help with some secretarial work in his company, she has been looking for other opportunities. She said she had already interviewed for a position in a hotel, and could be joining them as early as March.
Wu admitted, though, that as a fresh college graduate spoiled by her family, she had learnt a lot in her current job. "I have learnt that earning money is not easy. I learnt how to manage the daily family expenses and to cook some typical Sichuan dishes," she said.
Zhang Xiaolu, a 22-year-old graduate from Sichuan Normal University, was only one of the graduates willing to work as a full-time housekeeper. Painting is her specialty and she has been employed by a Beijing employer on a monthly salary of 2,300 yuan to teach his 7-year-old son.
Zhang had once worked in a kindergarten and saw her current housekeeping job as simply moving her workplace from school to home.
Besides teaching the boy, she also needs to do some family chores, with which she was quite unfamiliar in the beginning. But she learnt through practice. Though she had never done any cooking before, she tried following the recipes on the Internet to prepare dishes for the family.
Song said for both employers and the students, this was a trial period. "But the prospects are promising," he said.
(China Daily February 1, 2007)