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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Jewish Engineers: the heart of Zionism

Stef Wertheimer has a vitally important message for Israel, and for Zionism here. Israeli Engineers have become  the backbone of our economy, but Israel has always pursued educational and economic policies that favor "professionals" and entrepreneurs. The Zionist vision of Jews working at the heart of their own industries is the only way to guarantee Israel's success. We cannot allow ourselves to become a nation of outsourcers.
Israel is throttling the education of engineers and technicians, as well as creating unfavorable employment conditions that ensure a steady export of engineers to Boston and California.
Ami Isseroff
By Stef Wertheimer

I was saddened to read the article in Haaretz about the closing of the BASMAT technical high school in Haifa, which said the only part left of the school will be a commemoration room in a museum. I remember the glory days of BASMAT, and was chairman of the board from 1968 to 1975; unfortunately, I am also witnessing its decline. While it may seem that the school is closing because of general trends that could not be prevented, that is not the case. BASMAT was intentionally put to death -- just as trade education as a whole is being destroyed by the Education Ministry and the academic establishment.
For years, the Technion allowed top-tier BASMAT graduates into its engineering program automatically, but it has since stopped that practice. Like engineering departments in the universities, the Technion demanded excellence only in theoretical fields and did not consider those who underwent broad, in-depth professional training.
The education minister returned from Singapore with the revelation that trade schools are necessary, but is repeating the mistakes of her predecessors: designating work in the trades only for those who don't succeed elsewhere. I, however, say that despite the high value attributed to the study of law, communications and business administration, working creatively in a trade is the basis for a life of financial independence, dignity and personal development.

Today's education establishment is built only for children who want to "know about." But what about those who want to do, who want to be involved in making and producing? Why is this not allowed? The national and personal interest is being neglected in favor of matriculation certificates, so that all Israeli children will pass through the gates of the university. But this approach has failed. The education gaps are just getting wider.
The state must produce and sell in order to allow its citizens a life of dignity and wellbeing. Regardless of matriculation certificates, the educational establishment today is not creating conditions for its graduates to work and produce in order to advance themselves and the state. Trade education is meant for everyone; that's also a matter of principle. Zionism attempted to bring the Jews back to a life of creative health, but today's educational establishment is returning us to the Diaspora experience of luftgeschaft, the Yiddish term for non-productive work.
The schools I founded taught children who had been expelled from the educational system. They studied and worked at Iscar and joined the factory upon graduation. A significant proportion of the students who had previously been considered failures rose to managerial positions, including senior ones, at Iscar. Some of the schools should be in industrial zones. Managers and factory workers should be present in the educational system and have positions of responsibility in it. They would be happy to do this because they desperately need professional and skilled workers, which no educational institution is providing today. The students would also gain a broad general education, as a creative and cultured person should have. That has no connection to a matriculation certificate.
There is also a problem with higher education for the trades. The universities provide theoretical engineers, who have a wide knowledge base but not enough skills to work in the field. In the 1990s, I established a college that trained engineers for industry. In addition to theoretical knowledge, the school also taught management and business entrepreneurship, combined with practical physical work in factories. We met the requisite academic criteria and our graduates got tempting job offers, but we had to shut down the college because the Council for Higher Education did not allow us to grant degrees.
The system must stop envisioning the suitable graduate as a lawyer or a professor. A national priority list must be developed that will put trade education ahead of all other forms of education. As BASMAT -- the diamond in the crown of trade education -- shuts down, we must think about the future. The Technion should give preference to those with practical experience, and the academic establishment and Education Ministry should build a high-quality trade education system, to provide dignity to those who want to work. A state committee should be appointed to examine whether the education system meets today's needs and determine the right priorities for the state and all its citizens.
The author is an Israel Prize-winning entrepreneur who founded the Iscar metalworking company.

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