Deep Focus: More Chinese graduates are returning to vocational schools for practical skills, clear career plan
Skilled Future
Published: Jun 12, 2024 10:53 PM
Editor's Note:

AI, digital life, space travel ... The future is coming at an unimaginable speed. 

At this crucial moment when China has embarked on a new journey to comprehensively build a modern socialist country, such rapid development and transformation not only bring vast opportunities and prospects, but also unpredictable challenges and problems. 

These challenges and problems, ranging from the future of human survival, the transformation of local development, to the life and death of a family or a stray animal, could be key topics that trigger social discussion. Each debate surrounding these topics is an inevitable pain point on China's path to pursuing high-quality development.

Against this backdrop, the Global Times has launched the Deep Focus series, focusing on specific issues in current social development. Through detailed investigation and research, we aim to uncover the root causes behind these problems, seek solutions, and engage with relevant parties and sectors to find keys to unlock these complex issues.

Students in their last year at a high school in Yongzhou, Central China's Hunan Province, fly paper airplanes with their <em>gaokao</em> goals written on them on May 15, 2023. Photo: VCG

Students in their last year at a high school in Yongzhou, Central China's Hunan Province, fly paper airplanes with their gaokao goals written on them on May 15, 2023. Photo: VCG

This is the second installation of the series. In this installation, we focus on the rapid development of vocational education in China and whether the country's vocational schools are adequately prepared to meet the aspirations and needs of the new generation.

As the national college entrance examinations, gaokao, just concluded, Chinese students and their parents are struggling for their future educational choices and career plans. 

In China, gaokao has always been a focal point as an important means of selecting talent. However, with the development of society and the transformation of the economic structure, whether the traditional talent selection model can meet the needs of this time has become an increasingly pressing issue. 

The positioning of Chinese universities generally includes two types. One type focuses on general education, with schools that aim to cultivate students based on their abilities. The other type focuses on vocational education, with these institutions mainly being local undergraduate colleges and vocational schools. 

Chinese parents and students generally believe that vocational schools are inferior to general education institutions. Only underachieving students who cannot get into a bachelor's program would consider vocational schools, and these students may only end up working in factories doing low-skilled labor. 

However, in the fierce competition of the job market today, people are gradually realizing that even with a bachelor's degree, an ideal job isn't guaranteed. Instead, individuals with specialized skills are more competitive in the labor market. 

According to the "2024 Blue-collar Talent Development Report" released by Zhaopin, a career development platform in China, the demand for blue-collar jobs in China is currently booming, with significant improvements in salaries and career prospects. 

This trend not only provides more employment opportunities for vocational education graduates, but also elevates the status of vocational education in society. 

It indicates that in the first quarter of this year, the demand for blue-collar positions reached 3.8 times that of the same period five years ago, with salaries also experiencing substantial increases.

Experts suggest that China anticipates a fairer and more inclusive social environment where vocational education graduates can earn the respect and recognition they deserve through their professional skills and talents. At the same time, more young people should be able to choose vocational education based on their interests and strengths, achieving both personal and social value enhancement.

How to further improve the quality and appeal of vocational education, making it a truly effective avenue for young people to realize their career dreams, will be the collective goal of educators and society at large.

Students at a vocational and technical school practice at an electronics production company in Shaoyang, Central China's Hunan Province on January 17, 2024. Photo: VCG

Students at a vocational and technical school practice at an electronics production company in Shaoyang, Central China's Hunan Province on January 17, 2024. Photo: VCG

All roads lead to Rome

The damp air in June is filled with a sense of anticipation and anxiety for many young adults. When many graduates are scrambling to secure employment through rounds of resume submissions and nerve-wracking interviews in this annual job-hunting season, Yin Linjia remains unusually relaxed and carefree.

"I don't have to seek a job myself like many of my peers do," Yin told the Global Times. "My school has already got me a job."

The 21-year-old is doing an internship as a nurse at a county-level psychiatric hospital in Yueyang city, Central China's Hunan Province. After graduating later this month, she will directly sign an employment contract with the hospital, and get paid every month like every formal staff there - thanks to a cooperation agreement between her vocational school and local hospitals.

Compared with comprehensive universities, many vocational technical schools in China cultivate and train students precisely according to the needs of the job market, and even offer graduates job opportunities from their cooperative employers.

"I guess, university graduates may envy sometimes me," Yin said, with a smirk on her face. "At least now, I don't have to struggle in the competitive job market."

Not a high-achieving student in high school, Yin recalled that she failed the gaokao three years ago, as her score was far from enough to get her into a good undergraduate school. At that time, there were two major ways in front of her: either stopping on for an extra year in high school, or going to a vocational school.

The then 18-year-old chose the latter. "I've never thought being vocational school student is inferior," she told the Global Times. "Ones academic performance does not represent his or her comprehensive ability."

Yin said compared with some comprehensive university students, who "are overwhelmed in various kinds of courses and activities, and are confused about their future," vocational school students usually have an easier time finding jobs that match their abilities, as what they have learned at school is quite job-oriented.

"I'm not saying which one is definitely better. But for me, I'm grateful that I chose a vocational school," she said.

According to the "2024 College Graduate Employment Survey Report" also released by Zhaopin, the number of college graduates in 2024 is expected to reach a record high of 11.79 million.

Consequently, graduates are demonstrating greater proactivity in their job search, with 60.3 percent beginning to look for job opportunities as early as the first semester of their senior year or even earlier. Additionally, 39.2 percent of graduates have submitted more than 50 resumes.

Internship experience is regarded as a crucial factor in successfully obtaining job offers, with 78.4 percent of recent graduates having had at least one internship experience.

At the same time, more than half of the graduates believe that learning skills through vocational schools will increase their employment opportunities, reflecting the high market demand for professional skills, the report emphasizes.

