Educational Spat Leads to Shortage of Technicians in Startup Nation

With some 7,500 vacant technical positions each month, Israel’s technology colleges are failing to produce the workforce Israel requires. However, they blame the Education Ministry for the long-standing problem.

Dror Miller

Ongoing disagreement between the country’s technical colleges and the government is creating a shortage of technicians. And despite Israel’s reputation as the Startup Nation, Ido Hagai – the director of the Kinneret Technology College and one of the most vocal spokesmen on the colleges’ behalf – says the government is neglecting the country’s technological human resources.

There are 77 colleges in Israel, which are distinct from the country’s universities. The universities are generally much larger and offer broader, degree-granting programs and research activities. The colleges boast some 28,000 students, who are studying toward qualifications as technicians of various kinds.

The options include certification as a computer technician, work in the medical equipment field, agriculture, auto-mechanics, audiovisual and musical production, industrial design, photography and digital media, and many other disciplines.

The technical colleges claim the amount of current government funding they receive is driving them toward bankruptcy. However, the Economy Ministry, which provides the budgets for the technical colleges, says they must deliver more graduates before increased funding can be justified.

A 2008 report by the State Comptroller’s Office wrote that just 40% of students at the technical colleges completed their studies and earned a technician’s degree. Prior to the comptroller’s report, the government provided funding based on enrollment at each college, even if the students didn’t take exams and didn’t complete their studies, the Economy Minister noted. After the report was issued, the government proposed a new funding model that would back the colleges based on their output, requiring a graduation rate of 71% by 2019 – and only providing government funding to the colleges based on students who actually graduated.

The new formula, which came into effect for the 2011-2012 academic year, sparked a storm of protest from the colleges, who claimed the new funding approach would not provide the financial support they required.

The government is currently limiting funding to 9,500 shekels (about $2,500) per student studying to be a technician (compared, for example, to 12,000 shekels per student in the humanities fields). And since the current formula only provides funding based on 70% of the enrollment in technician programs, that leaves the per-capita government funding at about 6,500 shekels.

In 2013, the colleges came to an agreement with the economy and finance ministries on a multiyear funding plan. This provides for a 108-million-shekel safety net over seven years, although that would still fund only 70% of students, a level decided by the government.

Ofer Vaknin

Unrealistic demand

The chairwoman of the country’s technology college association, Dr. Yocheved Pinhasi-Adiv – who is the director of the design and technology center at Ariel University in the West Bank – says the Economy Ministry’s demand that at least 71% of students earn a certificate is unrealistic, since about 25% to 35% of students drop out before graduating.

The 71% figure, she claims, was set arbitrarily and without explanation. “The reality at the colleges does not permit them to achieve that percentage. There is a disparity between the lenient admissions requirements and the difficult [level of the] studies,” she says. As an example, she notes that although high-level math is not required for acceptance, the math skills the programs require are quite demanding.

“The lenient admissions criteria cause a large proportion of the students to fail and drop out, and they are unable to meet the requirements for a diploma. The diploma requirements involve passing the internal exams in the four mandated subjects, four external final exams required by the government, and a passing grade on a final project. It’s not an easy process. Some of the students transfer to academic ‘blackboard’ majors, some drop out without finishing because of the difficulty, and there are those who drop out because they find employment that doesn’t require a diploma.”

The reform, she says, included a provision that required the colleges to boost the graduation rate, on condition that the government improves pedagogical education at the colleges, a provision Pinhasi-Adiv says the government is not meeting. Proper oversight and external testing is lacking, even though the government committed to it, she claims.

The Economy Ministry has suggested the colleges become more efficient – for example, by closing the five colleges with student bodies of under 200 students – so the best colleges can continue to produce good technicians for the job market, which is in major need of them. In the second quarter of this year, the number of vacant positions for technicians of various kinds increased to an average of 7,500 per month, compared to 6,300 in the first quarter.

The Finance Ministry believes the multiyear plan that’s been put in place will make the technical colleges stronger and more efficient. “In addition to a substantial funding supplement, the plan also includes setting a minimum size for the funded colleges and a transition to a funding model based on outputs and graduation targets,” the ministry says. “In light of the major importance the Finance Ministry attaches to the subject, follow-up meetings are being held every two months over implementation of the plan with representatives of the Economy Ministry, the technical colleges and the student union,” the ministry adds.

The colleges are demanding that a government oversight agency be established for the technology colleges. This would be similar to the Council for Higher Education, which governs institutions of higher education in general. The colleges would like to see such a council promote technology education as a brand, in the same way the CHE promotes academic studies.

Will colleges down tools?

In fact, a technicians council was set up last year, headed by former Finance Ministry wage division director Yuval Rachlevsky, but its powers are limited. The council is a government entity involved in a number of issues, including the development of rules, accreditation of institutions, adapting education in the field to the needs of the marketplace, educational and testing oversight, and consideration of the needs of students who wish to continue at academic institutions of higher learning. However, unlike the CHE, the technicians council has no authority when it comes to government funding.

Although he ostensibly represents the government, Rachlevsky sides with the technical colleges. He says the scope of government funding is inappropriate to the colleges’ needs, as is the government’s 71% graduation rate stipulation. “With the existing disparities, the current system will not address the needs of the Israeli economy over the long term,” he warns.

“We need to change the entire system of colleges that deal with [occupational] training and adapt them to grant academic degrees in practical engineering,” with a Bachelor of Technology degree, he continues. “But doing that requires upgrading curriculums, labs and conditions. What the technology colleges need is a revolution that would take several years, certainly not in the next two years.”

The association of technology colleges is awaiting a meeting with Economy Minister Arye Dery and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon to discuss government funding and adjustments to the current educational approach.

“The government committed to adapt the provisions so the funding model would be adjusted and realistic,” Pinhasi-Adiv notes. “We are opening the new school year on October 18 as usual. But if the government doesn’t understand the importance of implementing the agreement in its entirety, one of the possibilities we are facing is a strike as part of a whole set of measures that will be taken.”