Beginning as a teenager, Wei Meili spent seven years working in factories in far-flung cities, teaching herself English along the way. Now she's back home in southwest China, where her initiative is proving valuable.
Wei, a high school dropout, is now a manager in a Swiss restaurant in her hometown of Nanning, the capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. Her language skills got her the job, which pays 4,000 yuan (585 U.S. dollars) a month, on par with white-collar pay and about four times what she earned in factories.
"The job market was getting weak in Dongguan where I worked for seven years," said the 23-year-old. When she came home in January for Lunar New Year, she decided to stay and seek new work.
"It wasn't luck that got her the job, it was her hard work and drive to improve herself," said the Swiss owner of the restaurant, who would only give his name as Hanser.
He said that despite widespread unemployment in the city, it was very difficult to find a local resident who could speak good English. Most of the restaurant's customers are foreigners seeing the sights of Guangxi. Although she has little education, Wei can communicate fluently with them.
"The electric appliance plant where I worked in Dongguan did business with foreign customers. I did a lot of self-study to improve my English, which I saw would be useful in work," said Wei.
Her initiative, however, makes her an exception among unskilled migrants, most of whom can only do hard labor for low pay. Local and national governments are grappling with the problem of how to help the newly unemployed, many of whom have few assets beyond a strong back or nimble hands, get back to work
In the labor export region of Guangxi, 1.5 million out of about11.7 million rural laborers have lost their jobs as a result of the economic slowdown this year, said Jiang Minghong, head of Guangxi's labor bureau.
"The best way to help them get reemployed is to provide training," he said. He said the government had allocated 240 million yuan to provide free training for jobless migrant workers this year.
"Training for migrant workers is crucial, especially for the younger generations," said Chen Shida, head of the Research Institute of Labor and Social Welfare in east China's Zhejiang Province.
He said younger migrant workers, who were born after 1980, are both choosy about what they do in the cities and unwilling to return to the farms.
"Most are not as hard-working and contented as their parents. Training can help them adjust," said Chen.
According to a survey by China's State Council, or cabinet, in November last year, only 20 percent of migrant workers had received even minimal training before going to work in cities, and 76.4 percent of them had no training at all.
Ministry of Construction figures showed only 10 percent of 32 million farmers who became construction workers had basic training in their new industry, compared with more than 70 percent in developed countries.