When we visited a poor village in Qingxing county of north Guangdong a few weeks ago to work on a study of inequality, I was struck by the severity of poverty in places only a few hours away from the most dynamic and prosperous Pearl River Delta. One family that we visited had almost no furniture. Another only lived on 90 yuan (US$13) per month from the social assistance program.
The common features of those families that we visited seem to be that they do not have any family members who are physically able to work, or that they have family members who are chronically ill. The government hopes that the rural social assistance programs can help them survive. For those who can work, the government thinks that encouraging them to migrate to urban areas would be the best bet for them to escape such sad state of deprivation.
What can make migration successful and more permanent? For those who attempted to migrate, many ultimately return. The need to take care of their family and the cost to do so in urban areas is often a reason. Limited access to and inability to pay for services in urban areas is another critical factor. A farmer from the same village that we visited told us that after spending more than 10 years working in Guangzhou as a migrant worker, he had to return home. He farms the plots of land allocated to his family to take care of his parents as well as his grandchildren, whose parents are now migrant workers in Guangzhou. “My son cannot afford to have their children living with them in Guangzhou. It is impossible with their low wage and housing situation”.
What can help those who have never left the rural areas to get a decent job in cities? The barriers are many, but there seems to be a shared view that for most of them who are relatively young, the biggest difficulty is their poor education and the lack of non-agricultural skills. This belief has led the government to place skills training as top of its priorities among the wide range of interventions identified by the State Council Joint Conference on Migration that consists of 31 ministries. The government is investing heavily in skills training by public institutions, and at the same time subsidizing farmers to benefit from such training opportunities.
In designing the Bank’s investment project to facilitate migration in China, we often came back to two key questions. First, while the overall training capacity may indeed be a constraint to meet the substantial needs, better use of existing training resources and improving the quality of training seem to be equally important. Despite the major fiscal input to subsidize migrant training, and the aggressive position taken by schools to recruit more rural students, we saw and heard cases in Ningxia, Anhui, and Guangdong where schools are operating below their capacity. Parents often are reluctant to send their children to technical schools unless they have to. Why is that? The answer has got to be the quality of training. Unless training programs are closely tied to real demand of the labor market and are driven by this demand, more public investment in training will not necessarily lead to great results. Employers need to be involved in every stage of training – from setting the standard, developing the curriculum, training/sharing teachers, to developing internship and scholarship opportunities, etc. In Yantai, we saw some very encouraging examples. Such successful good practice needs to be adopted by all public training institutions.
Second, while direct involvement of the government in training delivery may be important to meet the demand generated by the scale and pace of migration, it is important to realize that there is great potential for private training markets to grow. Government needs to encourage the growth of the training market of diverse training providers and provide information to potential consumers. Furthermore, employers need to be more active in training their labor force. It is not surprising that the interest of employers in training this segment of their labor force is limited given the high mobility and cost. Finding ways to encourage such training provision is something that the government would need to work more on.
The Migrant Skills Development and Employment Project  that was approved by the Board of the World Bank a few days ago will work on these and many other issues concerning migration. It is the Bank’s hope that by working on the issues with schools, local governments and policy makers at the central level, some best practice can be mainstreamed and the impact of some experiments can be assessed.