VoTech Grads to Pour Into Iraqi Labor Pool
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 23, 2007 Graduates from Iraq’s vocational and technical centers are creating a “pool of skilled laborers” that officials hope will reduce the country’s staggering unemployment rates.
The Army Corps of Engineers Gulf Region Division and the U.S. Agency for International Development have teamed with Iraq’s Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs to revitalize the VoTech centers, where students learn trades like electrical installation, computer operation, auto mechanics, welding and other construction trades.
“They take people that are unemployed currently, train them in a skill, and then provide them a job after they complete their training so they can continue to work and improve the economy,” Navy Cmdr. Stuart Satterwhite, an operations officer in the Gulf Region Division, told reporters during an April 21 roundtable discussion in Iraq.
A vocational program was in place before Operation Iraq Freedom, and U.S. efforts to re-implement the system “have not done as well as we hoped,” Satterwhite said. According to USAID, 20 percent of Iraqis are totally unemployed and 30 percent are “underemployed,” working 15 or fewer hours per week.
But the Corps of Engineers and Iraqi Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs are working to “bring the (VoTech) program back on line” to combat Iraq’s “acute shortage of skilled labor,” he said. “USAID currently runs three sites, and they’ve made great progress there already.
“There’s a great opportunity for the construction trades to develop here in Iraq as rebuilding (occurs) throughout the country,” Satterwhite added.
Upon graduating, students are piped into labor and service markets, bringing their technical expertise to construction sites, or receive micro-loans that help Iraqi entrepreneurs finance new businesses. Satterwhite gave a hypothetical example of an Iraqi student who studies sewing at the VoTech, then receives a micro-loan to set up her own seamstress shop after graduating.
To date, about 8,000 Iraqis have matriculated at the country’s 23 VoTech centers, 11 of which are located in Baghdad. “If we were to take each of the vocational training centers right now and run one shift of classes per day, … we could run 25,000 students through in a year,” Satterwhite said.
“(We are) trying to maximize the capacity to develop a national vocational training program that’s open to all Iraqis, so that everyone has that benefit to learn a skill so they can go out and be able to work in the economy and be able to provide for their families,” he said.
Navy Cmdr. George Milla, deputy director with the 358th Civil Affairs Brigade, said efforts to modernize VoTech sites are occurring in southern Iraq.
“Our approach is to work with the minister of labor and social affairs at the national level and work with school directors at each site,” Milla said. “(Directors) identify what their equipment requirements are, what their shortfalls or needs are, both in equipment they need to conduct the classes, and … equipment or building rehabilitations they need to do in order to improve the site.”
Site rehabilitation and other modernization projects will be bid to local Iraqi contractors, Milla said, stimulating economic competition among laborers within each district.
“We want the contractors from those districts to make the improvements to these sites,” he said. “It helps the economy locally in that facet, along with assisting in the marketability of the Iraqi people who are going to those schools.”