A direct flight out of poverty

Updated: Nov 12, 2020 China Daily Print
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Airline program offers job opportunities for recruits from impoverished areas

When Huang Peihua was young she liked to sit in a field and watch airplanes flying overhead, her imagination taking her to places she could only dream about.

"Back then I always thought the planes flew so high and moved so freely, and I wondered how it felt to sit up there," the 26-year-old said.

Now her dream has come true and the Air China flight attendant hopes to be a role model for young girls from difficult backgrounds such as herself.

Huang was born and raised in a poor village in Zhaoping county, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. In 2015, a total of 69,900 out of 448,000 people in the county lived in poverty. Huang's family was among them.

Her father had seasonal work operating an excavator, while her mother did odd jobs at a local diner and a factory. The family's combined monthly income over the past decade has averaged 6,000 ($900) to 7,000 yuan ($1,060), but they remained in financial trouble as they had three children at school.

To help out, Huang did household chores after school to free her parents up to work paying jobs.

Taking off

Thanks to Air China's poverty alleviation project, Huang was hired as a flight attendant in 2018 and her family's financial situation has greatly improved since then.

She earns 7,000 to 8,000 yuan a month.

"The company's employee welfare package is good and unlike my parents, I get a stable monthly salary," she said.

Air China launched a series of poverty alleviation programs in Zhaoping in 2013. Three years later, it started a recruitment project in the county, which has resulted in 43 people, mostly from poor families, being hired. Eleven of the employees work as flight attendants, the company said.

In 2018, Huang received a phone call from the poverty liaison officer appointed to her family who informed her about the airline's special recruitment program.

At that time, she worked as a primary schoolteacher in nearby Hezhou City and earned 2,000 to 3,000 yuan a month.

After graduating from Guangxi University of Foreign Languages in 2016 with an education major, Huang worked at a tutoring center for a year and then the primary school for another year.

"I didn't even want to try (to become a flight attendant) because I thought the job was too fancy for me. I was not qualified," she said.

However, her sister convinced her there was no harm in applying for the position. Even though she was nervous, Huang did well at the recruitment interview and was accepted into the training program.

The first time she traveled by air was when she flew from Guilin in Guangxi to Beijing to start her training. Huang remembers looking at the flight attendants distributing water and meals and envying their beauty and elegance.

However, when she became a flight attendant, Huang realized that the job wasn't only about glamour. It also involved responsibilities such as handling emergencies and keeping anxious passengers calm.

She conceded that the three months of training were hard. Huang had to learn civil aviation knowledge, including plane structures and emergency evacuation procedures.

Her first flight as a trainee was from Beijing to Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. "I barely dared to speak to the passengers at first," she said. "But my instructor is one of the best flight attendants at the company and she gave me a lot of help."

After shadowing her instructor for 10 flights and passing her examination, Huang became a qualified flight attendant.

She now flies about 50 to 60 hours a month, mainly from Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, to Sichuan Province and sometimes Beijing and Tianjin. "I used to communicate with young children as a teacher. Now I deal with all kinds of passengers, which is much more complicated," she said.

"I enjoy being a flight attendant, meeting all kinds of people and imagining their different ways of life."

Her family and friends are curious about her job. "They always ask me where I fly and what I do up in the air, as well as what my income is," she said.

Huang has bought goods for her family such as a motorcycle, a television and cupboards.

Huang poses with her parents and grandmother at their home in Zhaoping County, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region. [China News Service/Jia Tianyong]

Local hero

Her mother, Ding Xiuling, is very proud of her daughter.

"Family and friends envy her good job," she said.

Qian Jiang, deputy head of the county, said Air China had strict recruitment standards. For example, flight attendants are required to have a bachelor's degree, with women applicants taller than 1.63 meters and men 1.73 meters.

They must also be fluent in Mandarin and English and pass psychological tests.

"But in poverty-stricken areas like Zhaoping, it is hard to meet all the requirements," Qian said. "We make it easier for applicants from the county and offer more training when they are hired."

Qian worked in the marketing and human resources department of Air China before he joined the county's poverty alleviation project as its deputy head in 2018.

He said an Air China salary can lift an entire family out of poverty, which is officially defined as an annual income below 4,000 yuan.

"It is also a change in social identity becoming an employee of Air China," Qian said.

The company is a platform to serve thousands of passengers and a bigger platform for employees to grow and learn how to serve and work with people, he said. Qian added that working in such a company broadens an employee's vision and helps them shake off the psychological shackles of poverty.

The company takes care of the recruits by offering them the best instructors and providing individual tutoring to remedy any of their shortcomings, Qian said.

"Some flight attendants hired through the project had a strong accent when they spoke Mandarin," he said.

"When they made announcements in the cabin, there were jokes and some misunderstandings. But that was OK. We offered them long-term training and now they fit the position and do their jobs well."

Qian said they tried not to stigmatize the employees as coming from a poverty program. "When they can forget they are from a 'special' group, they have been completely lifted out of poverty in their minds," he said.

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