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Clean Starts

Home economics courses are increasingly common in universities aiming to cultivate professionals to meet growing demand. But lingering social stigmas around domestic work are affecting enrollment and hindering the industry

By Xu Ming , Chen Shulian Updated Sept.1

In July, the first class to be awarded a bachelor’s in home economics at Shanghai Open University graduated. Their graduation, a first for the city, has renewed online debate over the necessity of a university program for janitorial and domestic work.  

“Does this mean nannies will have to compete with college grads for jobs?” a netizen asked on Sina Weibo.  

“It’s a major that has been long misunderstood. We’re not college students-turned-nannies,” said Liu Chao, a home economics degree holder who now trains staff at a housekeeping services company.  

Many in the industry said that undergraduate courses do not aim to train domestic workers. Instead, their main focus is to cultivate managerial and teaching professionals, much like MBA programs.  

Amid growing demand for skilled housekeepers and government efforts to boost the sector, insiders say these targeted majors will help standardize the industry. 

Serving the People
In May, a video clip of a nanny in Jinan, Shandong Province speaking with a toddler in English while playing went viral on social media. According to the comments sections, this seemed to challenge the prevailing stereotype of nannies in China – uneducated, low-skilled workers from the countryside.  

But as living standards improve, demand for higher skilled services such as home tutoring, financial management and family nutrition are rapidly emerging.  

Zhuo Changli, Party secretary of Jinan-based domestic service provider Yangguang Dajie (Sunny Sister), told NewsChina that the industry covers 200 services that require highly trained professionals.  

The British Butler Institute of China Campus, an institution affiliated with the London-based UK Butler Guild Service Group, has produced high-end housekeeping and property management professionals for the past 20 years. Its clients include many on the Forbes World’s Billionaires List.  

Company founder Guo Liang noted that among the 15,000 butlers trained at his school, 50 percent hold a bachelor’s degree and 20 percent have a master’s degree.  

Lack of trained professionals affects the industry at all levels. Yao Hong, who owns Beijing-based housecleaning company Chuanyu Aunties (Chuanyu refers to Sichuan Province and Chongqing, whose domestic workers are reputed for their professionalism), told NewsChina he once tried to find a housekeeper for a retired professor who could also provide him with intellectually stimulating conversation. But it was hard. “Most of the people I could find were poorly educated,” Yao said.  

Among the 750,000 domestic workers in Shanghai, less than 5 percent hold a degree, according to data from Shanghai Home Service Industry Association.  

When Chen Zhe first opened his high-end domestic service provider Downton Family, he said not one applicant had a degree, even for management positions.  

Shanghai faces a shortage of 200,000 highly skilled domestic professionals over the next five years, Lu Qi, director of the School of Public Administration at Shanghai Open University, said during the opening ceremony for its home economics course in December 2020.  

“Education in secondary schools and junior colleges is no longer enough to meet market demand,” Lu said.  

In April, Hebei Normal University held its first job fair for home economics majors. More than 36 companies from Beijing, Tianjin and Hebei Province offered more than 750 positions, 28.8 times the number of graduates.  

“The supply of professionals that can teach home economics in colleges and train domestic workers at agencies is far behind market demand,” Guo Liang said. 

Fresh Careers 
The home economics program at Shanghai Open University offers a range of courses to cover the growing industry, from home economics management and family education to psychology, nutrition and family health management.  

Previously, only junior colleges and secondary vocational schools offered domestic services training. In 2003, Jilin Agricultural University became the first college in China to offer a home economics course. Over 20 universities followed suit.  

Their focuses vary. Zhejiang Shuren University, a private college in Zhejiang Province which was among the first in China to provide vocational education in the 1990s, specializes in housekeeping services, while Hunan Women’s University focuses on management and education.  

“China has established a multi-layered cultivation system for home economics ranging from secondary vocational education, junior colleges, undergraduate and graduate education, each having different goals,” Li Chunhui, director of the College of Home Economics at Hebei Normal University, told news website dzwww.com in November 2022.  

Li said that secondary vocational schools concentrate on skilled service workers for families and communities, while junior colleges focus on specific skills and corporate management. Undergraduate education targets management and training, while graduate programs focus on producing executive-level talent for companies and schools, as well as research and teaching professionals.  

“That’s why we want universities to have the undergraduate program. We need excellent talent for management too,” said Downton Family founder Chen Zhe.  

In 2021, Hebei Normal University offered master’s programs in elderly care, child development and early education, and family nutrition. The university now has 1,400 full-time students majoring in these fields.  

Zhuo Changli, who called for the industry’s upgrading during the two sessions, the country’s legislative meetings held in March, noted that university courses will provide the systematic professionalism necessary to boost talent cultivation, overall industry development and the integration of education and industry.  

Li Lin, a cleaner in her 50s with Yao’s company who has worked in the industry for over 10 years, sees the changes as positive. “In Beijing, for example, there are demands beyond the capability of people of our age,” said Li, who used to be a teacher in her hometown of Chongqing. She has since been trained in babysitting, cleaning and general domestic work.  

But she said practical experience is most important – especially for managerial and training personnel. “Studying is one thing. Working in actual scenarios is another. Only by integrating what they learn at college with practical work can they do a good job,” Li said. 

