Group kicks off pilot to give Arabs, ultra-Orthodox women a leg up in tech

Program seeks to remedy shortage of 15,000 skilled workers in sector by reaching out to segments of society not traditionally participants in Israel’s high-tech boom

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

President Rivlin (seated, third left) at the inauguration of the program in Jerusalem to boost Arab and, Haredim in the Israeli tech sector. (Yanai-Rubaja)
President Rivlin (seated, third left) at the inauguration of the program in Jerusalem to boost Arab and, Haredim in the Israeli tech sector. (Yanai-Rubaja)

A coalition of NGOs, philanthropists, tech companies, and Israeli government leaders has set up a pilot program to tackle Israel’s now chronic shortage of skilled tech workers.

The idea is to focus on recruiting Arab and female Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) computer science graduates who are today underrepresented in Israel’s innovation ecosystem, the project initiators said on Thursday, at the launch of the program in Jerusalem.

The Program for Enhancement of Arab and Haredi Human Capital for the Jerusalem High-Tech Workforce — dubbed EXCELLENTEAM — was launched at the offices of Mobileye, in the presence of President Reuven Rivlin, whose office is supporting the program as part of its Tikva Israelit (Israeli Hope) employment initiative.

According to figures from the nonprofit Start-Up Nation Central, which coordinated the coalition, the country’s tech workforce — around 8% of the working-age population — is not growing fast enough to match the rapidly increasing demand. A vast majority of developers are male, many of them graduates of the Israel Defense Forces’ technology and intelligence units.

Meanwhile, according to government data from 2015, the latest year for which numbers are available, the ultra-Orthodox represent 0.7% of the tech workforce, while Arabs make up 1.4%. Men make up 74.1% of the workforce and women 23.0%.

Mobileye’s CEO Amnon Shashua, right, with President Reuven Rivlin, center, and Angelica Berrie, left, of the Russel Berrie Foundation speaking in Jerusalem at the launch of a program to boost Arab, Haredi participation in Israeli tech sector; Oct. 18, 2018 (Courtesy Start-Up Nation Central)

According to a recent survey conducted by Start-Up Nation Central with the J.P. Morgan Chase Foundation and Israel Advanced Technology Industries, the industry is lacking 12,000-15,000 skilled employees. This is considered a direct threat to the country’s tech sector, which has been the main driver of the Israeli economy. The shortage is also causing a growing number of Israeli tech companies to look for talent abroad, and has sent local salaries soaring.

“Israel is suffering from a shortage of talent,” Prof. Amnon Shashua, CEO and CTO of Mobileye, and senior vice president, Intel Corporation, said at the event in Jerusalem. Mobileye, a maker of self-driving car technologies, was acquired by Intel last year.

“There are two big sectors that are not integrated” into the fabric of the economy, the high tech economy in particular, he said — the Arab population and the ultra-Orthodox population. “This is an opportunity to contribute to the economy” and bridge that gap, he said.

Mobileye, which at the time of the acquisition in 2017 employed just over 600 people, today employs 1,400, he said, and is building a campus in Jerusalem that will house some 4,000 workers.

As long as the tech industry depends just on a small segment of the Israeli population — Jewish non-Haredi men — the shortage of quality employees will continue to grow. Bridging this gap can only be achieved by introducing the full spectrum of the Israeli population — particularly women, Arabs, and Haredim — into the workspace, SNC said in a newly published report on the matter.

While Arabs make up some 17% of computer science students in Israeli universities, they represent less than 2% of high-tech employees; similarly, hundreds of Haredi women graduate from computer science programs every year, yet they too are unrepresented in core high-tech positions, despite there being several initiatives that have striven to bring them into the high-tech workforce.

Ultra-Orthodox women on the job at a high-tech company in Modiin Illit (Abir Sultan/Flash90)

Providing Arabs and Haredim the skills, experience, and connections they need will help fast-track them into the Israeli middle class, and also offer the tech industry much-needed “fuel” to continue its development, the SNC report said.

Research by SNC has found that Arab graduates are rarely granted high-level interviews because of a lack of willingness on the part of employers, and because they don’t have the necessary credentials the industry views as key: they generally do not serve in the army — much less in its elite technology units — and are generally not affiliated with the best Israeli universities.

In addition, both the Arab and Haredi communities face challenges in getting relevant hands-on experience, developing the social and professional networks that can help them reach the positions they aspire to, and learning the soft skills they need to be hired and to succeed in the tech workplace.

