Entry Level (Introduction)
The most important first step a ben Torah can possibly take while planning his parnassa is to prepare a solid foundation of Torah. No matter how you plan to live your life, what will it be worth if it's not lived according to Torah values? And from where do a person's Torah values come if not from intense Torah study?
This kind of preparation will generally include some solid years of full-time learning prior to "heading out." There's no easily defined point at which a person can say he's ready, but a serious discussion with a talmid chochom who's familiar with specific background conditions is a very good idea.
Equally (if not more) important: a Jew's career must not only be preceded, but also accompanied by serious ongoing Torah study. Becoming a "ba'al habayis" doesn't exempt someone from even one single mitzvah, and certainly not from 'talmud Torah k'neged kulom'!
Our generation is generously blessed with excellent examples of individuals who have achieved Torah greatness while supporting themselves.
A talmid chochom once moved to a city to take up a prominent position of harbatzos haTorah. I remember being present on his first day in the bais hamedrash as he was approached by a middle-aged, clean-shaven businessman extending greetings of welcome. The businessman then asked the talmid chochom which mesechte the institution would be learning that year and was told - with a slightly condescending smile. Later, the talmid chochom related (with awe in his voice), that their conversation lasted nearly an hour, touched on a huge variety of complex subjects from the length and breadth of that mesechte and that his head had been spinning when it was done. "Are all the ba'alei batim in town like that?" he asked.
I don't know. But all of them can become like that as long as they're disciplined, motivated and self-confident.
Torah...and faith (emunah), too. No one can afford to take his emunah for granted. Sad experience has shown that simply growing up in a frum home - even with parents renowned for their tzidkus - doesn't guarantee one's own emunah. That must be developed independently through honest questions and hard work. Once out there in "the real world," emunah can be a vital survival tool.
This, however, is a discussion best left for its own publication.
How much time and energy should a person invest in career training? Based on what we've already seen, the correct answer is "as little as possible." However, as there's no universal definition for "as little as possible," a thoughtful individual will likely discover his personal requirements only through carefully analyzing himself, his needs and his aspirations. The route that's the quickest and cleanest into the range of occupations that fit that analysis, is likely the best. There are individuals for whom the "smallest possible investment" might seem great indeed, but if they're honest, humble and diligent in their research, even that great price - with all of its risks and expenses - will prove reasonable, manageable and Torah-compatible.
So it could take time. Nevertheless, we must never lose sight of our greater goals. There are clearly limits. No matter how noble pursuing a livelihood can be, is preparing for your parnassa really worth investing years upon years of your precious time in this world? I'm certainly not out to malign the many professions that require extensive preparation and there are some individuals who really should pursue them (and perhaps find enormous spiritual fulfillment in the process). But the principle of "clean and light" teaches us to seek balance and, in general, expect to live within reasonable limits.
Here, briefly, are the general career-preparation options available to us.
A public high school has two main educational goals (besides, as is well known and correctly feared, social assimilation): to prepare and inspire as many of their students as possible for university careers and, for those who don't make that grade, to provide the kind of life-skills necessary to find some profitable and respectable employment.
We don't share that first goal as an ideal, but we should be conscious of the second, for in it may lie valuable possibilities. If young Torah Jews will, in any case, spend hours a day at secular studies, it surely can't hurt to focus some of that time on marketable employment skills. Presented with the right material, a fifteen year old can certainly be enticed to absorb some useful knowledge. Occasionally, this knowledge may even prove to be all a student needs to begin his career.
Two points must, however, be borne in mind. One, that the secular departments of many yeshiva high schools are not unfamiliar with this general goal (don't think no one's thought about it before). And, two, that no high school of any sort could be expected to provide a full range of complete career training suitable for each of its individual students. Rather, we're suggesting only that families search for additional creative approaches through which students can gain particular skills which might later be used as part of their career plans.
Apprenticeship and Internship
For centuries, to access skilled trades, people trained on the job as apprentices by contracting themselves to professionals (called "masters"). The apprentices would agree to work as assistants for little or no pay while absorbing everything they'd need to eventually work on their own. The system was immensely practical, as the student would quickly gain good experience while avoiding the need to pay for his professional education.
It is remarkable how many modern trades still offer apprenticeships.
It is also possible to arrange non-traditional, informal apprenticeships in some fields - especially if there is already some existing personal connection to the master (for instance, he's a relative or friend of the family).
Often, in addition to practical training, one might need to pass a test in order to obtain a government license.
Post High School Education
This shouldn't be construed as a recommendation either for or against colleges or universities. To repeat our mandate: we aren't taking sides in any halachic or hashkafic debates, nor are we suggesting that one approach is objectively better than another. Rather, for those whose life's circumstances lead them to choose between such options, here are some of the important considerations.
The advantages of trade schools over universities include
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