Improving Vocational Education Brings Opportunities for Young People in Yunnan

March 13, 2017

Yunnan Province, on China’s southwestern border, is well known for its beautiful natural landscape and rich ethnic culture. Yet it is also one of the country’s poorest provinces. Its per capita GDP in 2010 was only half of the national average. With 84% of mountainous land, the majority of its 45 million people live in rural areas – 1/3 of them belongs to 25 ethnic minority groups.  

The labor force in Yunnan generally possesses low levels of education and skills. Most have completed just nine years of compulsory education or less, and professional and technical workers often lack skills certificates. 

As demand for specialized skills surges, such gaps have become more apparent. Throughout 2010 and 2011, only 35 to 45% of the job openings in Yunnan were filled, and only 50 to 55% of job applicants were hired. Companies often complain about the difficulties of finding skilled workers, considering it a major constraint on business growth.

In 2012, guided by the Chinese government’s goal to improve the labor force’s skill levels by 2020 particularly through vocational schools, the World Bank and the Yunnan provincial government launched a project to improve the quality and relevance of technical and vocational education and training to produce skills that respond to the labor market’s demand, and contribute to Yunnan's economic development. This project is financed with a World Bank loan of $50 million, and implemented in nine vocational schools in Yunnan from 2012 until 2017.

Activities carried out under the project included strengthening school-industry collaboration, developing school-based competency-based training (CBT) curriculum and teaching materials, training school managers and teachers, developing student and teaching assessment systems, upgrading key instructional facilities and equipment, and strengthening the provincial capacity in coordination, policy development, and monitoring and evaluation.

Competency-based curriculum and new teaching methods put students in the center

The project set out to improve the curriculum which was outdated and overly theoretical and make the teaching methodology center on students and not teachers.

At Dali Secondary Vocational School, an international expert from Cambridge Education Ltd was brought in to provide courses on competency-based training (CBT) and active learning. CBT focuses on cultivating the core skills and competencies that students will need for their future jobs and life-long development, while active learning emphasizes students’ engagement rather than teachers’ delivery of the course content and seeks to turn students from passive listeners and receptors into active participants.

 “It is different from our traditional teaching method. It can motivate students and stimulate them to learn more actively. It also develops students’ ability to work together and interact with each other, and gives them a sense of achievement,” said Sun Mandan, a teacher of Chinese language and literature, who participated in the training and then applied the new teaching method in her class.

Yang Mei, a teacher from the tourism department, noted the changes among students after she used the new teaching method. “Students exposed to active learning perform very differently in class. They are very confident. For example, they respond to teacher’s questions and take assignments more actively. In group work, they also learn to help and support each other. What is most valuable is that they learn to listen to other’s ideas and suggestions, and accommodate differences,” she said.

This new approach was generally welcomed by students. “We can focus our attention and do not easily get distracted in class,” said Zhao Pengqing, a major in tourism service and management. “It gives us more confidence,” said Zhao’s classmate Liu Bin.  “After the new learning method was introduced, I have become bolder and more active in class,” said Zhang Tao, a shy young man majoring in auto repair.

To date, 143 teachers joined the training courses. Many of them are already using the new techniques. “Teachers are key to the development of vocational schools. Our teachers are changing their mindsets and are actively involved in curriculum development and reform. Now our students are more interested in learning and teachers have grown,” said Chen Wenbin, Principal of the Dali Secondary Vocational School. 

" After the new learning method was introduced, I have become bolder and more active in class.  "

Zhang Tao, Student majoring in auto repair

School-industry collaboration develops skills to meet business needs

Involving industry and businesses in the management of vocational schools can provide school leaders with crucial support in developing programs to produce the skills the labor market needs. With industry participation, students can gain relevant workplace skills before graduation.  It helps address a recurring challenge where new graduates cannot get jobs while companies cannot find workers with the right skills.

The project has supported the establishment of school-industry collaboration advisory committees and sector-specific advisory committees. Business executives and sector specialists bring new ideas, knowledge and expertise and work together with the schools to train high-skilled workers to suit business needs. School-industry collaboration has taken various forms.

Tengchong, a city bordering Myanmar, is a major jade trading and processing center in China. In 2013, a jade carving training base was established jointly by Tengchong No.1 Vocational School and Wanfu Jewelry Company. With equipment and material provided by the company, students practice jade carving under the tutorship of experienced jade carvers from Wanfu Jewelry.  Jade bracelets, pendants and small sculptures made by students are sold at a special store outside the base.

“We can learn directly from the jade carving masters and improve our skills. The company sells our products which helps us find out what customers want and how we can meet their demand,” said Yang Chenda, a jade carving student. 

Li Xiang, a deputy general manager of Wanfu Jewelry, is satisfied with the result. He said this partnership allows the company to be involved in the development of the curriculum and training material, so that the training is better targeted and aligned with business needs.

Yunnan Traffic Technician College, founded in 1953, was one of the first vocational schools in the province and has a reputation of being the “cradle of skilled workers” in Yunnan. In the last few years, the college has developed partnerships with a number of big automotive companies such as Bosch, Dongfeng Citroen, Shanghai Volkswagen and BMW.  

A brand-new training building financed by the project provides students with facilities to gain hands-on experience and practice the automotive skills that they learn in the classroom. 

 “We can practice right away to solidify what we learned in class,” said Fu Lujie, who is majoring in applied automotive techniques.

Yang Ying is a major in automotive business and service. “Student-centered learning and hands-on experience in the new facilities help us get the necessary knowledge, ability and mindsets for working in business after graduation,” said Yang.

Twenty-six training laboratories have been renovated or expanded, and 35 textbooks have been developed as a result of the project, according to college president Yang Jingyuan.  “Theory-practice integration, industry-education combination, and school-business collaboration all have had a positive propelling effect on the transformation of our college,” said Yang.

The college has also developed tailor-made training programs for companies suited to their needs. The company sends instructors and provides internships and employment. This has effectively improved the relevance of graduates and enabled a seamless transition from school to work.  

As of November 2016, the project has trained more than 6,000 teachers and school managers, developed and published 97 sets of teaching materials, completed construction of 13 new training buildings, and is expected to complete furnishing 121 training rooms by the end of the year.

Upon project completion by the end of 2017, the project is expected to directly benefit more than 24,000 students enrolled in the training programs in Yunnan’s four key economic sectors including bio-industry, geology and minerals, tourism, and automotive industries. Beyond that, the training of teachers and managers will benefit about 96,000 students who are projected to be enrolled in the nine project schools after the project is over. Almost 80% of these students will be from rural poor areas, with about 30% of them belonging to ethnic minority groups.