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April 22, 2013

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Graduates find opportunities in rural areas

WHILE many rural youth are swarming into downtown, some graduates who could have had a decent white-collar, urban job decided to go back to the fields.

Yao Jie, 27, is one of them. Born in the rural Shanghai district of Fengxian, she graduated from the Shanghai Industrial and Commercial Foreign Language School majored in business English. She worked as associate human resources specialist at state-owned China International Intellectech Corporation (Shanghai).

In December 2007, Yao learned that her home village was recruiting college graduates to serve as local officials. After applying and passing all the tests, she left her downtown apartment and urban lifestyle and returned to Fengxian, where her elderly parents still reside.

Yao is part of a national program started five years ago to encourage young college graduates and postgraduates to lend their talents to poorer countryside areas.

As an incentive, the volunteers are given titles as "village officials." Other sweeteners include government payment of student loans and "bonus points" that count when applying for other public service jobs or returning to do postgraduate study. For out-of-towners, the program is a leg-up in applying for permanent residency status.

By June 2012, 752 college and university graduates from Shanghai had taken up posts as assistant directors to village committees in nine rural suburbs. About 75 percent were women, according to the Shanghai Women's Federation.

Yao, now a committee member of Nanhang Village in Fengxian, was among the first to be accepted into the program. Last week, she attended the 14th Women's Congress in Shanghai as a representative of the village.

"I wanted to take care of my parents and do something for my hometown," Yao said of her decision.

In reality, Fengxian hardly seems a rural place anymore. It is only about two hours by Metro from downtown Shanghai and has a population of just over 1 million. The district is in transition from a primarily rural economy to an industrial base of electronics, furniture-making and auto parts.

Most young people have left the land to seek higher paying jobs, leaving the elderly, women and children to tend the traditional vegetable and poultry farms that remain.

Yao's father himself was a village official and her mother, a grocery shopkeeper in the village. As a child, she worked in the fields. As an only child, her parents wanted the best for her and paved the way for her to receive a college education.

Yao earned 2,000 yuan (US$324) a month as a village official - a salary much lower than her former job in the city and barely above Shanghai's minimum wage.

Yao confessed that returning to her rural roots was tough at first. She missed the downtown buzz and the chance to wear the latest fashions. She now dresses like a village girl to help locals accept her. Once she adjusted to life in the slow lane, she found it suited her.

"I have a stable job near my home," said Yao, who married a Fengxian local. "I have a 3-year-old child. I'm very happy. My city classmates laugh at my clothes whenever we get together. They know hardly anything about village life."

It would indeed be hard to explain to a city slicker.

When Yao first moved to the village, most of the work she did was clerical because she knew how to use a computer.

"Being among the first in the program, there were no precedents for us to follow," Yao said. "But we quickly learned that we could make things happen." Yao served as assistant to the director of the village committee for a few years. She was heavily involved in relocation work, acting as a mediator between villagers uprooted by urban development and property management teams in the new high-rises where they go to live. Yao was recently promoted to be in charge of women's issues in the village, getting a small boost in pay.

However, not all the graduates who have signed up for the program see their futures in the countryside. Many use the jobs as springboards to position themselves for higher employment in the civil service.

Among the first group of graduates in the Shanghai program, 121 of 191 went on to higher-paying public service jobs after completing their three-year contracts. Eight others returned to white-collar jobs, and only 62 stayed in the countryside.

"What we need are young people who are really passionate about rural work," said Song Lili, director of the Wusi Village committee in the Fengxian District. "I can understand graduates who take jobs as village official as a shortcut in their career advancement, but I believe that is not what the government program is all about."


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