Think about the place you were born. Remember the good times you had and the friends you used to play with. Picture your favorite teacher, or even your first kiss. How about that summer job? Maybe you worked at a camp, or an ice cream shop, or as a lifeguard. My first job was working for a pet store. I remember how nervous I was going into the interview. Palms were sweating and my teenage voice cracking.
Of course, I did get the job. While it didn’t springboard me into a veterinary career, it did give me opportunities. I made some money and could reinvest that back into the community where I grew up.
For China’s 12.5 million adolescent migrants, my experience must look like a piece of cake. To understand why, you have to comprehend the country’s convoluted hukou system. Boiled down, this is a household registration system based on your city of birth. It’s like a domestic passport. Like the Indian caste system, a hukou can determine one’s fate. Being born in a city like Shanghai exposes you to some of China's best schools and job opportunities. A Hukou from a poor town like Hefei relegate one to an understaffed, under resourced school room.
Turning back to those migrant teenagers, things get complicated. Many of the 12.5 million will have migrated with their parents to large urban centers like Shanghai or Beijing at a very young age. No matter how long they’ve lived in these places, and no matter how much they consider themselves a resident, the law is very clear. They will have studied at migrant schools, often less equipped than even those schools in their home villages. Then, when it comes time to find a job they cannot secure stable work due to a lack of education and lack of formal citizenship. Even if they return to the countryside, there is little hope of ending the vicious cycle.
One of China’s longest-running social enterprises has spent the past decade trying to break that cycle. A group of French expats founded Shanghai Young Bakers in 2008. Its mission is simple: equip migrant adolescents with skills necessary to compete in an aggressive job market. The group began after seeing a skill gap for bakers at Shanghai’s many five-star hotels. To bridge this, the group offers free training in French bakery to marginalized Chinese adolescents. These are those who may find it difficult to gain employment. The goal is “…enabling them to find qualified jobs and lead independent lives after graduation.”
Students go through an 11-month course that alternates classroom education with real-world training. For two weeks a month, students learn French and Chinese bakery skills. Students spend the other two weeks interning in some of the city’s best hotels. This gets students used to the rigor of life in the kitchen and makes learning practical. Students are also given training on communication, life planning, and English language. At the end of the process, each class of approximately 30 students receives a certificate recognized by the Chinese Ministry of Labor. The majority are placed in a job directly after graduation.
It's tough to put a dent in the massive population of adolescent migrants. Thirty students a year may not seem like much. But, the potential impact of Shanghai Young Bakers is huge. The group has perfected a demonstrative model that, if scalable, could change the face of employment in China. With China’s economic slowdown, with fewer jobs available for increasing urban populations, the Government is going to have to find a way to equip niche markets with missing skills. One day we could see the Chengdu Young Zookeepers or the Qingdao Young Electricians in the not-too-distant future.
Click here for more information on Shanghai Young Bakers.