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Israel's keenness to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development presents a golden opportunity for minorities to narrow the economic gap with the Jewish population.

The OECD has stated it won't let Israel join its ranks before this problem is solved, and Israel's highest-ranking officials immediately mobilized: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed four committees devoted to narrowing the gaps, and President Shimon Peres sent a busload of business leaders to give them a glance - for some it was their first - at the job market for Arab college graduates.

Peres and Netanyahu are trying to revolutionize Israeli businessmen's attitude toward Arabs, and to convey the message that they can and deserve to be engineers and senior executives. Just give them a chance.

Two years ago Dov Lautman, founder of textiles company Delta Galil Industries, who named Imad Telhami, an Arab, as his right-hand man, established Kav Mashve - Employers' Coalition for Equality for Arab University Graduates. Kav Mashve is a non-profit organization that aims to integrate Arab graduates into the Jewish jobs market.

This is the situation that led to the organization's foundation:

? In 2005 there were 57,800 Arabs with college degrees in Israel, or 8.7% of the Arab population of employment age (18-65), compared to 20% of Jews.

? