Get a degree or become a plumber: which is really better for our youth, and Hong Kong?

Peter Kammerer says Hong Kong is paying the price for overvaluing university degrees and undervaluing vocational training, especially as electricians, plumbers, carpenters and the like are making better-than-average salaries

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 12:24pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 June, 2018, 5:56pm

Tradition is the bane of Hong Kong. There’s a closely followed Chinese saying, attributed to a Song dynasty writer, that all pursuits other than study are of low value. The result is that most parents push their children down a career path that involves university rather than vocational training or apprenticeships. Consequently, the skills that are essential for the continued growth and prosperity of our city and nation are looked down on and not prized. 

There shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that there’s a severe shortage of people like electricians, plumbers, carpenters and construction workers. Or that university graduates are so plentiful in number that they have trouble finding a good job, or even a job at all. Then, there’s the matter of prejudice: what would a Hong Kong parent say if their college-educated daughter wanted to marry a baker or a bricklayer? I wager a heated debate would ensue.

But there’s more than a 1,000-year-old saying at play. “Lowly” jobs also happen to be ones that involve getting hands dirty, often in environments that don’t have air conditioning. That is at odds with the claim that Hongkongers are hard workers. It also means that if we’re no longer prepared to put up with sweat and dirt, we’ve become soft, pampered and, dare I say, lazy.

Paradoxically, many of those sniffed-at jobs happen to be the better-paid ones in our city. Try this out with your Hong Kong colleague or friend: how much do you think a plumber earns? The answer will most likely be a little above the minimum wage. At present, that is HK$34.50 an hour or HK$310.50 for a nine-hour day. But, proving how wrong perceptions can be, as of March, government figures showed that the average daily wage for the trade was HK$1,442.10.

Hong Kong should give vocational training the credit it deserves

Pick any blue-collar job and you’ll get similarly surprising numbers, whether for an electrician, carpenter, concreter, bricklayer, gas fitter, or even a bamboo scaffolder. Workplace dangers obviously factor into the salary of a number of these, especially if it involves working on high-rise construction sites.

A bamboo scaffolder, for example, was averaging HK$1,883.80 a day, a concreter, HK$1,935.50, and a bar-bender HK$2,187.20. Such work obviously doesn’t guarantee a particular monthly salary, as an office job does, but with a contract or steady work, it can be considerably above the monthly average Hong Kong wage of HK$15,819.

We all pay the price of not enough tradespeople. Their higher wages mean public construction projects, flats and services cost more and we have to wait longer to get jobs done. I found that out recently when trying to work out why the doorbell wasn’t ringing. I tampered with a wire that blew all the fuses in my flat, including the one on the main board in the building. Not being able to determine which of the hundreds of switches hidden away on a dingy stairwell was the one responsible for my flat’s power, I was forced to phone an electrician. It cost HK$500 for him to flick a switch.

Watch: Hong Kong’s last mailbox makers fight to keep the craft alive

Boost to vocational training will lift young Hongkongers’ job prospects

But a friend in Australia who is a partner in a highly successful bakery is especially vexed about circumstances; the nation, like Hong Kong, is so focused on university education that not enough school-leavers want to take on a trade. None of his three children want to join him in the venture he helped start more than 20 years ago; they know how much hard work and effort is involved in running a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation.

He also laments the tough health regulations that mean school groups can no longer so easily tour the bakery and perhaps inspire children to one day become bread, cake or pastry-makers. My friend has consequently become an advocate for apprenticeships, seeing them as not just necessary for employment, but also as providing an invaluable foundation for ongoing career development that may also one day involve tertiary study.

For Hong Kong, there are challenges beyond parental pressure to overcome. Academic education is not for everyone, so we need to have properly-funded vocational education and training facilities. More small and medium-sized companies need to be encouraged to take on apprentices. Unless we end the stigma and provide the necessary investment to ensure the employability and satisfaction of our workforce, our economy will suffer.

 Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post