Born in a tiny farm village, Liu Yaxin admits she has low expectations. The 20-year-old from China's Inner Mongolia province recently traveled to Beijing to take a three-month vocational course in kindergarten teaching. Liu idolizes her older sister, who, as "the most successful student in our village," is currently gunning to get into college (she failed China's entrance exam once but is giving it a second try). Yet here's a twist: when Liu's sister recently phoned her, she made it clear it was she who now envied Liu—because her kid sister's job prospects are so much better. "She said if I study well, I might find a good job quickly," says Liu. "I'm lucky to be here." Indeed she is: when her course ends on Sept. 1, she stands a good chance of finding work as a teacher's assistant, earning more than $115 a month—big money for someone from a seven-person family that earned less than $600 total last year.
Liu's experience points to a growing trend around China—the increasing value and desirability of vocational training. The global economic downturn has hit two segments of China's population hardest: rural-born migrant workers and fresh college grads, both of which could benefit from practical training. The college grads are finding that expensive advanced degrees, especially M.B.A.s, are no longer the fast track to riches, or even employment, that they once were. And rural workers are finding that even one-month courses in practical skills, such as basic computing, can persuade employers to hire or promote them over less-schooled rivals. For many Chinese, training in teaching or even hairdressing has suddenly become the safest investment they can find.
One dramatic sign of shifting educational priorities came during this summer's college entrance exams, when millions of stressed-out youth competed for university slots. This year applicant numbers actually dropped by 500,000, to 10 million. Many who abandoned the college-exam gauntlet now see greater employment chances after attending vocational schools. More than 12 percent of fresh college grads failed to find jobs last year, for example. But in contrast, July statistics released by the Ministry of Education show that less than 5 percent of grads from two- to four-year secondary vocational programs couldn't find work.
The turn away from elite education actually began before the economic crisis hit. Just a few years ago, it seemed as if every Chinese kid wanted to pursue an M.B.A. or Ph.D. But that was part of the problem. Oversubscription led the quality of Chinese advanced degrees to steadily deteriorate. As enrollment in Chinese MBA programs exploded—doubling from 10,000 students in 2000 to 20,000 in 2007—universities made plenty of money, says Prof. Hou Guoyun of China's University of Political Science and Law. But they recruited as many students as possible "without sufficient educational resources to teach them properly," he says. "As a result, the quality of education for master's-degree and Ph.D. [students] is much lower than 20 years ago."
Another problem is that "many M.B.A. grads are short of practical training, though they have prestigious educational backgrounds," says Wang Yukai, a professor at the China National School of Administration. That's because China's universities still prize rote learning and abstract theory over hands-on training. Meanwhile, polytechnical or vocational schools have been neglected, since many Chinese consider such training working-class. Indeed, the share of high-school-age Chinese students who now go to vocational schools is less than 40 percent—lower than in South Korea and Japan (where the figure is 50 percent). Yet like it or not, China remains in many ways a working-class country, and the blue-collar sector is where the jobs are.
To respond to the skills gap, many businesses and companies now pay for new recruits to take a couple of years of specific vocational or academic courses before they start work—a process called "made to order" training. For everyone else, there's been a huge expansion in general vocational programs. Three years ago, Beijing vowed to boost vocational training, and set aside 14 billion yuan for the effort to be spent between 2006 and 2010. Last year vocational schools graduated nearly 6 million students; this year more than 8.6 million are expected to enroll, says Wang Jiping, vice head of vocational training at the Ministry of Education. Such courses are especially important for China's huge pool of rural-born migrant workers—11 million of whom were jobless by the end of March. China's vocational push includes training for jobs not just in manufacturing, but also in growth areas such as information technology, tourism, civil engineering, and medicine.
A good example of the new trend is the "Practical Skills Training Center for Rural Women," founded in October 1998 in Beijing's Changping district. Trainees are rural women from poor villages, age 16 to 20, who take one- to three-month courses in computing, sewing, waitressing, hairdressing, or cosmetology. Since 2000, two thirds of the school's grads have found city jobs quickly. And the employment rate for grads of formal two- to four-year vocational-training programs is even higher, at more than 95 percent.
Thus you can expect legions of other Chinese to follow in their tracks. Down-to-earth training may lack the prestige of an M.B.A. and promise much less glamorous work than a post at a multinational. But in these tough times, just finding work is accomplishment enough, and more and more Chinese are willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen.