HONG KONG - Within Hong Kong's dense thicket of skyscrapers and other buildings, there are 60,000 lifts. But the city has just 5,000 mechanics trained to service them, whether for routine maintenance or emergencies when lifts malfunction and people get stuck.
Because few locals want to get their hands greasy, Hong Kong is short of 2,000 lift mechanics, estimates Mr Charles Wong, who is in charge of training them at the Vocational Training Council (VTC).
"The lift companies tell us that there is a shortage," he says. "So while we should be sending two workers for every inspection job, sometimes they send just one."
In Hong Kong, where heavily used lifts range from the ostentatiously zippy - swooshing at up to 12m per second in steel-clad skyscrapers - to the judderingly cranky ones in old tenements with average speeds of 1.5m per second, the shortage of lift mechanics is clearly dire.
But it is not the only area in which the city is short of workers, as a result of an entrenched stigma attached to skilled technical work. Others range from construction workers and electricians to aircraft and IT technicians.
To try to lick the problem, Hong Kong is introducing a new pilot scheme called "Earn and Learn" that combines vocational schooling and paid on-the-job training along the lines of Germany's famed apprenticeships.
VTC chairman Clement Chen tells The Straits Times it is part of a larger plan to overhaul vocation education in a city that traditionally places great store by "face", or prestige.
Chief executive Leung Chun Ying said during his annual policy address in January that "the government should re-establish the positioning of vocational education in our education system and guide the younger generation in choosing their career".
It is an urgent issue. Hong Kong faces a labour crunch, with the number of jobs in the private sector waiting to be filled jumping 11 per cent to 72,380 last December, from the previous year. Of these, many vacancies are in industries from construction to catering.
While the government is mulling over making it easier to import labour, it is politically contentious. In fact, there is a ready pool of workers at home. While unemployment in Hong Kong is a low 3.1 per cent, it suffers from an unusually high jobless rate among its young - 11.5 per cent for those aged between 15 and 19.
But the mismatch comes from a a deep-seated prejudice - as in many Asian societies - towards hands-on, albeit skilled, jobs, observes Mr Chen. This, in turn, is reflected in the resources for vocational education.
Despite encompassing 13 institutes with some 250,000 students - VTC takes on the combined role of Singapore's polytechnics and the Institute of Technical Education - its budget from the government is just one-third that given to Hong Kong's eight public universities with 76,000 undergraduates.
"We need to put a lot more emphasis on vocational education, and elevate the status of a vocational profession so that people will look at a chef or a designer no differently from lawyers and accountants," declares Mr Chen.
The new apprenticeship programme will, he hopes, go some way in helping to achieve that.
While the VTC has an existing trainee scheme, it is less structured, without government subsidies or guaranteed salaries upon graduation.
The new programme, adapted from the German and Swiss experience, begins with a one-year foundation course, then three years of work training.
The apprentice receives a HK$30,800 (S$5,000) stipend from the employer and then a monthly HK$8,000 salary plus HK$2,000 from the government. Upon graduation, he is guaranteed a job, with a guaranteed salary of no less than HK$10,500.
This will hopefully provide an incentive for young Hong Kongers - often in a rush to start work as, say, a phone salesman, so to earn an income - to spend the time learning a craft instead, says Mr Chen.
Beyond that, the companies need to draw up structured career paths for the apprentice, who must be promoted to certain levels within a time frame. They can also opt for further studies. The idea: These are not dead-end jobs.
"In Germany for instance, high-school students often choose vocational education as a prelude to entering universities," he notes.
The programme will start small with HK$140 million for 2,000 apprentices. Already, an industry cluster representing 130 companies in electrical and mechanical services like lift and air-conditioner repair has signed up. Other industries which the VTC is lining up include printing, aircraft and car repair, retail and eldercare. The new scheme begins in the school year starting in September.
On how big it will grow, Mr Chen says the VTC - while promised funding for just 2,000 spots so far - "has been assured by the government that if we make it successful, there will be more money". "The goal is to satisfy the needs of the sectors until the industry says enough," he says.
Companies such as the Express Lift Company, whose clients include Citygate mall, say the key problem is that very few youngsters enter the industry. "We are not familiar with the new scheme but we hope it can bring in new blood," says a spokesman.
The ebullience aside, Mr Chen knows it can be an uphill task. Students may drop out from a vocational scheme that lasts as long as an undergraduate programme - and his personal take is that it should be shortened to 2.5 years.
More also needs to be done to overhaul VTC campuses, though he notes ruefully the competition for limited land in Hong Kong.
Ultimately, to fundamentally change how a society views skilled manual work takes more than a training scheme, he admits. "Status and prospects are the bigger issues. So we need to tell our students, you are not bound to be just a car mechanic - you can be your own boss in future."
Additional reporting by Pearl Liu
Hands-on approach to realising their dreams
The kitchen is hot, the oil is splattering and, outside, hungry customers wait.
This is no ordinary kitchen in a restaurant though.
Instead, it is a training kitchen in Hong Kong's Vocational Training Council campus in Pok Fu Lam where young students - their faces glistening with perspiration - are wielding heavy woks, preparing Cantonese classics such as fried prawn balls with snap peas.
One of them, Mr Daniel Chan, 21, son of a washer- woman and a security guard, dreams of opening his own Chinese restaurant one day in Vancouver.
On another floor in the building, 16-year-old Wong Sheung Man demonstrates how he would repair an escalator if a child's rubber sandal were caught at its sides.
As a VTC trainee, the teen is already helping to maintain five to six escalators in shopping malls and residential buildings in Tsing Yi, while also attending classes at the VTC. His short-term goal is to work at the Hong Kong airport.
He started the programme a year ago. "I was not good at studying subjects like Chinese, English and maths, and every time I read a textbook, I get a headache," he says. "I did not know what I could do and my parents were very worried."
Now, he takes pride in servicing escalators that run smoothly, seeing his work experience as a stepping stone to his dream of becoming a lift engineer.
Yet, both trainees say they have had to grapple with comments from relatives and neighbours who thought that they were doing "dirty and low-class work".
"My neighbour asked me what I was doing and was shocked," recounts Mr Chan. "He asked me to join him in becoming a gym trainer instead.
"But I have my dream. I love cooking and I want to be a good cook."
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