Higher education reform needed to meet manufacturing job needs
An employee works on a high-speed train at the final assembly line at a factory for State-owned CNR Tangshan Railway Vehicle in Tangshan, North China's Hebei province. File photo: CFP
Foxconn President Terry Gou on Sunday put a penetrating question to China's industry minister during a high-profile conference in Beijing, seeking answers as to how the government can bring the country's college graduates, who too often have high-flying ideas about career development, back to earth in order to facilitate the manufacturing upgrade China has envisioned for its national blueprint.
The much-talked about China Manufacturing 2025 is set to shift the country from a big manufacturer to a manufacturing power. The Apple manufacturer, however, has identified the issue that the country's higher education has not kept in step with the actual needs of its manufacturing sector, according to Gou, who prolonged an almost-finished session on China Manufacturing 2025 during the China Development Forum by raising the question from beneath the stage where he was sitting.
His worries are echoed by some market watchers. China's manufacturing sector is short of skilled workers, while colleges and universities have not tackled this issue yet, Zuo Shiquan, an industry expert at Beijing-based CCID Consulting, told the Global Times on Sunday.
"We recently hoped to recruit nearly 20,000 college graduates to go to factories, and we found that we will have to remodel their mindset when it comes to working on product lines [which requires] both physical and mental effort," Gou said,
He noted that there is a huge gap between what the higher education offers and what the workplace actually needs.
He then posed his question: "If the talent decline to go grassroots, will the government have any encouragement policies?"
Miao Wei, minister of industry and information technology, didn't shy away from talking about the problem with higher education in the country, which has been blamed for the dearth of advanced technicians in the manufacturing sector.
This actually reflects that China's education system needs to be reformed, he stated.
The country needs more talent to go to factories and plants and be capable of working as technicians on product lines or managing the products lines, said the industry minister, who argued that for the nearly 8 million university and college graduates each year, the majority of them are supposed to work in local industries.
"We don't need all of the 8 million [graduates] to become engineers and scientists," he said.
The country has already taken note of the problem and has rolled out a special plan, Miao disclosed without going into details. The overhauling effort will take time, he said, noting that "we think Guo still has to give [us] a little bit of time."
Miao said frankly that without sophisticated technicians in place, "it's just empty talk that China wants to build a manufacturing power."
A shared concern
It needs to be pointed out that talent shortage is not just a concern for manufacturing giants like Foxconn. The Taiwan-based contract electronics manufacturer, the world's largest, has multiple operations in the Chinese mainland where labor issues over the years have frequently put it in the limelight. The company's big push to replace large numbers of factory workers with robots, apparently has not been enough, as Gou remains concerned with the talent shortfall in manufacturing.
The lack of trained workers has weighed on some small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Pearl River Delta, said an employee in charge of automation at an original equipment manufacturer in Dongguan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Dongguan is an industrial powerhouse in the Pearl River Delta region.
The situation also jeopardizes the local government's goal of automating the city's manufacturing industry, the employee told the Global Time in an earlier interview.
"It's hard to find sufficient skillful workers who can handle those machines, and some factories only use automated machines when local officials visit their production lines, and they go back to labor-intensive production after [the officials] leave," the employee said.
Factories benefit from government subsidies when they rebrand themselves as an "automated business," but few local SMEs actually benefit from installing industrial robots, the employee said.