This coming September is likely to prove rather embarrassing for Cao Shixin, professor at Shanghai Donghai Vocational Technology College. As dean of electromechanical engineering, Cao will formally suspend his department's annual enrolment of new students, for the second time in three years, because of a lack of suitable candidates.
"[The suspension] is really a headache for us, but we have no other option,'' says Cao, whose department began to enlist students in 1999 only to suspend the course for the first time a year later.
The reason? According to Cao, the course fails to attract youngsters because becoming a technical employee at a manufacturing enterprise is seen as a profession with a relatively low status and few prospects. "Whether we will continue our enrolment depends on the supply of candidates, which seems depressed at the moment,'' Cao adds.
The trouble Cao's college has experienced is being felt elsewhere in Shanghai. Despite its position as China's economic powerhouse, the city has begun to suffer from a shortage of well-qualified technology workers, especially in the manufacturing sector.
In China, employees engaged in technical work are traditionally divided into different grades, according to their technical knowledge, experience and capacity to fix technological problems. Statistics from Shanghai's economic commission indicate that senior staff and technicians account for just 11 percent of the 370,000 technical workers employed in the city's industrial sector. Most are elementary and mid-level workers.
Local statistics also indicate that fewer than 5 percent of senior technical workers have a college education, while nearly 45 percent of mid-level workers have received only the equivalent of a junior middle school education. To make matters worse, a high proportion of the most skilled technical workers are approaching retirement age. More than one third of senior technical workers and more than half of all technicians in the industrial sector are over the age of 45.
Nationally, the problem has become more pressing since China joined the World Trade Organisation. According to China Youth Daily, economic losses caused by poor manufacturing technologies and substandard products amount to some Yn200bn each year. In addition, a large proportion of industrial accidents are attributed to inadequate technical competence.
"We have started to feel the need for experienced technical workers, and that is especially true for small state-owned enterprises in the manufacturing sector,'' says Jiang Weisong, a senior official at Shanghai Electric (Group) Corp, one of Shanghai's biggest industrial conglomerates.
Many small SOEs fail to attract qualified graduates even when there is an abundant supply from local technical schools or vocational colleges. Candidates tend to hold out for better pay and a less demanding working environment than such enterprises usually offer. With little capital at their disposal, SOEs cannot afford to provide training for their staff, and workers are reluctant to spend their own money on technical training, according to Jiang.
The situation has been exacerbated by the common social attitude that blue-collar workers are inferior to office workers. This perception is reinforced by the wide disparity between the two groups in terms of pay and working conditions, according to Wang Zhicai, senior researcher at Shanghai's economic commission. As a result, parents are desperate for their children to enter the most prestigious universities and colleges.
What follows is a vicious circle: secondary technical schools and vocational colleges have to suspend enrolment, or even close, due to the lack of suitable candidates and as a result enterprises are faced with a shrinking pool of technical staff. This leads to poor market performance and a shortage of innovative new products, according to Wang. Foreign-invested enterprises tend to have fewer recruitment problems because of their greater resources and better-organised staff training programmes.
"You can't expect to foster a skilled technical worker overnight. Rather, you need a far-sighted training strategy to ensure a sufficient supply of qualified technical staff,'' says Song Weiliang, manager in charge of training at Shanghai Volkswagen (SVW), a 50-50 joint venture between Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp (SAIC) and German auto giant Volkswagen.
SVW is one of China's largest carmakers, employing more than 6,000 workers in total and nearly 1,000 in technological areas such as mechanics and electronics. It has a long-established training system for its new technical recruits, based on Volkswagen's model, which combines theoretical knowledge with fieldwork. Under a technology transfer agreement, the company also sends a number of technical staff abroad each year to Volkswagen's workshops in Germany, giving them direct exposure to foreign technology.
The city government meanwhile has begun to realise that qualified technical staff are urgently needed in the local industrial sector. "We have to nurture talent at all levels, not necessarily only white-collar workers, in order to bolster our social and economic development,'' says Ji Yumin, director of the economic commission's personnel division.
According to Ji, the city plans to launch an ambitious policy package for the industrial sector to reverse the situation as soon as possible. One major aim is to boost the proportion of senior technical workers, to 20 percent of all technical staff by the end of 2005.
Another important strategy is to optimise the resources of polytechnic colleges and technical schools in order to attract more talented junior middle school graduates. This means closing or merging some of the smaller schools and adapting the programmes offered by others.
A government incentive scheme is to be established among local industrial enterprises. Companies will be encouraged to raise the pay of senior technical staff and to offer a special subsidy to stop the best talent leaving for better-paid jobs. Enterprises are also expected to draw up plans to nurture young candidates for key technical positions and to send the best workers abroad for further training, according to Ji.
Yet some believe this is still not enough. "A key solution to the problem is to correct public attitudes towards blue-collar workers, and that requires much more effort from involved parties such as the media,'' says Sun Zhenhua, who works in the technical department at SAIC. A transparent legal framework should also be set up immediately to provide guidelines for training more senior technical staff, he adds.