SHANGHAI – With her dimples, ponytail and blue denim jacket, Li Xiumao, 19, stands out from her older, mostly male colleagues at the elevator repair company where she works. But she is proud of his work and of what he has done: âI’m not afraid of being made fun of. It’s true that if I hadn’t had this opportunity, I would never have come to Shanghai in my life, âshe told Sixth Tone.
Li left her village in southwestern Sichuan Province more than three years ago when she was recruited by the Shanghai Smiles Foundation, an education charity that offers rural teens like Li the opportunity to ‘study in Shanghai. The foundation – privately funded by corporate sponsors and individual donations – is partnering with vocational schools and businesses across the city to give students like Li professional skills and a path to a stable, albeit unglamorous career.
Although much of the international media coverage of the Chinese education system focuses on the intense competition for college places, a significant portion of the population will never attend high school. Compulsory education ends at the end of college – around age 15 – after which many rural adolescents drop out to help run their families’ farms or look for work in the city.
An alternative to traditional high schools, vocational schools teach students a trade that meets market demand. China’s 10,900 vocational high schools – which account for about 40% of all high schools in the country – provide about 70% of the incoming workforce in industries such as manufacturing, high-speed railways, and logistics of electronic commerce. according to a report from the People’s Daily Party newspaper.
Yet the fees for these schools can be prohibitive for poor rural families, and efforts to promote vocational training as a solution to rural poverty do not address the root causes of the problem. Meanwhile, vocational schools in urban areas are seen as a last resort for students who have not done well in their studies. Even within vocational schools themselves, majors that lead to clerical positions – like marketing or sales – are more popular, while manual labor roles are looked down upon.
“The [elevator maintenance] The major is lacking in students, but in Shanghai no one wants to study it because they think it’s a migrant worker job. [So] we recruit these teenagers from Sichuan and Yunnan, âexplains Lin Minghui, deputy director of the Shanghai Real Estate School, where Li studies.
Since the start of the Shanghai Smiles initiative in 2012, the foundation has recruited 350 students from poor areas, mainly in Sichuan and neighboring Yunnan province. After graduation, students can get jobs at partner companies of the charity, some of which also help fund the initiative. Businesses need manpower, schools need more students to fill classes, and students need employment opportunities.
Students specializing in elevator maintenance repair parts inside an elevator shaft during a course in Shanghai, March 21, 2017. Fu Danni / Sixth Tone
Li joined the initiative in 2014. She still remembers the day she left her family to take the long-distance bus to the nearest city, then board a plane to Shanghai. At only 15, she couldn’t help but cry as she contemplated her strange new life. When her grandmother passed away suddenly during Li’s first year in the city, Li was devastated to be so far from home.
Three years later, Li has become something of a poster for the Shanghai Smiles project. She has won municipal and state elevator maintenance competitions, usually as the only female participant, and often gives media interviews about the foundation’s work. While many of her classmates held positions in smaller towns, Li was promised a full-time job at the Shanghai Elevator Company where she is currently an intern.
Yet Li also has his worries. There are hardly any young women in the elevator repair industry, so most of her colleagues are decades older than her. She has few friends in town and few opportunities to socialize. Even though the elevator company’s employee housing is located near the city center, Li can rarely afford to enjoy Shanghai’s restaurants, shopping malls or nightlife. Her internship salary is 2,000 yuan ($ 290) per month, and could reach around 4,000 yuan when she becomes a full-time employee – still less than the city’s average monthly salary of 6,504 yuan in 2016.
âI don’t know how long I can stay in Shanghai. I still miss my house, âsays Li. Yet she feels a burst of joy when she recalls her joy at having seen for the first time in person the sights of the city that she had only glimpsed. on the television. When she returns to her hometown, her former neighbors look at her in awe and ask her to tell them about Shanghai. Many of them have never left the province.
âCurrently there is still a gap between cities and poor mountainous areas in terms of education,â said Huang Yan, chairman of the Shanghai Smiles Foundation. Even with the government’s substantial efforts to reduce poverty, Huang believes it will take decades to close this gap. According to According to a report from Peking Normal University, only 50 percent of students in the poorest areas attend college, compared to more than 97 percent in China’s wealthy eastern provinces.
Li Xiumao sits in her room in the employee housing unit of her elevator company in Shanghai on April 7, 2017. Fu Danni / Sixth Tone
Vocational schools are presented as a way to fight poverty in the countryside. “The development of vocational education not only meets the goal of developing industries and talents, but also contributes to poverty reduction in rural China,” Yang Jin, head of the vocational education center and technical at the Chinese Ministry of Education, Recount the People’s Daily.
However, there is no guarantee that graduates will return to help develop their rural hometowns rather than looking for jobs in the cities. As such, charities like Shanghai Smiles offer an immediate solution but also contribute to China’s one-way mass migration from rural areas to urban centers.
Although the foundation has helped fund primary schools in poor areas, higher education remains centralized in cities. And the roots of inequalities go beyond finance: Complex educational regulations combined with the shortage of experienced teaching staff and the lack of opportunities for corporate partnerships in the countryside make it easier for students to come to the city rather than to relocate. seize opportunities in rural areas. And even so, strict China hukou – or the household registration system – can be an additional barrier for rural students seeking a better education in the city.
Regional divisions are apparent even among students at Shanghai Real Estate School. In a skipping rope competition hosted by the school last month, students grouped into separate cliques: Local Shanghai teens – mostly dropouts from mainstream schools – sported foreign-branded sneakers for them. boys and loud makeup and jewelry for girls. They were talking and laughing loudly alongside the calm, darker-skinned migrants from Yunnan and northwest China’s Qinghai Province.
For many of these rural students, the Shanghai Smiles Project is the only alternative to an unstable future as migrant workers. Pu Yan, 17, and Li Mei, 18, failed their high school entrance exams, and their families did not have the money to enroll them in local vocational schools.
The two friends left their Yi minority village in Yunnan – characterized by its colorful ethnic clothes and sour and spicy cuisine – for Shanghai, but the young women did not take city life or their training in elevator maintenance. âWe wanted to go home and find work there, but our families urged us to finish school,â Li Mei told Sixth Tone.
However, some students in vocational schools bring back to the countryside the skills acquired in the city. 18-year-old Deng Luping is from a Yao ethnic minority village with 60 households in Yunnan province; After the roads connecting his village to the rest of the county are built this year, it will take another four hours by car to reach the county seat.
A student takes an elevator maintenance course in Shanghai, March 21, 2017. Fu Danni / Sixth Tone
Growing up, Deng remembers Shanghai as a television image of the famous Bund clock tower; now the city is his reality. He enjoys his studies but does not want to land a job in an elevator repair company after graduation. Instead, he plans to help his father grow the family tea leaf business in the online market.
Had he stayed in his village, Deng says, he might never have heard of the power of the web or heard of internet moguls like Jack Ma from Alibaba and Pony Ma from Tencent, who became his professional heroes. âBefore, we didn’t even have enough – or good quality – computers in my school,â he says. âI didn’t know any of this before I came to Shanghai. “
Editors in Chief: Qian Jinghua and Jessica Levine.
(Header image: Elevator maintenance students work on their skills during a course in Shanghai, March 21, 2017. Fu Danni / Sixth Tone)