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Can compulsory military service be an opportunity for tackling unemployment?
Two developments have marked last week. First was the statement by Turkish Statistics Institute proving that unemployment figures go on climbing up. Since the beginning of the year, unemployment rate is rising increasingly when compared to the same period last year. Do not be deceived by the newspaper titles reading "unemployment has decreased this month"; they do not reflect the reality. Second striking development was the results of the Student Selection Examination manifesting the situation and interpretation of the high school education in Turkey. Examination results proved one more time that the Higher Education Board (YOK) does not have much interest in the education reality of Turkey. YOK focused on increasing university quotes this year as a key issue; but the results of the examination raised the question "Does anything change if you place such students to universities?" One can do nothing but agree with the Rector of Ardahan University. The inferiority of the high school education in Turkey, which became prominent following the last university examinations, is closely related with the unemployment problem in Turkey. Education system has been producing young people with no vocation. What is worse, it is a prerogative even to be one of the unqualified graduates. This is what unemployment figures say. The problem is bigger than it appears. This time, Turkey's problem is not foreign exchange, interest rate or exchange rate; this is the only problem of Turkey for the time being. And this is also what we believe to be unacknowledged.
Together with those who have sought a job for a long time, got tired of doing so and then stopped seeking one; around 6 million unemployed people are waiting for a remedy. To look for gossip fodders in the dark pages of history and try to find out the person who put us into this hot water first, is completely nonsense though is the recent passion. The thing to be done is to seek solutions. This weekend let us underline the fact that we need creative recommendations considering the subject of vocationalization. Let us highlight the importance of this issue and take a look at a "crazy idea" we have come up with: Have you ever considered how compulsory military service can be used to generate vocations for young people? They have considered this option in Israel. Let us see how.
Before commenting on the Israeli example, let us take a look at the data pertaining to the educational background of unemployed population. Out of 4 million unemployed people in Turkey, around 10 percent have completed higher education in Turkey. 25 percent graduated from a high school or equivalent. And around 60 percent have at most graduated from middle school. Let us put forth the first conclusion: Yes, quality of high school education seems to have deteriorated. Unsystematic privatizations and wrong preferences of incompetent administrators one following another have lead to a rapid quality erosion both in high schools and health system. By the way, quality problem across universities can also be discussed in depth. However, even those who graduated from terrible high schools are members of a happy minority. Unemployment figures imply that the situation is much more catastrophic. The disaster of not having a vocation is much deeper. 60 percent of unemployed people have not received high school education. It seems hard to solve this gradually growing problem of Turkey with conventional methods. The conventional method is to spread and revise vocational schools, which have a bad reputation. If this is the case, we need creative recommendation. Israeli experience exactly fulfills this need.
Israel is an important example for the region with the miraculous economic transformation she underwent. In terms of economic development, Israel can only be compared with Turkey within our region. However, it seems that Israel has succeeded in exactly what we failed at. While the share of agricultural products in Israel's exports was 13 percent in 1975, the rate is now 2 percent. Total exports of Israel have increased from 1.5 billion dollars in 1970 to 70 billion dollars in 2007. This evolution resembles that Turkey goes under. However, please note that we are talking about a country population of which is around 5 million. The second point is a gradually increasing proportion of the exports are composed of high-technology exports. What does this mean? This means that the level of productivity in workers in Israel is much higher than those in Turkey. The issue is related not with capital, but with organizational skills. Israel, unlike Turkey has leaped forward in this respect, and increased the share of high-technology products in total exports. And this is the third point to state.
But, how did Israel succeed? Israel succeeded with the contribution of the Israeli army. Apart from the function of guiding and supporting the private sector in terms of purchasing technology, Israeli army also has a training function which is not noticed by most of us. Israel has discovered even before a number of countries, to utilize correctly and properly the vocational training opportunity created by the compulsory military service system. In service training programs of the Israeli army has an important role in particular in the popularization of computer usage among youngsters between 1960s and 1970s. In a country where the duration of compulsory military service is three years for males and two years for females, the army provides service also as an education institution. This service is still provided. Studies show that in-service training programs provided by the Israeli army have a significant role in the development of Israel's innovation-based economy. A series of lessons to be learned lies here for those who see and sense; regardless of whether or not we like Israel. What is more, the lessons can be learned free of charge.
First lesson is: The method to solve the problem of vocationalization is not necessarily conventional. Vocational high schools we have destroyed to block off the imam hatip high schools may not be the requirement of the mass problem in vocational education. The second lesson directly follows the first one: The source of jumping toward innovation economy is not the number of classrooms and the students sitting in those classrooms, unlike the common belief in Turkey. The real source is straightly the curriculum. If the curriculum is correct, even compulsory military service is an important opportunity for vocationalization, no need to open new schools. Considering the number of new schools, classrooms and quotas as performance criteria for success is wrong. And this mistake is made to often in Turkey. The mistake strikes our eyes enormously in the statements from the YOK President to National Education bureaucrats. The third lesson is: concentrating on a few selected areas and massifying the training rather than providing hundreds of different courses can give more productive results in terms of vocational training. In the example given above, the courses have concentrated on one area. The goal should be offering a general set of skills that can be utilized in every platform in life. The study carried out by TEPAV for the World Bank in 2007 is guiding in this respect.
Turkey has to develop creative solutions for the problem of enabling people to have a vocation. When considered in this lend, vocational military service can be a fortune for Turkey. And the duration of the military service does not have to be long as generally accepted; it can be short. This idea is worth thinking on. At the very beginning of a period where unemployment rates will remain high for a long time, it is wise for us to focus directly on a step in the right direction. Turkey's rapid convergence to the European Union countries in the medium run and future of the negotiations with the European Union is directly related to the skills attained by the labor force.
This commentary was published in Referans daily on 18.07.2009