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Craftsmen in short supply

By Shi Yingying (China Daily)

09:15, February 07, 2013

A worker uses his skills at a construction site in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, in October. (Xinhua/ Zhou Ke)

With the click of a mouse, the green-eyed monster was unleashed in offices across China.

The cause of all this envy: A recent post on micro-blogging website Sina Weibo detailing the wages paid to skilled craftsman.

According to the author, carpenters, stonemasons, plumbers and electricians can earn 220 yuan ($30) a day, more than many of those making a living with their hand on a mouse.

That's a conservative estimate, according to Mu Qunshan, a project manager for the interior decorating company Wuxi Jadeite Decoration Engineering in Jiangsu province.

"The lowest salary a craftsman earns at our company is 300 yuan a day," he told China Daily. "Here, a veteran can earn up to 300,000 yuan a year."

It was exactly the same situation when he started learning to be a mason in 1991 as a teenager.

Like then, the wages skilled tradesmen receive boil down to basic economics: Demand far exceeds supply.

Yet despite the rewards, "most young people just don't want to learn these traditional skills", Mu said.

"I often get complaints from my apprentices that they can't find a girlfriend because women think a mason's work is dirty," he said. "Sometimes they think it would be better to go to a vocational school and end up in a factory earning 2,000 yuan a month."

In an interview with Xinhua News Agency recently, Zheng Dongliang, a researcher at the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, estimated China needs at least 4 million skilled craftsmen.

However, despite the demand, those already working in the field say it is not easy to find work.

Peng Bangfu, 46, has been a carpenter for more than 11 years. Together with eight of his neighbors from Xinyang, Henan province, he works mainly in smaller cities. However, he said word of mouth remains the major source of work.

"My team usually contracts the carpentry of an entire building, but it's difficult to find large projects," he said. "On days when we're not so lucky, I'm willing to do odd jobs to bring in more cash for my family."

Working at odd jobs pays around 200 yuan a day. Labor contractors will earn a little more, 300 yuan a day on average, and 600 yuan on a good day.

"Normally, I'm able to earn about 4,000 yuan a month. I've managed to make more than 10,000 yuan several times, but I had to work from dawn to dusk, at least 12 hours a day, for over 20 days nonstop," said the middle-aged man whose weather-beaten face and gnarled fingers make him look older than his years.

"When I have work to do, I live in a portable shelter on the construction site. My fellow workers' wives cook for us. Apart from playing mahjong, which is very rare, and watching television, I have no way to kill time," he said.

Peng and his fellow workers are now used to life without scheduled days off or holidays. When times are bad, they might have no work for a month.

Like many other craftsmen, Peng seldom signs a contract. Consequently, he usually has a difficult time before Spring Festival, because he has to beg for his wages. During this time, he makes only around 2,000 yuan a month from odds jobs, because his time is taken up by trying to get the wages he is due.

Peng supports his wife and their four children. Having dropped out of school at senior high, the fact that his two daughters are studying at university is his biggest pride and joy.

"Of course my job requires lots of manual labor. But I'm already content, being able to support my family. I would hate to see my children carry on my job. It is my dream to see them grown up as intellectuals," he said.

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