The development and extension of business in the 1980s created a demand for more high-quality technical personnel. At that time, however, university graduates in China were allocated by the state, which made them a scarce resource for all enterprises and institutions competing for them. SEM’s location in Qingzhou, a tier-4 city in Shandong Province, made the company less competitive compared to competitors located in provincial cities or even in the capital of China. In 1984, company leadership entrusted the TV University to cultivate graduates majoring in mechanical engineering by selecting students who failed in the college entrance examination and funding their college studies.
Photo of Graduates in 1987 of TV University Funded by SEM
In 1982, 16-year-old Yizhi Cai took the college entrance examination. She did not reach the minimum passing score for admission due to limited education resources in China at that time. Two years later, Cai applied for admission to the TV University of SEM after learning about its enrollment information from her teacher. Some of her classmates had been non-state-run school teachers, while some had taken examinations for township cadres. When asked why she applied, Cai’s answer was straight-forward: “Just for the opportunity to learn more knowledge.”’
Cunyu Zhao’s story is similar to Cai’s. In 1984, the 21-year-old Zhao had already left his hometown to work after failing his college entrance examination. Fortunately, he immediately learned of TV University of SEM from family members who saw the news in a newspaper. The opportunity rekindled Zhao’s dream of attending the university. He quit his job and returned to his hometown to prepare for the exam.
Still, realizing his college dream was never easy. The admission examination was a national-level standardized one. Zhao recalled that to excel on the exam, he studied at home all day for a month. He was not good at composition, so he did tons of writing exercises, refined each one carefully, summed up the experience and lessons and memorized them. “In this way, after a month’s preservation, ranking 9th, I was admitted to the TV University of SEM. My college dream came true at last!” said Zhao. Zhao recalled that time with excitement and pride. In addition to Zhao, those enrolled at the TV University in 1984 included Cai and 88 other students who had graduated from high schools.
SEM’s leadership placed a high value on cultivating talent. The company spared no effort to provide the TV University students with superior learning conditions. Zhao, who is a technical expert today, recalled: “90 of us were grouped into two classes. SEM covered all our tuition and invited well-known professors from Tianjin University and Jilin Industrial University to give us mechanical courses. Moreover, SEM offered a 12-yuan allowance per month for each student.” Those 90 students repaid their three years of hard work at the university with passion and dreams.
Work Hard to Repay SEM
Their curriculum consisted of 24 courses to be finished in three years, covering all the content of related majors for 4-year college students. Each semester, they took a nationwide examination to assess their learning outcomes, and all scores would be recorded in their credits. Students that failed three courses were dismissed. However, TVU, as the name suggests, teaches by TV. Yizhi Cai, now a process engineer, said: “We sat in a classroom and watched TV lectures, so we could not ask questions or communicate with teachers face-to-face. Thus, we jotted down questions in ordered to later have pair discussions, group discussion or even have a discussion all together. All just to have a thorough understanding of every knowledge point!”
Zhao said he never went to sleep before 12 midnight in the three years of study at school. “At that time, we had so many courses to study and such heavy academic pressure. But everyone was highly motivated and nobody wanted to lag behind. It offered us such a good chance!”
SEM invited famous professors periodically to give students face-to-face lectures, and encouraged the students to study and practice in labs. For Cai, it was all very motivating. “Even though the conditions then were worse than today’s, I still felt very happy! We had no distractions at all and had no time to think about dressing up. What we learned was very solid and had lifelong benefits!” Cai, with short gray hair and wearing a SEM uniform, had tears in her eyes while remembering those days gone by.
After three years of hard work, 78 of the 90 students passed the theoretical and practical examination of all subjects such as advanced mathematics, higher physics, English, theoretical mechanics and machinal transmission. In 1987, Zhao formally joined the Processing Department of SEM and took responsibility for parts and tooling design. Cai was also assigned to the same department and became one of the earliest female engineers.
To apply knowledge and theories for practical use was a challenge for both students and leaders. As the first group of technical expertise cultivated by the company, these TVU youths had to improve and perfect process regulations without any mentors to guide them. They did their utmost to “cross the river while feeling the stones” while embracing their slogan “Work hard to repay our SEM.”
Photo of a Practical Operation
Cunyu Zhao often stayed up until 2 or 3 a.m. to draw parts. “Many theories need to be tested. When I try to design parts, I find that according to the strict requirements in books, they are even undetectable and need to be adjusted based on the actual situation.” Cai shares the same feeling as Zhao. “We feel that study is not something done once for all. So, we keep learning while working. We learned from professors at the TV University and we must learn from those experienced mentors during work!” They tried to find a balance between theory and practice. They repeated drawings, verification, improvement and re-verification and went back and forth between offices and workshops every day. Today when they get together, they often swap jokes. “If we had pedometer apps then, our steps would be tops among Wechat Sports.” Those TVU students have become the backbone of SEM in technology R&D, process quality management and operations through years of study and practice.
Defense of Graduation Projects
“Do Their Utmost and Grasp the Nettle”
In the 21st century, China has enjoyed rapid growth in its economy and great changes in its educational system and talent markets. To maintain its competitiveness, SEM continues to attract talent through various measures and introduces advanced technologies and international management concepts. After being a wholly-owned subsidiary of Caterpillar, 6 Sigma and the CPS system have been gradually introduced to SEM, which has reduced the break-even point from 10,000 to 6,000, a best-level index in the industry.
Having undergone many reforms and changes, the graduates of TV University remain as passionate as ever about their jobs. And three years of high-intensity learning and pioneering practices have made them a group of people who always “do their utmost and grasp the nettle.”
Zhao says the first 6 Sigma Black Belt training held by the company in 2004 made him realize the possibility of advancement and the practicality of 6 Sigma. He stayed at home during Chinese National Day holidays for seven days to master the analysis tool. He studied day and night, took a lot of notes and often utilized an English dictionary. At last, he passed the certification. His quality reconstruction project of CPI can receive company-level awards every year.
Cunyu Zhao at Work
Yizhi Cai has been re-employed by the company after her retirement. She is responsible for process planning of parts mechanical processing and formulation and design. With her rich experience, strong communication skills in the technical area and excellent teamwork spirit, related business with other departments can be quickly addressed and effectively solved. Her rigorousness and efficiency stimulates younger technicians.
A loader is produced through hundreds of processes with thousands of components, accomplished by the lifetime devotion of many people. Cunyu Zhao married one of his classmates in TVU; as did Yizhi Cai. These couples have supported each other through ups and downs and have devoted themselves to the company for decades. 34 years ago, they enrolled at the TVU funded by SEM. It fulfilled a dream of going to college and paved the way to a satisfying career.
Family Photo of Zhaos
The TVU today is a concept of the past. However, the pioneering spirit of the entrepreneurs are remembered as the essence of the SEM story. Cunyu Zhao and Yizhi Cai are just two of the thousands of hard-working SEM workers. Their careers will continue to be guided by that pioneering spirit and loyalty.