Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Haredi and Israel’s high-tech industry

Let us begin the Jewish New Year 5772 with thoughts about the ultra-orthodox (called the ‘Haredi’ Jewish community) in Israel:
Six months ago, the Jerusalem Post reported on Israel’s rank in the world of internet economics. It was a positive report. But  ‘Internet sector will reach 8.5% of GDP by 2015’, March 10, 2011, by Nadav Shemer,  suggested a problem: e-commerce (and high-tech) in Israel were growing so rapidly, Israel would soon run out of intelligent and talented e-workers to help grow Israel’s e-commerce/high-tech businesses. Nevertheless, based on a survey by McKinsey Company, the report suggested that a solution sits right in front of us, one that promises to promote employment among Israel’s highest unemployment communities—a benefit for both the economy and the unemployed: train both Arab and Haredi for the e-commerce/ high-tech workplace.  Israel will need these workers to man high-tech activities, McKinsey suggested, and the relatively high unemployment rates among these two groups seemed an obvious place to turn in order to find needed future manpower.  The article specifically identified both Arab and Haredi as potential high-tech employees.
About a month before the survey was published, Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, announced a new national initiative, maantech, aimed exclusively at developing trained future employees for Israel’s high-tech world. But the President’s plan focused only on Arabs. Haredi were not included.
While at first blush this omission seemed discriminatory, it may not be so because the Haredi and the Arab have different employment issues. A single program to meet the needs of both groups (so as to provide Israel’s high-tech industry with a future stream of qualified workers) would probably not work. For example, according to the Jerusalem Post (Peres, high-tech leaders work to integrate Arabs in workforce, by Greer Fay Cashman, February 9, 2011), the greatest issue for Arab workers is not training, but post-training employment search. Therefore, the maantech initiative appears aimed at assisting qualified Arab school graduates to integrate into the Israeli high-tech workforce. By contrast, the problem for the Haredi is not post-education employment search. Their issue focuses on cultural attitudes towards both the workplace and the training needed to enter the workplace. While it seems certain that the Haredi represent a vast, available and concentrated reservoir of intelligent workers, they will not, for religious reasons, interface with a traditional educational format, and they will not seek employment in the traditional workplace environment. Intensely held cultural barriers keep them separated. Because of those  barriers, one of the greatest workplace deterrents to the Haredi is the workplace itself, with its out-of-neighborhood setting, melting pot atmosphere and secular influences. The Haredi appear hesitant to cross a cultural line to go to work even as some wish to work. The same would be true for Haredi wishing an education.
So if President Peres develops a program to help the Arab unemployed, what can he do for the Haredi? Many in Israel take the position that the Haredi should just ‘suck it up’ and do what everyone else does—go to school and get a job. The result of these attitudes, however, is simply a hardening of Haredi reluctance to work in that melting pot arena; and as the McKinsey report suggests, with their growing population, Israel cannot afford to be so cavalier towards them: this population segment will soon represent 20% of the country’s workforce, and with an almost 70% unemployment rate, this group could have a seriously negative impact on the country’s economy if their unemployment continues unabated. The Haredi have to work, both for their own needs and because of the nation’s needs. The question is, how to promote their employment without creating religious-based civil strife?
The good news here is that the e-commerce and high-tech sectors do not, and need not, require an employee to leave his or her neighbourhood to go to work. President Peres can turn to High Tech companies for the Haredi just as easily as he turned to them for the Arab: these industries can build much of the industrial network they need through small workplace environments (perfectly matched to Haredi neighbourhood lifestyle), and/or though home-based workstations. In addition, non-traditional (but effective) training programs can be developed to address similar Haredi concerns about education.
Naturally, not all Haredi will sign on to these ideas. But we do not need to start with a solution for all Haredi. We need to start first with a small, pre-selected group. These Haredi can then be educated and employed. Their cultural and religious standards can be protected. They can stay within their own enclaves. An initiative can even be created for young men to work—and continue their religious studies—in the same environment at the same location. Then, once this first Haredi group has succeeded, we can work with a second pre-selected group, then a third, etc.

  As MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) points out in a recent Jerusalem Post story   (United Torah Judaism chairman slams Trajtenberg report, by Jeremy Sharon, September 27, 2011), current Israeli education requirements completely discount Haredi religious education in favor of, say, Humanities when, in fact, a degree in Humanities is often no more relevant to the workplace than religious education. He has a point. This type of purely secular and monolithic national education policy does not completely match the realities of the modern workplace. A religiously trained Haredi who has completed both religious education and a specifically designed high-tech program, will contribute as much as or more than a Humanities or Social Science graduate. The key to success is not what degree one has, but what type of analytic skills one has learned, and what kind of technical-specific training one has completed.
Israel’s future economic well-being requires the Haredi to contribute to the workplace. But forcing them to work will fail. Rather, we should work with them. At first, we will need to form a coalition of MK members, government representatives, educational leaders and respected Haredi religious leaders who are willing to participate, to join together, to seek common ground.
Through the participation, influence and leadership of specific religious leaders in the Haredi world and with education and work rules that are sensitive to Haredi culture, an army of talented Hardei workers can be identified, recruited, trained and employed—all under the guiding wisdom of pre-selected religious leaders who will shape the rules for participating Haredi workers. These religious leaders can play a central role in guiding their followers according to standards they help to create and implement.
There is more. This is just the beginning. A concerted and properly-formed initiative can generate substantial economic benefits for everyone. Joining with the Haredi sector serves Israel in three ways: first, it helps provide the intelligence-rich talent our High-tech industry will desperately need; second, it brings needed income to Haredi families; and third, it reduces Israel’s welfare roles.
It is a shidduch (marriage arrangement) that will work.

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