Rising demand for blue-collar workers 

The "2024 Blue-collar Talent Development Report" said the demand for blue-collar talent in China is growing, with average salaries increasing by 35.8 percent compared to five years ago. Health/beauty, driving, and logistics/inventory positions rank highest in terms of salary levels and growth rates.

Moreover, the salaries for skilled workers have seen a more significant increase, rising by 49.2 percent over the past five years.

The appeal of blue-collar jobs to the younger generation is also on the rise, with the number of job seekers under 25 increasing by 165 percent over the past five years.

An increasing number of young people are opting for vocational schools as a stepping stone between their studies and entering the workforce, Yu Zheng, a visiting professor of lacquer art at Fujian Vocational College of Art, told the Global Times. 

Yu highlighted that in comparison to university students, many of her students have a strong foundation in fine arts, but may have some weaknesses in other academic areas. 

"However, this does not diminish their excellence; they are talented individuals with a clear career path in mind," she said.

Yu emphasized that both the Chinese government and society are placing great emphasis on the advancement of vocational education. A well-established model has been put in place, covering aspects such as faculty resources, school facilities, curriculum design, and partnerships for internships and employment. 

For instance, Fujian Vocational College of Art serves as a training ground for inheritors of intangible cultural heritage in the province. Yu, who previously served as a graduate supervisor at Quanzhou Normal University, was specially recruited to teach as a Fujian intangible cultural heritage master of Bodiless lacquer.

According to Yu, vocational education places a strong emphasis on preparing students for employment compared to traditional university education. Students are provided with numerous opportunities for internships and practical experiences outside of the classroom, enabling them to gain real-world exposure and workplace skills.

"Additionally, my students also have the chance to take courses in traditional Chinese culture such as guqin and tea art, which significantly enhance their overall abilities," Yu said.

She also highlighted the well-structured system in place at vocational schools for students to progress from a diploma to a bachelor's degree. "Those interested in pursuing academic research after entering the workforce can seamlessly transition to university studies through established pathways," Yu noted.

Equally important

The "2024 College Graduate Employment Survey Report" also points out a trend in recent years of many college graduates returning to vocational schools to learn skills, hoping to gain the dual advantages of a bachelor's degree and practical skills to broaden their job search. 

When it comes to the question of whether learning skills through "returning to school" is helpful for employment, 52.2 percent of respondents gave a positive answer, believing that there is a high demand for professional skills in the market, and there are more job opportunities after "returning to school," which had the highest percentage. Additionally, 43.2 percent believe that having multiple skills opens up more paths, and 33.2 percent believe it can help accumulate social experience. 

Xiong Bingqi, director of the 21st Century Education Research Institute, told the Global Times that the phenomenon of students returning to school to learn skills is partly due to the lack of emphasis on employment during undergraduate education. Even some vocational schools in China tend to take general education seriously but failed to teach students skills they should have mastered to find a hob and adapt to society after graduation, Xiong said.

As the Chinese society is developing rapidly, with industries, professions, and occupations continuously subdividing, the demand for high-skilled talents is continuously increasing, making it more and more difficult to find a perfect match for a profession. 

According to a report of in October 2021, although the number of skilled talents in China has exceeded 200 million, accounting for 26 percent of the total employment, the number of high-skilled talents is only 50 million, accounting for 28 percent of the total skilled talents, showing a significant gap. 

The trend of undergraduate students returning to vocational schools reflects the surging social demand and serves as a reminder of the need to reform some rigid education and training methods. Vocational school students are not necessarily inferior as the social prejudice used to say, as long as they have real skills, they will have a place in the job market, observers told the Global Times. 

In recent years, China has attached great importance to vocational education and has introduced a series of preferential policies to ensure high-quality development of vocational education, Li Shujing, Deputy Director of the Executive Committee with China Vocational Foreign Language Education Development Research Centre under BFSU, told the Global Times.

Vocational education is equally important as general education. It has become the consensus of more and more families that tens of millions of families can cut off the intergenerational transmission of poverty through vocational education and realize the dream of having the first generation of college students, Li noted.  

For example, Rongjiang, a county in Southwest China's Guizhou Province, is one of the last counties that was removed from the country's poverty list in late 2020. Many of the students there leave schools after the compulsory education. The county made headlines throughout 2023 after local Cunchao games went viral online and drew an unprecedented flood of local tourists into the quiet county, creating various working chances for the local people.

On Wednesday, the Rongjiang county secondary vocational school issued an enrollment guide to recruit 50 students for football training. The course is offering the chance of further education and open to youngsters in Guizhou who are interested in football, no matter they are fresh graduates, former graduates or social youth with equal academic attainment.

With the development of the digital economy and the upgrading and transformation of industrial structure, the proportion of high-skilled talents in technical skills in China still needs to be greatly increased. The demand for high-quality, innovative and high-end skilled talents is constantly increasing, and the social status of technical skilled talents will also be greatly improved, Li stressed. 

According to Li, China has the largest vocational education system in the world with more than 10,000 vocational schools and colleges and 30 million students. Vocational education at the secondary and higher levels train about 10 million high-quality technical skilled talents every year, providing strong support for promoting economic and social development and enhancing national competitiveness.

With the optimization and adjustment of vocational education by the country, a number of vocational (specialized) majors that serve national strategies, closely relate to national economy and people's livelihood, and meet social needs have been favored by many students. Some majors have even exceeded the undergraduate admission scores.

China is also building vocational universities with 51 being established, which are building a three-dimensional talent training system of "integration of vocational and general education," providing multiple channels for vocational education students to become successful. 

"Vocational education students are not only role models for future high-quality talents, but also moving ahead to become international talents," Li stressed.