When Pan Jianfeng, a Shanghai ad consultant, was recently asked to recommend young local designers to an international agency, he sent three candidates with years of work experience. But the company decided they weren't good enough and had to import designers from the West. It's a common problem, he says; Chinese vocational grads simply haven't had good enough teaching. "Most of the lecturers don't have any real work experience," he explains. "So they can't teach useful things." When graduates do get hired, he says, "they basically have to be re-educated."
China's rapid economic expansion has exposed many frailties in its education system, especially on the vocational side. The country can't produce enough skilled workers. In part that's because it invests far more in academic than vocational programs. Though it has 1,300 vocational colleges and 14,000 high schools, these date to the days of the planned economy, with staff who are out of touch. And funding has fallen significantly since the 1990s. Partly as a result, today only 38 percent or so of China's high-school-age students attend vocational schools, well below the official target of 50 percent—the level found in Japan and South Korea. To address this deficit, last year Beijing pledged to spend almost $2 billion on 100 new vocational colleges and 1,000 high schools. And this year it started offering annual subsidies to vocational students.
But, says Prof. Cheng Fangping of the China National Institute for Educational Research, China must also change its emphasis. "Look at China's porcelain industry," he says. "It has such a long tradition, but our ceramics"—most of which are copies or kitsch—"sell for less than those made in Japan or Britain." The reason, he suggests, is that China's training is too abstract, when what's urgently required are technicians who can come up with a good idea and turn it into a marketable product.
Parts of the country are already adapting; in Shenzhen, local institutes offer "made to order" training for particular businesses, says Liu Kaiming of the Institute of Contemporary Observation, a labor-oriented group. And some vocational colleges have introduced practical research projects.
But Liu believes vocational ed faces a deeper problem: its image. China's middle class is eager to forget its experience with physical labor, and few allow their children to become technical workers. "Everyone thinks these are things that low-class people do," says Cheng. Thus China now produces record numbers of college grads—who struggle to find work because they lack the skills for manufacturing, where demand is greatest. One fix, Cheng suggests, would be to rebrand vocational subjects as "professional," not "manual," skills.
At the other end of the spectrum are China's 100 million-plus rural migrant workers, many of whom have little schooling. Liu Kaiming says they have "never learned how to work with others, to live in the city, save money or choose the right job." Thus "they find it hard to learn from their jobs or plan their careers." This results, he says, in extremely high labor turnover. Liu thinks teaching "life skills" to complement vocational programs would help.
Yet when he and colleagues tried to set up a free worker-training college, they were turned down—a reminder of how wary Beijing remains of any sort of social activism. Yet Liu argues that the urgency of China's skilled-labor shortfall will force a rethink. For now, China is relying on cheap, low-skilled, labor-intensive production, he says, "but it's not sustainable in the long term. We must raise our skills level, and it's impossible for state-run colleges to do all the training." Indeed, with the demand for skilled workers growing all the time, China will need all the help it can get.