China: Vocational Education Matches Youth with Jobs and Helps Sustain Growth

February 17, 2012

  • Technical and vocational education and training has grown fast in China, but challenges are apparent.
  • The World Bank has helped China to develop vocational education for two decades, to make the system better meet the demands of students and the labor market.
  • To support China’s shift from low-skilled, labor-intensive industries to more capital and skill-intensive ones, producing skilled workers via vocational education is critical.

Jiang Dian, 24, is satisfied with what he has gained from vocational education.

He graduated from Nanjing Vocational Institute of Railway Technology and now works as a subway dispatcher in Nanjing, Southern China.

"At school, I obtained hands-on training on railway coordination and surveillance,” he says, “I also learned discipline.” His school trains students in a quasi-military style – morning exercises starting at 5 a.m., walking in queues to class and their dormitories, etc., which prepares them well for jobs that are responsible for the safety of millions of passengers of subways and trains. “This helped me land a job easily, even before graduation,” he says.

In China, each year, millions of students like Jiang joined the workforce with a diploma of technical and vocational education and training (TVET).  

TVET is growing big in China. According to the Ministry of Education, the number of tertiary TVET institutes reached 1,184 and that of secondary TVET schools reached 14,767, enrolling 11 million students per year.   

The World Bank has worked with China to develop its vocational education for 20 years. Three projects from 1990 to 2005, with $110 million in loans, had benefited many.

An additional two projects were launched in recent years, aiming to improve the quality of education in 11 vocational and technical schools in Guangdong, Liaoning and Shandong Provinces. Another project is also under preparation to soon support reforms of nine secondary and tertiary vocational institutions in Yunnan Province.

Filling the Need for Skilled Workers

These provinces are part of China’s growth story – Guangdong is the engine behind the country’s export-led growth. Shandong’s economy is the 2nd biggest, just after Guangdong, while Liaoning is one of the most important industrial bases and Yunnan is a strategic border province and the “bridge” between China and the Southeast Asia.

For the past 30 years, China’s abundant supply of cheap labor has been driving the country’s economic boom. But the overall level of knowledge and skills of China’s labor force is relatively low. Only half of China’s 140 million employees of urban enterprises can be classified as “skilled”, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security of China.

As the country’s industries are shifting from low-skilled, labor-intensive to a more capital and skill-intensive pattern, the need for skilled workers is rising. Investing in technical and vocational education and training can fill the gap, experts say.

But the vocational institutes and schools in China face certain challenges, vocational school students and grads point out – Training standards and curriculum are often out of date; teachers often lack practical skills themselves; it is hard to systematically engage employers and link them to the education system so as to provide workplace training for students; some schools are under-resourced, especially in rural areas and poorer provinces; there are few clear “minimum standards” for vocational schools in terms of equipment, teachers and so on; planning to meet labor market needs is insufficient.

"Strong oversight over vocational schools is critical,” says Fan Qirui, 21, who took vocational training in automobile decoration. “School management was rather random. No one was systematically checking quality and results,” he says of the school he attended.

" "At school, I obtained hands-on training on railway coordination and surveillance. I also learned discipline.”  "

Jiang Dian

24, graduated from Nanjing Vocational Institute of Railway Technology

School-based Reforms and Innovation

To address these problems, the World Bank-funded projects concentrate on school-based reforms and innovations, including:

  • Strengthening school-industry linkages
  • Improving school management
  • Introducing a modular, competency-based training curriculum 
  • Improving student assessment and quality assurance at the school level 
  • Re-training instructors and expanding their industry experience
  • Upgrading facilities and equipment

"Reforms and innovation should start at the school level,” says Xiaoyan Liang, a senior education specialist at the World Bank, who manages the projects. “Learning from school-based reforms and innovations is an important feature of these projects, which will also produce lessons and guide future policy development for the entire system.”

The project in Guangdong, which has been running for two years, has already brought initial outcomes:

  • School-Industry Collaboration Guidelines and model contracts have been set.
  • School-Industry Advisory Committee has been established in each school.  
  • A provincial forum called “A Hundred Schools; A Thousand Enterprises” was organized by the Provincial Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security in May 2010, during which over 200 vocational schools signed contracts with more than 1,000 enterprises and resulted in about 3,000 collaboration projects.  
  • Competency-based standards have been developed in five subject areas: automotive servicing, CNC (Computerized Numerical Control) modeling, tourism and hospitality, and interior design, and industrial and chemical analysis. 
  • 74 modules with complete teaching/learning packages have been developed.
  • New curriculum materials and pedagogy have been piloted in 20 classes involving 1,000 students.
  • Positive feedback from teachers and students

"To improve the competitiveness of the modern industrial systems of Guangdong,” says Wang Yang, Party Secretary of Guangdong Province, “we definitely need to build up a modern technical training system that is internationally-competitive.”