Industry Boom 
More importantly, cultivating talents in colleges is part of China’s long-term plan to meet demand, create jobs and standardize the industry.  

In 2022, the number of people in China aged 65 and older surpassed 209 million. Those above 60 are expected to reach 400 million by 2035, more than 30 percent of the total population. In 2021, China expanded its child birth policy to three children per married couple. Experts predict these changes will spur demand for household services.  

Data from Reportrc.com, an industry research platform, shows that between 2015 and 2021, the scale of China’s housekeeping market quadrupled from 277.6 billion yuan (US$38.7b) to 1.01 trillion yuan (US$139.6b).  

There are already 30 million people working in China’s domestic services industry. However, another 20 million are needed: Domestic services remained among the top 10 professions suffering the greatest labor shortages in 2022, according to China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the bleak job market amid China’s economic downturn. In June, youth unemployment soared to 21.3 percent, a record high since 2018.  

China has released policies to boost the industry. In an unprecedented guidance released in 2019, the State Council suggested setting up home economics courses in at least one university, several vocational colleges per province and expanding enrollment.  

In October 2021, China released another document saying it will develop the domestic services sector in the next five years to facilitate central government-driven rural revitalization efforts. Among other measures, it stipulated financial support for enterprises and enhanced vocational cultivation, which aim to improve professionalism and better enable workers from rural areas to find jobs by 2025. Similar policies rolled out in 2022 and 2023.  

“Enhancing talent cultivation will help ease labor shortages and employment concerns, as well as promote the overall industry. An industry without high-quality talent cannot develop well,” said Yao from Chuanyu Aunties, who worked in online education before starting his business in 2021.  

“Demand for household services keeps growing, but migrant workers in their 50s and 60s, the main source of workers in the sector, will gradually retreat from the market and few young people want to take their places. Highly educated talent could help train migrant workers to better meet market demands. Training also decreases substandard practices in the industry,” Yao said.  

In 2022, Zhejiang Province encouraged college graduates to start up domestic service-related businesses, providing loans up to 500,000 yuan (US$69,088) with promises to cover at least 80 percent of the loan if they fail.  

On July 13, 16 government departments led by the Ministry of Commerce jointly issued a document encouraging college graduates to work in and start businesses in the domestic services industry. Besides encouraging such companies to hold job fairs on campuses, the document makes young entrepreneurs eligible for government subsidies.  

Yao said the low threshold for workers on app-based housekeeping platforms is partly to blame for the industry’s stagnated development. “Professional training is rare at most companies, let alone the standardization of equipment,” Yao said.  

The majority of those on housekeeping apps work part-time and lack professional training. Yao said all his cleaners are full-time employees. After their shift they meet for more training to improve their service.  

“They receive professional guidance on how to wipe a table or how to clean a range hood. They are equipped with professional tools like steam cleaners for kitchens. We try to do it professionally instead of muddling along,” Yao said, adding “I believe people who enter the field with a college background will make a difference too.”  

Li from Chuanyu Aunties said she does not worry about losing work in the transformation. “There’s sufficient demand. If I can’t provide high-end services, I can do low-end ones. I can also go home. I’m confident as long as I’m doing the job right and recognized by customers,” Li said. 

Pride vs Pay 
There are signs of improvement. Half of Chen’s current management team have university degrees. Zhuo Changli said those of her staff who received professional training and higher education have grown to become integral members of her team.  

Rising salaries reflect the industry’s growth. Most of Liu Chao’s former classmates earn more than 500,000 yuan (US$69,088) a year as housekeeping services managers.  

The monthly salary for experienced nannies in big cities has surpassed 20,000 yuan (US$2,762), almost double the average income of an entry level white-collar job. Butlers with five to 10 years of experience earn between 40,000-80,000 yuan a month (US$5,524-11,049), Guo Liang said.  

Ordinary cleaners in Beijing earn 8,000 yuan (US$1120) a month, Li said. She used to earn up to 7,000 yuan (US$980) a month as a caretaker for children and the elderly in her hometown.  

But despite better pay, social stigma remains a tremendous barrier for the industry to attract new workers and grow. “Many deem jobs involving attending to people as inferior. This will gnaw away at their senses of achievement and honor,” said Guo.  

Several industry insiders said those born between 1960 and 1985 make up the bulk of the industry’s workforce. Many younger people are reluctant to enter the profession due to family and societal pressures.  

Xu Guixin, who holds a master’s degree from Hebei Normal University, told dzwww.com that the majority of undergraduates from his domestic services program chose to work in schools or other professions. Only a few went to housekeeping or elderly care companies.  

“We’re going in the right direction. But more concrete measures are needed to increase the sense of pride in the profession to attract more young people,” Yao said.  

Li admitted that it takes swallowing one’s pride to get into the industry, even for people at her age. “You need to stop dwelling on losing face. There’s nothing to be ashamed of as long as we work hard and earn a living with our hands,” Li said.

The first group of undergraduate students to major in home economics at Hebei Normal University learn Chinese-style napkin folding in a practical skill training class, Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, December 6, 2023 (Photo by VCG)

Yao Hong (center), owner of Chuanyu Aunties, shows his staff how to use a steam cleaner (Photo Courtesy of Yao Hong)