For the young apprentices in an Austrian-led plastics training program in Shanghai, starting work at age 15 in a foreign-owned company can be a chance to follow a different path than their peers.
Rather than slogging through school and cramming for China's intensely competitive college entrance exam, the gao kao, they get a more hands-on education.
Barry Sun, a 17-year-old who has been an apprentice at Engel Holdings GmbH for two years, said his school steered him to the training program, called Austrian Apprenticeship Shanghai.
"I like DIY and I like machines, so my teacher suggested I check this out," he said. "I could come to Shanghai and it could be different from what the other kids are doing. We enter the workforce earlier and we enter the society earlier."
Plus, Sun said he likes the spending money that comes from the stipend all apprentices get.
"I buy my own clothes," Sun said proudly, showing off his taste in fashion in his hop-hop inspired after-work attire.
The students — there are 60 of them training with injection machine maker Engel, Austrian plastic packaging firm Alpla Werke Alwin Lehner GmbH & Co KG and German connector solutions company Odu — are in a program that mixes on-the-job training and classwork modeled on Austria's youth apprenticeship system.
For example, all have their room and board at the Shanghai Information Technology College paid for by their employers. Some of them come from other cities in China.
It's a significant investment for the companies. Engel, for example, said it spends 4.2 million Chinese yuan ($620,000) on equipment, five full-time trainers in Shanghai, classroom space and continuous support from professional trainers in Austria.
The company's recent expansion in Shanghai includes an area that will partly house the apprentice program's workshop.
"We are also showing them a career path, because going through the apprenticeship program as a CNC technician certainly does not mean that that all of them will be CNC technicians until they retire," said Engel General Manager Peter Garimort. "In order to keep them we have to keep being an attractive employer.
"We want them from the very first day on to feel like they're part of Engel," he said. "We want to make them interested in what they're doing."
In June, the first batch of apprentices graduated from the four-year program, and they had the opportunity to sit for both Chinese and Austrian certification tests, with examiners flown-in from Austria to administer it.
The graduates received both the official Chinese certificate and the traditional Austrian Lehrabschlussprufung. The eight graduates from Engel and 11 from Alpla had short vacations, and then two days later, were back at work, this time as full-time employees.