Construction Workers and University Education in Taiwan

In a series of comments to my post about foreign construction workers in Taiwan, Chester advocated, in an August 29th comment, the hiring of foreign workers to create some sort of justice in the Taiwan labour market. He argued that if labourers are paid the market wage for their work, they would make more money than many university graduates and thus force Taiwanese to do that kind of work rather than study at school. This interference in the wage structure of construction labourers is one of the forces involved in the distortion of the market for post-secondary education that is currently problematic in Taiwan.

The first question we have to ask is why Taiwanese students go to university. I am frequently told that the reason Taiwan has so many universities is that Chinese parents want their children to go to university rather than work in factories or construction. Workers have told me a different story. Companies pay bachelor degree holders more even if the degree is from a school that is known to have no academic standard. The same is true for holders of master’s degrees. Even if the school is regarded as providing an inferior education, it’s graduate degree holders, if hired, will get paid more than bachelor degree holders.

But all this depends on if they get hired by the companies that pay the highest wages. It’s true that in the past, university graduation from one of the high quality programs, particularly at national universities, guaranteed employment at a high paying company. With expansion in the private school system, this is no longer the case. In a China Post article that didn’t make it to the website, Job Bank 1111, a well-known source of jobs in Taiwan, stated that vocational high school graduates who went in to what they called “hardhat work” made an average of almost nt$6,000 a month more than university graduates. In fact, the number they cited is almost as high as for university graduates in South Korea.

Let me expand on this issue of how much workers in construction can make. One of the managers that I quoted in the original post was at one time the vice-president of a leading local construction firm. I spoke with him the other day about the wages of construction tradesmen. According to him, a tower crane operator in Taiwan can make almost as much money as a Canadian tower crane operator. That’s right. In Taiwan, the operator of this kind of machine can make between 80 and 100,000 a month, which translates into about cd$42,000 a year. In Canada, a similar worker would make about cd$50,000 a year. He cited comparable figures for trades such as bricklayers, electricians, and plumbers.

But in a sense, why shouldn’t constructions tradesmen make more money that graduates of low-ranked university programs? Tradesmen actually know something. It’s doubtful that many of the graduates of the programs in question actually have knowledge of anything that an employer would want to pay for. The quality of education in most of the newly opened schools is so poor that their diplomas mean nothing. As a result, they can not get hired in the jobs I mentioned earlier.

But none of this answers the real question. In the past, university gradutes had a low starting wage. Because of their small number, they dominated professional positions in companies and the government, had good chances for promotion, and by the end of their career had received significant raises. In a market flooded with meaningless degrees, what becomes of university graduates?

While the reasons for the MOE’s recent expansion of post-secondary facilities are numerous and diverse, at least one of them is pressure from the public for more opportunity to avoid what happens to workers when they can’t get into university. The result of this has been the disastrous expansion of university teaching institutions that can offer absolutely no guarantee of quality. The artificially high wages for university graduates that Chester advocates have forced students and their parents to demand a university education that most will never be able to use.

The solution to this is clear. If the government can not provide enough white-collar employment for the poorly trained university graduates its universities are creating, it should be permitting the highly paid blue-collar employment that would exist in Taiwan if the wages in construction were not forced down by government intervention.

November 21, 2005 | Permalink

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