Israel’s high-tech industry is world renowned for its innovation, a lively start-up scene, and multi-million dollar deals. It leads the country’s economy and yet only a few are part of the scene and enjoy the prosperity that comes with it.
Just over 9% of Israel’s workforce is employed in the technology sector, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, and there are several populations that are often excluded from this small number.
While women advance, the sector remains predominantly male. For the haredi, or ultra-Orthodox Jews and Israeli Arabs, progress has been made in recent years, but there is much room for improvement. For these two sectors, entering the high-tech ecosystem would mean a significant improvement in their quality of life. Increased prosperity would also help erase years of inequality.
Greater integration is clearly a win-win scenario for both tech companies and potential employees. Just over 1% of employed Arab citizens work in the high-tech sector, a recent Bank of Israel survey showed. About 21% of Israelis are Arabs and their unemployment rate is above average.
Last week, the government approved a massive multi-year plan for the Arab sector called “Takadoum,” which means progress in Arabic. Part of the plan is dedicated to increasing the Arab presence in the high-tech sector. It ranges from encouraging school-age students to pursue their bachelor of science degree, promoting Arab job placement in industry, and creating accelerators and R&D centers in Arab population centers. Almost $ 200 million will be dedicated to the plan.
A recent report published by the NGO Start-Up Nation Central (SNC) on human capital in the tech industry points to an increase in demand for engineers and developers with a small increase in supply. With more than 15,000 jobs open on average in recent years, the need is huge.
The Arab population accounted for around 14% of the sector’s growth in 2018, according to SNC reports. “Our goal is to bring thousands of Arab engineers to work in the industry, but also to make the industry and companies open branches and start projects in the center of Arab cities,” said Sami Saadi, Co-CEO of Tsofen High Technology Centers. . , a Nazareth-based NGO that works to promote high technology in Israel’s Arab society.
Tsofen operates numerous programs that have succeeded in increasing the number of engineers in the industry in recent years. The programs address many of the issues that need to be addressed, from developing candidates’ soft skills to helping them network, as well as exposing potential employers to the new job group.
When Saadi founded the Tsofen company together with several colleagues in 2008, a few hundred Arab engineers worked in the industry. Today, there are an estimated 9,000. There is also an increase in the number of students studying the relevant professions at universities across Israel, with Arabs making up about 16% of students.
“The numbers are increasing, but not enough,” said Maty Zwaig, executive director of Scale-Up Velocity at Start-Up Nation Central, which aims to help solve human capital challenges in the high-tech industry. “What is needed are processes that start in the education system from high school, to expose the population to success stories and the different possibilities offered by the high-tech industry.”
“This is the beginning of a process,” Zwaig said of the new government plan. “This is a matter of strategic importance for the country and the budget is critical, but it will only be successful with the active participation of industry and companies.”
Arab citizens of Israel face special challenges when trying to enter the industry. In search of stability, they are prone to choose professions in which employment is secure. When you look at the small number of Arabs employed in high-tech, it can seem like that career is risky, especially in light of the rigorous education required. Fewer Arabs than Jews complete their high school matriculation exams in the relevant subjects. Furthermore, Arabs often face a language barrier as they are often less fluent in Hebrew and English.
On average, Arab communities face higher rates of unemployment and crime and often earn less money than Jews working in the same jobs. Many Arab families live below the poverty line, giving young people a more difficult start in life. A staggeringly high percentage of Arab households do not have access to the Internet, according to a recent survey by Reichman University, formerly known as the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center.
Arabs do not perform compulsory military service. For many Israelis, being in an army tech unit serves as a gateway to a high-tech job in civilian life. Startups are eager to hire skilled labor just released from the military. Those serving in coveted tech positions in the military often acquire a wide network of peers who then help each other get jobs.
“Through my own work, I felt great distress in the industry in Israel due to the lack of talent,” said Smadar Nehab, who founded Tsofen with Saadi. A technology entrepreneur who has held various leadership positions in the industry, she is well aware of the challenges. Often, he was told to outsource labor to overcome the shortage.
“Why outsource from India when I have Galilee?” she asked. “The change so far has been huge, but the number of Arabs entering high-tech is still small,” Nehab added.
Tsofen aims to match the presence of Arabs in high-tech with their proportion in the population. These days, he is focusing on promoting the Bedouin presence in this industry, an almost non-existent population in high-tech.
“We are getting closer to the goal,” Nehab said. According to her, the increase in the number of Arabs studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM professions in universities is indicative of a broader trend.
However, Zwaig says the dropout rate remains very high and discouraging. About half of Arabs who start STEM studies leave before completing their bachelor’s degree, compared to 32% of Jews. The central bank report sees the language gap as a possible reason behind this, further emphasizing the need for a deep-seated approach to solving the problem.
Another challenge is getting the industry to welcome Arab employees. “Companies would say they don’t see enough qualified Arab candidates, but they are also unwilling to go the extra mile to view Arab talent differently, taking into account the differences,” Nehab explained.
Over the years, Tsofen has gotten tech companies to open offices in Nazareth. “The presence of companies there that want Arab employees is a game changer, not only for the population but also for corporations,” Nehab said.
While progress is slow, it is persistent. There are still obstacles, but with the great need of the industry, the Israeli Arabs could become an integral part of the solution. Furthermore, the Arab population must claim its rightful position in the industry.
“Arab society itself did not believe that high technology was relevant to them; they thought it was only for Jews. This industry must change and they are the main resource for this change, ”said Nehab.