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UPDATED: July 27, 2015 No. 31 JULY 30, 2015
Blue Collar Education
Vocational education requires a strong boost to supply skilled workers needed for smart manufacturing
By Wang Hairong

A contestant checks a product in a 3D printer at the 2015 National Vocational Students Skills Competition held in Tianjin on July 2 (XINHUA)

On July 4, the 2015 National Vocational Students Skills Competition concluded in Tianjin. The month-long event was held in various venues across the country and had tens of thousands of individuals participating.

One contender, 18-year-old Li Mingyang, a second-year student from the Guizhou Machinery Industry School in southwest China's Guizhou Province, drew media attention for carrying President Xi Jinping's blessing to the competition.

When President Xi visited his school on June 17 to learn about the development of vocational education, Li made a delicate aluminum alloy chessboard with numerically controlled machinery tools. He chiseled the words "Chinese dream" into the board and populated it with several chessmen.

During the visit, Xi said that vocational education is an important part of the country's education system and urged governments at all levels to strive for its continued improvement.

Growing demand

China has the largest vocational education system in the world. Currently, the country has more than 13,300 vocational schools, enrolling a total of nearly 30 million students, according to a report recently released by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC), the national legislature, after a group of NPC deputies inspected the implementation of the Vocational Education Law. The law has been enforced since 1996 to promote the development of vocational education and improve the quality of the labor force.

The report said that every year, vocational schools produce nearly 10 million graduates, and over the years, they have trained more than 200 million people.

It revealed that from 1996 to 2014, enrollment in secondary vocational schools grew from 12.68 million to 18.03 million, while that in higher vocational schools rose from 1.23 million to 10.07 million.

Currently, China is bent on upgrading its manufacturing by integrating it with emerging technologies such as big data application, cloud computing, the Internet of Things and 3D printing.

In May, the State Council, China's cabinet, unveiled a national plan dubbed Made in China 2025, which aims to transform China from a manufacturing giant into a world manufacturing power in the coming decade.

According to the blueprint, priority will be given to 10 key sectors such as new information technology, numerical control tools and robotics, aerospace equipment, ocean engineering equipment and hi-tech ships, railway equipment, energy conservation and new-energy vehicles, power equipment, new materials, biological medicine and medical devices, and agricultural machinery.

To realize the transformation, China urgently needs a large number of skilled workers and higher-quality labor force, said Lu Wei, a member of the NPC Standing Committee.

Zhang Xinghui, President of Tianjin Sino-German Vocational Technical College, said that in the past, farmers-turned-workers could be put on jobs after receiving simple training, whereas now, smart and digitalized manufacturing needs skilled workers trained in vocational schools.

Li Dengping, Deputy General Manager of Akita Gear Co. Ltd. in southwest China's Chongqing, said that once his company imported some computer numerical control machine tools and a cutting-edge grinding machine so as to produce more higher-end products, yet its workers did not possess adequate skills to operate them, which led to inconsistent product quality.

This March, in a job fair held in Baoshan District in Shanghai, 20 employers offered 340 vacancies, but most of the skilled positions received few applications, reported Shanghai-based news portal Eastday.com.

"Without skilled workers, the machine tools will lay idle, and the company will suffer loss," said Teng Kewu, a senior executive from Shanghai Shenlong Enterprise Group. The company is one of China's leading producers of cleaning machines and air compressors. Teng said that 80 percent of the employees in his company are skilled workers.

Getting ready

While meeting the heads of nearly 200 vocational schools participating in the 2015 National Vocational Students Skills Competition, Vice Minister of Education Lu Xin asked, "Is China's vocational education ready for the Made in China 2025 program?"

At present, graduates from vocational schools usually have a solid mastering of basic skills, said Zhang Wenming, a referee serving in the competition. Nonetheless, they are still not resourceful and creative enough to ride the trend of digitalized and smart manufacturing, he told China Youth Daily.

Zhang Lunjie, a professor at the Guangdong Polytechnic Normal University in south China's Guangdong Province, said that during a survey of the numerical control programs available in China's vocational schools, he found that their curriculums and teaching devices are largely outdated.

In recent years, however, the government has paid increasing attention to vocational education.

At a national work conference on vocational education in June 2014, President Xi said that vocational education must be valued because it is an important path through which young people can achieve success and could boost employment and entrepreneurship as well as foster technical skills.

Last year, the Ministry of Education, together with five other central government departments, issued a plan for building a modern vocational education system, which proposed to increase the total number of students at vocational education institutions to 38.3 million by 2020.

The plan also included a chart depicting the basic structure of China's education system. According to it, graduates of secondary vocational schools can enter post-secondary vocational schools, or applied-skills-oriented rather than research-oriented undergraduate and postgraduate degree programs.

In March 2014, Vice Minister Lu unveiled a plan to turn more than 600 regular academic-oriented undergraduate universities, or about half of the country's total, into applied-skills-oriented ones.

That decision was made because of the coexistence of the difficulty for college graduates to find white collar jobs and for employers to find skilled blue collar workers, which suggests that China's education system should be adjusted to meet job market demand, Lu explained.

Various levels of government have increased funding for vocational education. A modern apprenticeship system has also been piloted to promote cooperation between vocational schools and enterprises in training skilled workers meeting market needs.

Meanwhile, some provinces such as Jilin, Anhui and Hubei are experimenting with a variety of incentive measures for teachers at vocational school, including granting professorship to high-caliber faculty members.

Overcoming prejudice

In China, university degrees carry prestige whereas vocational school students are often looked down upon as those with low academic performance. Usually, students enter vocational schools because they failed to get admitted into high schools or universities.

This prejudice also leads to parents and teachers to discourage students with good academic performances from applying to vocational schools.

Minister of Education Yuan Guiren said that vocational students should not be deprived of the path to universities; nonetheless, he said that vocational education should be employment-oriented.

According to Yin Weimin, Minister of Human Resources and Social Security, efforts should be stepped up to advocate the benefits of labor, and measures should be taken to improve the evaluation system of skilled workers so that they can obtain equal career opportunities as engineers and technicians.

Copyedited by Kylee McIntyre

Comments to wanghairong@bjreview.com

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