The coronavirus pandemic has left 850,000 unemployed or on unpaid leave in Israel, most hailing from the country's weakest sectors, while vocational training has practically ground to a halt due to a lack of funding.
The Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee was told Monday that the first four months of the crisis were effectively wasted by the government in terms of vocational training.
And with the way things are progressing, the committee heard, there is grave concern that the next few months will be no different.
The director of the Vocational Training Division at the Labor and Welfare Ministry, Dr. Rinat Cohen, presented data to the committee showing that the coronavirus hit as Israel was in the worst possible situation for professional training.
Israel's first pandemic relief plan was announced on March 31 and included NIS 200 million earmarked for professional training, which was intended to help those affected by the coronavirus to find new jobs. To date, none of that sum has been transferred to the Labor Ministry.
Furthermore, only NIS 12 million out of the country's NIS 64 million annual budget for vocational training has been transferred to the ministry.
Israel suffers from both a large number of workers with low professional skills and a very weak vocational training system, contributing to its low ranking for worker skill levels among OECD countries - placing 28th out of 34 countries. Moreover, Israel is ranked 24th out of 29 for workers' computer skills.
Israel's investment in vocational training for adults is among the lowest among OECD countries and stands at less than 0.4% of public expenditure on education, placing it in the bottom five places out of 19 countries surveyed.
In 2019, the division had NIS 30 million for vocational training, and another NIS 36 to fund vocational training with private entities.
The division's 2020 budget stood at NIS 4 million, since no state budget was approved due to the 18-month political impasse that only ended with the formation of the coalition in April. Another NIS 8 million was recently transferred, bringing the total for the year to one third of the 2019 budget.
"That is all we have," Cohen told the Knesset committee.
The most effective training courses are those done in collaboration with employers, as training meets the needs of the companies, who also pledge to hire people who have completed the courses.
However, in June 2019, the collaboration between employers and the training division was suspended for budgetary reasons, and has not been renewed. This means that vocational training, which was already weak, has deteriorated further in the past year and in particular during the coronavirus crisis.
Aviad Schwartz of the Finance Ministry's budgetary division told the committee that NIS 50 million will be released in the coming days for vocational training. Half of the budget will be allocated to the Labor and Welfare Ministry and half to the Israel Employment Service.
This budget, however, is only sufficient to train approximately 6,000-7,000 people - less than 1% of all the unemployed in Israel.
Another issue raised by the committee is the 30% reduction in unemployment benefit when a recipient is placed in vocational training, despite the fact that unemployment benefits are significantly lower than the average monthly salary.
Blue & White MK Hila Shay Vazan called this reduction "punishment for vocational training" and demanded that it be abolished.
Labor and Social Affairs Minister Itzik Shmuli said that not only should unemployed people in vocational training be exempt from deductions in their unemployment benefits, but should even receive a 15% increase as an incentive.
According to Shmuli, those unemployed who participate in vocational training should have proper financial support "that will encourage them to participate."
Joint List MK Jaber Asakla also expressed concern that some 30% of Arab students will be unable to complete their education either because of financial hardship or because they cannot return to their studies abroad. He said there was an urgent need for professional training that would allow such cases to make a living.
The head of Israel's National Union of Students, Sapir Bluzer said there are currently 150,000 students out of work in the country.
"The state has never dealt with massive youth unemployment," she said. "We stand at the precipice of an unprecedented crisis. We need to act to prevent seeing a generation that will suffer from high unemployment rates for years to come. Young people need a different kind of professional training - more skills and less knowledge."