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30 Sep 2014

Training without a Soul By Claudio de Moura Castro

By Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

Brazil shared the traditional disdain of Iberian countries towards working with one`s hands.

senaiSENAI had a decisive role in reversing prejudice and creating a well-prepared labor force. Being a private agency, run by industrialists and funded by a levy on industrial payroll, it had what it takes to face this arduous task of going against the grain of local culture. German and Swiss role models were grafted into the DNA of the institution. It was training with a Swiss soul, since this was the nationality of the first director in charge.

The system has been around since 1942 and remains effective, as well as impressive. However, there are signs that the sailing is not as smooth as one could think; there are conflicting signals.

Candidates for the “classic” occupations, such as machinists, carpenters, brick masons and several others are shrinking. Dropouts are more numerous. And the proportion choosing to work in the occupations learned is lower.

At the same time, there has been a massive increase in the pay of these same occupations, far more than for any others. It is somewhat bizarre, more pay and less interest in these same occupations.

What is going on? Funded by SENAI, I am beginning an inquiry into this puzzling situation.

One possible reason is the combination of more vacancies for higher education and higher levels of schooling of the young work force.  Many more students reach or finish secondary education, making them closer to the enticement of a magic university diploma. In addition, there has been an expansion in fellowships and student loans, making the temptations more reachable. Even if youth fail to enter higher education, its magnetism deflates the possible interest they could have for trade training.

Another hypothesis is the growth of the service sector. Regardless of pay, work is lighter and has greater prestige. As someone said to me: it is better to be a security guard in a shopping center than a machinist.

In addition, there is a third persuasive cause and it is inside SENAI.

In the last few decades, SENAI considerably expanded its secondary technical courses. It also created two-year post-secondary programs. In parallel, it is boosting its R&D and innovation activities. The result is a change in the center of gravity of the institution. The new activities require a lot more masters and PhDs and hardly any craftsmen. More money and discussions focus on these higher-end activities. Nothing is wrong with this new emphasis. It is a mandatory direction to be taken, considering the technologies deployed by modern industry. But the unavoidable consequence is a decreased attention to trade training.

Turners and woodworkers are taught as before. But, perhaps, something is missing. Are the trade instructors as proud as they were? Has their leadership towards the students slackened? Is there less effort put into training them? Is their heart and soul still in it?

I visited a very fine school of natural gas technology, with a serious applied research agenda. After the visit I realized that the highly sophisticated managers did not show me the workshops where students were trained to convert gasoline automobiles into gas combustion. One cannot imagine that students and instructors fail to perceive that their position is seen as inferior, considering that their workshops did not deserve being shown to visitors.

When I first compared SENAI with its European counterparts, it struck me that it was using its facilities and instructors to offer courses of widely different levels to a broad clientele of students. It could be training in a simple trade or a post-graduate program. That seemed a very efficient way of deploying resources. In comparison, European institutions catered to much narrower sets of students.

In hindsight, we can see that mixing high and low status occupations in the same school can be detrimental to those at the bottom end of the spectrum.

This is not a hopeless situation. By the same token that SENAI was able to prepare a generation of proud workers, when conditions were much more difficult, it must be relatively easy to pay a lot more attention to convert the soul of the students, not just deliver the curricula and operate workshops.

Be that as it may, these are conjectures, based on observation, rather than systematic research. The forthcoming study will confirm or deny the above speculations.


Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Email:


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