“SNC believes that with our support and guidance, Israeli Arabs as a whole, and ultra-Orthodox women with relevant degrees can generate much value at the core of the tech sector,” said Prof. Eugene Kandel, CEO of Start-Up Nation Central. “We, as a country, cannot afford to have people, who have been or can be trained and aspire to work in the sector, being sidelined because their potential is not recognized. There are many obstacles, which are hard for any individual to overcome, but we, as a coalition, are working to remove every one of them.”

“This is not simple, but doable,” Kandel said at the event, where the program’s participants were among the audience.

The EXCELLENTEAM program has selected the first cohort of Haredi women and Israeli Arabs — 20 in each group — with degrees in computer science, and will provide these individuals with hands-on technical training, experience in problem solving, exposure to the industry, help in developing soft skills, and assistance in finding relevant placements in tech companies.

Hodaya Marciano, a graduate who has joined the first cohort of the Exellenteam program, set up by Start-Up Nation Central and other organizations; Oct. 18, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

Twenty-three-year old Hodaya Marciano is one of the students selected for the program. She has studied computer engineering and is looking to find a job that will challenge her, she told The Times of Israel. The four-month course, which started last week, is very intensive, she said, and she believes it will allow her not to compromise on the job she hopes will be offered in the future.

Similarly, 26-year old Rabia Abuaquel of Kfar Yassif, a village in the north of Israel with a Christian, Muslim and Jewish population, is hoping the course will help him bridge the gap — both educational and cultural — between his skills and the needs of the industry.

“There is a cultural gap in terms of language, soft skills and social attitude of the industry” toward Arabs, he said. “I quite believe this program will help me bridge that gap,” he said on the sidelines of the event.

“Jerusalem is an ideal test case for this project,” the SNC report said, “as the capital’s demographics of Jerusalem in 2017 are similar to the projected demographics for Israel in 2040.”

Rabia Abuaqel , a graduate who has joined the first cohort of the Exellenteam program, set up by Start-Up Nation Central and other organizations; Oct. 18, 2018 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The ultra-Orthodox account for some 24% of the Jerusalem’s population, Arabs make up 37%, and 39% are non-Haredi Jews, according to data compiled by the Central Bureau of Statistics Labor Force Survey.

“The challenges that Jerusalem faces today are the challenges that Israel will be facing in the not-so-distant future,” Kandel said, in a statement.

Jerusalem, with its growing tech ecosystem — comprising some 447 tech companies and 22 R&D centers — is expected to create a further 5,000 technology jobs by 2025, according to estimates of the Jerusalem Development Authority, as reported in the SNC report.

The EXCELLENTEAM program aims to train some 250 candidates over three years, but its main objective, the organizers said, is to demonstrate, with validated results, the potential of these segments of society and their ability to integrate into the high-tech sector — including at higher-level jobs than those they are filling today. Once significant scale is reached, the model can be used as a framework for added initiatives in in the future, the organizers said.

“The gap between Arabs and Israelis can be bridged,” said Rivlin at the event, declaring that Israel’s economy must be able to include all of its various populations.

Terry Kassel, the director of the Paul E. Singer Foundation and chairperson of the board of SNC, said that the foundation is “completely committed to the vision,” which is critical for the growth of Israel’s economy. “We need to fight for that as a tribe,” she said.

Start-Up Nation Central is coordinating the pilot, with The Feuerstein Institute leading the selection process; Elevation Academy in charge of technical training; itWorks supporting the Arab students and their employers; and Temech doing the same for Haredi women.

Jerusalem-based tech companies Mobileye, Lightricks, 40Nuggets and Ex Libris are collaborating on the curriculum and skills development, as well as providing mentors and instructors. The Russell Berrie Foundation, Leo Noe and the Kemach Foundation, and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation are “thought partners” who have also pledged philanthropic financial support.

“The industry knows what it needs, and has worked closely with us to guide us with the program,” Kandel, the Start-Up Nation Central CEO, said.

The Jerusalem Development Authority has helped develop the concept and is considering providing financing. Google Israel and Western Digital are joining the effort to expand this program beyond Jerusalem, he said.

“Diversity of human capital is Israel’s biggest asset,” said Angelica Berrie, the president of the Russell Berrie foundation, at the event. “By strengthening Jerusalem we are strengthening Israel.”

Start-Up Nation Central is an Israel-based nonprofit whose mission is to help ensure the strength of the tech sector in Israel by helping local startups connect with organizations, governments and NGOs from across the world.

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