Getting Israelis Back Onto the Factory Floor

Industry is critically short of skilled workers, a gap that a planned vocational training program aims to fill.

Employers are working with the government on a plan to bring vocational training back to Israel, in an effort to fill the shortfall of skilled manpower in fields like metalworking that was created by the closure of trade schools in the 1990s.

Those missing skills are a threat to the industrial sector of the country's economy, said Zvika Ackerstein, the executive vice president of Ackerstein Inudstries.

"The real threat to industry in Israel is the problem of manpower," he said. "There is a serious shortage of skilled professionals like welders, metalworkers and electricians - skills that vocational education once trained for but no longer exist. We are short scores of people - 20 or 30 metal workers, 20 electricians and at least five engravers."

Many of the factories owned and operated by Ackerstein have long had a severe shortage of welders and milling machine operators, and the average age of those the company does employ is 63. As a result, a lot of metalwork is given to subcontractors, but those businesses are also rapidly disappearing from Israel's industrial landscape.

The average gross salary for a welder and milling machine operator is NIS 12,000 to NIS 14,000 a month.

A senior electrician overseeing a group of electricians can make NIS 18,000 to NIS 20,000, and a junior electrician can earn NIS 14,000.

Insane shortage

"The problem isn't the salary but the insane shortage of people in the economy with the skills," said Ackerstein.

Ackerstein Industries is just one example of a company with growth potential that it can't realize because of the national skills shortage. The shortage of workers with the appropriate skills is a problem shared by companies in the industrial, tourism, construction and defense sectors. This challenge is weighing down on the economy's growth and making Israeli companies less competitive.

Now, after years of complaints, the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations, an umbrella group headed by Manufacturers Association president Zvi Oren that represents most employers' associations in the country, is in the process of formulating a comprehensive plan for addressing the issue.

The effort is being discussed in the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry and the Education Ministry, with the aim of bringing a proposal to the next cabinet for a vote. The goal is to establish a network of "advanced skill centers" for students across the country that will train them for a wide range of skills and trades where various sectors of the economy face critical shortfalls.

Under the employers' plan, a number of high school-level study centers will be established. They will combine general studies, like math, English and science, with practical training and hands-on experience.

Classes will be held in new or existing schools, or in new trade schools to be established at plants similar to current schools at the Israel Aerospace Industries, alternative energy provider Ormat Industries and in industrial parks. These will also be used for adult retraining of the unemployed or recently demobilized soldiers.

The location of these centers and the choice of courses will be determined on a geographic basis, taking into account local labor needs.

At the Ramat Hovav industrial area in the Negev, for example, training would focus on the needs of companies in the area, which are seeking employees knowledgable in chemistry, metalworking, computerized warehouse administration and industrial-level electrical work. But a training center established at the Caesarea industrial park would focus on professions needed at the nearby Hadera power station, such as those involving electricity and electronics, computerized machinery, wood technology, plastics and metals.

Students will be eligible to receive professional certificates and able to further their professional studies in institutions recognized by the Education Ministry.

The plan calls for the business sector to take part in developing curricula and methods for testing the qualifications of job candidates.

Under the plan, there will be three models for professional training. The first, suited to trades like metalworking, welding, lathing, milling, carpentry, electrical professions, auto mechanics, wiring and soldering, hairstyling and cooking, would include a gradual training process in the 11th and 12th grades. At first students will assist the instructor with simple tasks and will then advance to more complex assignments until they are able to work independently.

The second model is apprenticeship at a plant beginning in the second half of 11th grade. This is appropriate for more intricate jobs involving the operation of machinery and complex systems. The third model is the "educational plant" method, which combines hands-om experience with school workshops.

The government budget for adult retraining is currently NIS 30 million per year. Oren said the education and industry, trade and labor ministries have "plenty of money for training," adding that advocates of the vocational program think those funds will be enough to cover it.

Out of balance

"Professional training in Israel has gone completely out of balance," says Michal Tzuk, director of employment at the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. "Even the budgets director says this is a growth engine, so we need to invest in resources."

According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel suffers a greater shortage of computer engineers than blue-collar workers.

The Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations' Zvi Oren, however, says more emphasis should be put on the latter.

"Engineers have good institutions but what they need is better marketing," he said. "In blue-collar work, someone destroyed the vocational schools and the system needs to be rebuilt from scratch."

The education system Oren envisions will include an academic angle, including Bible study and math; a vocational one, featuring high-level training centers with high-quality equipment; and practical, where students will work in industry for pay at least one day a week.

Oren said he has appointed a committee I appointed a council at his federation to establish the system needed by "the entire business sector."

"Every Jewish mother now prefers that her son be a frustrated lawyer than an excellent welder, and this needs to be changed," said Oren. "A person born with smart hands is no less worthy of respect than one born with a smart head. This obviously needs to go along with a decent salary. We need to bring about a situation where students reach this system for the positive reason of having technical ability, not negative reasons like being unfit to matriculate."

Tomer Appelbaum