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Amid transition, industrial workers finding it harder to develop skills

By Liu Yuzhao, Su Liang | 2016-07-22 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Uniformed students train to be electricians at a vocational school in Beijing.

The shortage of skilled labor has been a lingering headache in China’s manufacturing sector for the past decade. There is a dearth of both skilled and manual laborers, while the population of skilled workers is aging, with many approaching retirement age. It is vital for China to train a new generation of skilled workers to meet the nation’s needs as it moves up the global value chain. But current methods of training workers are lacking.

Under the planned economy, urban residents made up the majority of the industrial working class, and they developed skills in three ways: systematic training and accreditation, master-apprentice relationships within trades, and vocational schools.

After the reforms of the late 1970s, the traditional training system in China met with critical challenges that paralleled the social transformations and educational reforms of the era.


Masters, apprentices
The constant economic reforms in China affected the traditional model of master-apprentice relations. After the 1980s, student enrollment was prioritized over labor recruitment, while training prior to employment was emphasized rather than on-the-job training. As a result, unskilled apprentices were replaced by vocational school graduates with a technical background, and the master-apprentice system soon became a relic of the past.


The diversification of forms of ownership and the reform of state-owned enterprises revitalized the market. In particular, the reform of the labor contract system began in the 1990s, and state-owned corporations started laying off workers en masse, leaving employer-employee relations subject to market-driven agreements in most cases. Under this circumstance, an increasing number of enterprises no longer focused on developing skills.Instead,they chose to employ  trained workers from the labor market, causing the decline of apprenticeship as a mode of vocational training.

The formerly simple relationship became an increasingly competitive mechanism in the labor market: an apprentice would pose a threat to the position of the master as his skill grew. In this way, masters would hold back on some of their advanced techniques or go through the motions just to exploit the economic advantage that their apprentices brought.

Starting in the 1990s, migrant workers began to emerge as a substitute for low-end industrial workers in the city. But at the same time, this influx further diminished the social status of industrial workers, leading to less stability and eroding rights.

During the first waves of migration, most of the social resources possessed by migrant workers were distributed on an affinitive or geographical basis, leading to severely homogenous social networks. Migrants arriving in the city would seek jobs and acquire skills all through the help of fellow villagers. A model on the basis of close consanguinity and geography took shape in many enterprises in which veterans give guidance to rookies, mirroring the master-apprentice relationship to a certain degree. However, this kind of model is only sustainable for a short period of time because it lacks institutional support. It is only sufficient to offer primary or basic skill training but fails to support the development of advanced skills or specialized techniques.

Vocational accreditation
In the late 1980s, China modified the standards for evaluating workers’ vocational technique for the third time by reducing eight categories into three: primary, intermediate and senior. One’s salary was no longer the sole measure of skill, and one’s vocational level became an independent measurement in its own right. At the same time, accreditation helped establish industry-based management of vocational technical standards. In this system of management, all sectors have been put into various categories according to industrial divisions of the national economy, and the top sector in each industrial division would be chosen as the leader. The leading sector is responsible for making vocational technical standards after considering the technical requirements of other sectors within the industry.


China’s annual labor report in 2011 shows that, due to market-oriented reform, the number of vocational accreditation organizations increased from 5,682 to 9,803 in five years since 1996. There was also growth in the number of local and industrial accreditation organizations and the local ones greatly outnumbered the industrial ones. But there were a few problems that accompanied the surge of accrediting bodies. A number of accrediting agencies were set up in different regions to evaluate vocational skills and award certificates. The logic of the market encouraged the organizations to blindly seek profit, resulting in a variety of accreditations and certificates. Accreditation is only effective when it is constrained, and some accreditations even failed to reflect the real conditions. These shortcomings destroyed the unified evaluation standards and undermined the credibility of authorities, removing the incentive for laborers to develop more skills.

What should be emphasized is that the main body of industrial labor shifted from urban staff to migrant workers, but the system of accreditation for vocational qualifications has not transformed in step with society. Most tests for vocational qualifications place a greater emphasis on theory rather than practice. Also, educational requirements to some extent serve as a barrier preventing most migrant workers from registration. Furthermore, the dislocation of vocational qualification and wage scale made the tests less desirable.

There is a social fracture affecting the transmission of skills among migrant workers. The dominant workforce is able to complete the job by utilizing skills acquired from practice but incapable of obtaining any authorized qualification, in other words, institutional recognition. As a result, migrant workers cannot enjoy the social status they actually deserve.


Vocational education
Receivers of traditional vocational education  were mainly offspring of urban staff. The educational system was largely supported by local governments as well as large and medium-sized state-owned enterprises. The majority of excellent educational resources were scattered in the large and medium-sized cities along the eastern coast. Starting in the 1990s, two developments shrank the traditional system of vocational education.

Reform took place in the state-owned enterprises’ welfare facilities, but this had no direct connection with production. In 1995, organizations like the former Ministry of Commerce and former Ministry of Education collectively issued a string of policies to shut down the vocational schools run by enterprises and transfer some of them to local governments.

From 1995 to 2006, the number of polytechnic schools dropped from nearly 2,400 to around 430, an 82 percent decline. At the same time, the amount of faculty plunged by nearly 77 percent from 151,000 to roughly 35,000. The total enrollment in vocational schools dropped from 834,000 to 432,000, a 48.21 decrease. Also, the proportion of enterprise-supported polytechnic schools dropped from 12.73 percent to only 3.42 percent.

Higher education began to grow in scale starting in the late 1990s, which had a number of adverse effects on vocational education. In response to the growing demand for higher education, a number of vocational schools were merged or converted into universities. And as  higher education grows in scale, fewer and fewer offspring of urban workers went to vocational schools, leading to the first crisis in vocational education.

While urban youth abandoned vocational training in favor of higher education, financial constraints prevented rural youth from taking advantage of vocational schools, so another batch was shut down, merged or converted due to dwindling enrollment. A large quantity of teachers, schoolhouses and teaching resources were abandoned or transferred in the structural transformation.

In addition, local governments shouldered most of the burden of financing vocational education and technical training, but they had little incentive to do so. The responsibility was shifted to the central government and the governments in the hometowns of migrant workers.

The central government clarified that the responsibility for providing compulsory education to the children of migrants falls to the local governments of the places where they settled, dramatically increasing the financial burden for those cities. So the governments tend to respond by shortchanging vocational education because it is non-compulsory.

There are two distinctive for developing technical skills: the external system, represented by Britain and America, and the internal system, exemplified by Germany and Japan. These two different systems relate to historical traditions and industrial policies, but they also shape the development patterns of the manufacturing industry in their countries. In such an atmosphere, the model of vocational education will largely pave the way for innovation in China’s manufacturing industry.


Liu Yuzhao and Su Liang are from the School of Sociology of Shanghai University.