For Israeli Students, Vocational Training Has Become a Political and Ethnic Football

Stigma once attached to trades is no longer useful or relevant in high-tech economy that needs more industry.

At a cabinet meeting marking the start of the school year, Education Minister Shay Piron presented a plan for upgrading vocational and technical education, an idea that would seem to be a source of little controversy.

But to his surprise, Piron met with an avalanche of criticism. The first was from Silvan Shalom, the minister of energy as well as regional development, who asked why it was the development towns that were the focus of the effort. "You won't bring back vocational education to the development towns," Shalom said. "If you want vocational education, by all means, but only if the ministers are ready to send their children and grandchildren to it. Only if vocational education is being returned everywhere will we agree: First North Tel Aviv, then Yeruham."

Piron was taken off guard. He said the vocational education was aimed at those who were likely to drop out of school and wouldn't take the bagrut (matriculation) exams. But Shalom was joined by Meir Cohen and Amir Peretz, perhaps not coincidentally the only three Sephardi Jews in the cabinet. Cohen and Peretz were both once development town mayors (Dimona and Sderot, respectively), and they have countless stories about how vocational education hurt their towns by directing the young generation into low-paying, low-status jobs.

This was certainly the wisdom in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Vocational education was the way to ensure that Mizrahi Jews from the periphery who weren't succeeding in academics would have skills to ensure them jobs as metal workers, electricians, secretaries and seamstresses. It forced people as young as 15 into vocational, rather than academic, tracks. The conventional view was that vocational education was a failure.

The fact is that the first step anyone takes on the way to the labor market is in the school system. That is where the first social gaps open, when the young are put into academic and vocational streams. The first leads you into the elite army units, the universities and high-paying professions; the second into low-paying, lower-status jobs.

But over the past three decades the Israeli economy has changed: Old economy industrial plants have shut down, and in their place high-tech companies have sprouted, while the financial sector has grown. All this leaves us with an economy that isn't productive enough and is geared toward finance, making it hard to expand and close the gap between our per capita gross domestic product with those of the world’s leading economies.

For 30 years industrialist Stef Wertheimer has been calling for diverting educational resources away from law and business and towards vocational training, to no avail. But now, after selling his company Iscar to Warren Buffett for $6 billion, people are starting to listen and understand the enormous value that industry can create - not just the value of the company that is built, but mainly the thousands of quality jobs it generates.

Iscar, however, is an exception. Industry's weight place in the economy has nearly halved since the 1970s, largely replaced by finance. The financial sector's share of economic output has skyrocketed from 5.6% in the 1960s to 24.6% in 2011, while the part of industry fell from 21.2% to 12.9%, according to an analysis by Zeev Rotem, CEO of Rotem Strategy.

Like everywhere else, only more so

This is consistent with the trend in other parts of the developed world, but here it has been much more extreme. The United States, too, is bemoaning the loss of its industry to the Far East now that millions of Americans have lost their jobs. Rotem believes Israel needs fewer bankers, realtors, investment consultants and insurance agents, but more engineers and technicians, and more investment in plant and equipment.

Nearly a decade ago the Dovrat Commission for educational reform insisted that it was the role of higher education rather than high schools to provide occupational training. However, the National Economic Council, the military and the industrialists favor putting occupational and technological training back into high schools.

Many studies have been done over the failure of vocational education in high schools. Research published by the Bank of Israel three years ago established beyond a doubt that vocational education graduates did not climb nearly as high afterward as did those who from the academic tracks: They got less college education, their professional status was lower and for the most part they earned smaller salaries. The main benefit vocational training offers is in was reducing the high school dropout rate.

Researchers Noam Zussman and Shay Tsur studied the education system of the 1960s and early 1970s when half of all high school students were in a vocational program, compared to one-third today. Back then, the system forced youngsters into career paths, stigmatized them, gave them an inferior education and helped to widen inequality. So is it any wonder that the Sephardi ministers who grew up in the periphery are up in arms?

"Why do only 1% of the soldiers in information technology units come from the periphery?" asked Cohen. "Simply because they aren't trained for it. If more technological and scientific education was made available in the periphery, it would produce more doctors, scientists and soldiers serving in [the elite technology unit] 8200."

Shalom is convinced that vocational training has stood at the heart of Israel's class divide since the state was founded. "It’s a matter of social affiliation and career path," he said. “After all, no group permits the groups under it to advance. It isn't only the Ashkenazim who blocked the Mizrahi Jews. It's also true with the Mizrahi Jews and the Russians and Ethiopians."

Peretz claims that vocational education is being offered so officials can show a lower dropout rate and perhaps raise bagrut levels. "The moment you've put a 10th-grade student into vocational education you've perpetuated his self-image," he said. "If there's a lack of tradesmen, they should set up a regional high school to train them, but they shouldn't force only high school principals in development towns to open vocational classes."

Accentuating the positive

Having grasped the connotation that goes with vocational education, Piron changed his approach. Rather than make vocational training a default choice for struggling students, he said, it should be turned into a respectable option. "A mechanic in Germany working at Mercedes is highly esteemed," he says. "There’s a respect for blue collar professions. Why shouldn't we have the same here?"

There are three aspects to vocational training: Social, educational and economic, explained Piron. The economic aspect is clear: Israel needs highly skilled workers. Educationally, many children stand out for their manual abilities, but because academic tracks in the school don’t value those skills, the students feel frustrated.

Socially, Piron says people must learn that excellence can be defined in more than one way. "This can be done through education and a mass marketing campaign," he says. "We will open vocational schools not just in the periphery but also in the heart of the country. With improved quality, higher teaching standards and better funding, it will become clear that this isn't a cheap solution but an expensive and prestigious solution."

I believe his intentions are sincere. But Piron’s plans must be accompanied by more investment in manufacturing and less on finance, as well as building a sophisticated labor market. Setting ambitious goals for productivity, compensation and professional training are necessary conditions for building a new narrative for a productive economy.

Ofer Vaknin