GAZA STRIP—Ahmed Khalid, 27, received his bachelor’s degree five years ago, prepared to work as a teacher. But Khalid’s career has taken a left turn: He is now a plumber.
“I have lost the hope of becoming a teacher at a school in Gaza, whether at public or private schools, or even in those of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees,” said Khaled. “I could not wait anymore. I chose plumbing to make my living.”
Khalid, who lives in Khan Yunis in southern Gaza Strip, earns at least $500 a month as a plumber, while his monthly salary as a private school teacher would not exceed $300.
He is one of thousands of university graduates in Gaza who face great difficulties in finding, as the economic situation continues to deteriorate due to the Israeli embargo, the closure of the crossings into Israel, the restrictions on imports and exports, and the escalating electricity crisis. This has raised the poverty rate and made more than 80 percent of the population dependent on international aid to survive, according to UN reports. Last year, the unemployment rate in Gaza hit 41.7 percent, which is the highest in the world, according to a previous World Bank report; 60 percent of the unemployed were university graduates. (See the related article: Palestinian University Graduates Face Harsh Futures.)
In Gaza, there are 18 public and private universities, from which 7,000-8,000 young men and women graduate annually. But there is a shortage of vocational schools and colleges, with only one college that grants vocational diplomas, and three industrial and agricultural secondary schools. The vocational institutions are generally a long way away from urban centers, and they are for boys only, with one exception.
“We urgently need new schools because the ones we have are located in remote areas far from the majority of population,” said Medhat al-Desouki, the head of the vocational school in Deir al-Balah in the center of the Gaza Strip. “This leads large numbers of students to drop out.”
One hundred and twenty two students at the Deir al-Balah school study in nine majors: computer maintenance, industrial electronics, telecommunications, office equipment, electricity, carpentry, automotive power, auto mechanics, and website design.
Mahmoud al-Za’anin, the headmaster at Hani Na’im Agricultural School in Beit Hanoun, in the northernmost part of the Gaza Strip, says his vocational school has very few students, about 120 this year.
“The school is located in the far north of Gaza Strip,” he said. “It is difficult for students from Rafah, Khan Yunis and Central Gaza to access it.”
Al-Za’anin knows that his school could use some improvements. “The classrooms are small, the facilities are few, and they need extensive maintenance,” he said. “We need to renovate the school and set up branches in areas closer to where the students live.”
The school, founded in 1952 under the supervision of the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) before moving under the Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education in 1995, seeks to provide its students with basic agricultural skills so they can enter the labor market immediately.
“We rely mainly on practical lessons provided by agricultural engineers on all kinds of agriculture, along with breeding all species of animals and birds, besides the livestock industries,” he said.
In Gaza, there is only one vocational school for girls, which is located in the center of the Gaza Strip. It has just 124 students studying in two departments: one is beauty, design, and fashion, and the other is technological,including computer and mobile-phone maintenance and web design.
As for vocational education after secondary school, the sector has only one college affiliated with the UNRWA that grants diplomas. The college offers 22 different disciplines.
Walaa Ashur, 25, graduated from the college five years ago with a specialization in fashion design. After graduation, she and two other colleagues opened a small workshop to design school uniforms.
“The financial situation of my family prompted me to look for an opportunity to start a career that would enable me to work quickly,” she said.
Al-Za’anin, the headmaster of Hani Na’im Agricultural Secondary School, believes vocational education is a real opportunity to support families financially. As an example, he said, “agricultural vocational education partially helps to cover the needs of the local market for agricultural and animal products, especially under the embargo.”
Hassan al-Radhi’, an independent economics researcher, agrees with al-Za’anin on the importance of vocational education in making a dent in the high local unemployment rates.
“There are lots of professional disciplines needed for the market, especially in construction, agriculture and electrical work,” said al-Radhi’. “Investing in education in these fields is important to energize the economy.”
Jawad al-Sheikh Khalil, the director of vocational education at the Ministry of Education in the Gaza Strip, acknowledges that vocational schools and colleges in the strip are scarce and far from its population centers. He says the ministry hopes to establish new schools with new disciplines in the coming years. Still, he points out that the biggest problem—familiar to many policy-makers who want to promote vocational education—is the reluctance of Gaza’s residents to enroll their sons and daughters in vocational education.
“The culture of Palestinian society has a low social view of those who hold vocational degrees, regarding them as being the least diligent students who were unable to pursue their university studies,” said Khalil. “There is also insufficient awareness about the opportunities available to students after graduation, including the possibility of completing university studies in similar disciplines in the event that the student got high marks,” he said.
The low social outlook for vocational education is widespread in most Arab countries. But Khalid believes that unemployment would hold a more severe social stigma.
“Working is not a fault,” he said. “If my children wanted to enroll in vocational education, I would strongly encourage them, as the job opportunities would be much wider.”