Israel's high-tech industry leaders say they are worried that the country's schools are failing to train enough young people for engineering and other critical professions.
"We have concrete estimates that we are short some 8,000 to 10,000 software and hardware engineers, and the number is growing from year to year," said Elisha Yanai, chairman of the Israel Association of Electronics and Information Technology Industries.
"In another five years the number will have reached 20,000," Yanai said. "The number of students who began science studies rose from to 8,000 a year in 2005, but since then the number hasn't moved, while demand is still growing."
Executives are concerned enough that they are sponsoring programs to identify promising talent in high school and give them an early introduction to science and technology. The "Three to Five" project helps struggling students from the periphery to gain skills in mathematics, physics and English. "High Tech Channels" puts 250 newly-demobilized soldiers through 14 months of similar studies to ready them for the pre-university psychometric exam.
Like many other Israeli industries, high-tech had relied on the wave of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to supply the growing demand for skilled personnel. In the 1990s, the Engineers Association sponsored retraining programs for immigrant engineers whose specialty was in areas where there was little or no local demand - for instance agricultural, bridge and tunnel specialists - to work in computer software and hardware.
Some 20,000 immigrants went through the program. "But they were already in their 40s and we lost them [to the labor market] quickly, and the shortfall grew," Yanai recalled.
The technology sector is looking to the Haredim and Israeli Arabs as new sources of untapped human capital. But the industry cannot undertake the massive training task by itself, he said.
"With all due respect to volunteer programs, the government must take the Haredim and the Arabs and do what we did with the Russians and train them to work in high-tech," said Yanai. "At the same time, we must increase the budgets available to institutions like the Technion, Tel Aviv University and Ben-Gurion University so that the number of science students grows by 1,000 a year."
He added that Israel needs to double its high-tech exports, which today stand at about $25 billion annually, to ensure its place in the global industry, and that it can only happen if there are enough trained personnel.
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