High-tech leaders fear low-tech drought

Stagnation in schools creating 'tremendous void' of practical engineers.

By HAVIV RETTIG
September 21, 2006 22:51
4 minute read.
High-tech leaders fear low-tech drought

Tech chip 88. (photo credit: )

 
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For several years, high-tech industry leaders have expressed frustration at the growing gap between the increasingly advanced needs of technological industries and what they call the "stagnation" of technology education in Israeli schools. Now, the lack of that education is leading to a crisis in the high-tech industry, industry leaders told The Jerusalem Post this week. While Israel's per-capita number of theoretical engineers and high-tech designers is among the highest in the world, there is a severe shortage of practical engineers, those who build and service the machines involved in actual production, industry leaders say. Elisha Yanay, senior vice president of global giant Motorola and general manager of local subsidiary Motorola Israel, told the Post that the deficit of practical engineers constituted "a very serious problem" for Motorola Israel and the industry as a whole. Uri Uring, deputy director-general of defense electronics company Elbit Systems Ltd., complained of a "tremendous void" of machine engineers skilled in computerized manufacturing. Without the qualified, expert manpower that high-tech production requires, "we simply can't compete with overseas companies," warned Avi Avidor, the owner of a computer chip processing plant and chairman of the metals department in the Industry and Craftsmanship Union, which represents medium-sized companies in Israel. The problem, industry leaders agree, is twofold. First, technology education has deteriorated significantly in the past few years as budgets were slashed and the focus shifted toward liberal arts and matriculation-centered education. Second, there is a stigma attached to production-centered engineering that identifies it as the blue-collar labor of the high-tech industry despite the leaps made in production technologies and in the training required to implement and develop these technologies. The damage created by this gap, industry managers say, is enormous. "It comes to vast amounts of lost revenue," said Avidor, since "many high-tech companies are moving to the East." "At the end of the day," Yanay said, the problem lay with "the educational system, its points system [in high school], and its matriculation certificates, which lead students to seek out classical [non-technical] educations." The minimal technical education that did exist today, added Avidor, was basic and employed equipment "that is thirty years old and has no connection with modern equipment." For Avidor, "You simply can't train qualified people that way." The complaints from the industry don't surprise Itay Goldfarb, Director of Colleges for ORT Israel. "Ten years ago the educational system defined passing the matriculation exam as its goal for Israeli schoolchildren," he explained. "So technological education became an expensive burden, since it involves purchasing machines, and it slowly disappeared." According to Dr. Iris Hazan, principal of Tel Aviv's ORT Syngalowsky College, the chief problem is that "school principals don't come from technological fields. They all studied literature." For a serious change to take place in the educational system, the most urgent need is for "the system to undergo a process of technological rethinking. The principals have to believe in this for it to work." Instead, she lamented, "Principals are measured by matriculation exams." This means that "cutting physics and adding literature, since it will raise the matriculation scores in his school, are in his interest." "If we don't change this way of measuring school principals," Hazan warned, "there won't be technology in this country. The technology we're so proud of simply won't be here." The most frustrating part for high-tech companies is that they cannot find qualified people for work that is both important and high-paying. Despite the fact that "among our graduates there are virtually no unemployed and starting salaries are NIS 7,000 a month," said Hazan. "We have to fight for every student." The problem, she agreed, lay with the image of the practical engineer. "In the 1980's, a professional technical education was prestigious. Today, Jewish mothers prefer lawyers, accountants, doctors, less technological professions." Goldfarb, for his part, wants to see the industry invest in making a career in production-centered engineering more attractive. "The industry has to advertise that a practical engineer has an almost-guaranteed job," he told the Post, promising that "this will bring thousands to the profession." Many other suggestions have been proposed to correct the shortage. Some want to see high-tech corporations "adopting" schools and turning them into technological greenhouses. Others, such as Hazan, believe the problem is centered around the priorities and interests of school principals. Most, however, agree that the main address for dealing with the problem lies with the Education Ministry. "This was and will continue to be the job of the Education Ministry," said Yanay. No other institution can create the "serious combined plan" that Yanay would like to see in place to train practical engineers for the needs of the industry. The only way to fix the problem, he said, was through "a working group that combines all the forces at work here." For Yanay, this group must "increase the budget of the Education Ministry, give practical engineering students better accreditation, assure that they have jobs waiting for them, add technology education hours into school curricula and bring the industry to exercise more pressure on the system." To start solving the problem properly, Avidor said, "cabinet ministers must visit high-tech factories and learn about the effects of missing engineers." Only this "will convince policy-makers of the enormity of the problem," he believed. For its part, an Education Ministry spokesman told the Post that the ministry "views cooperation with technological industries as a top priority, and runs joint projects that bring students into contact with technology in several industries." According to the spokesman, "The ministry understands the vitality of such projects, the combination of practical work with theoretical studies."

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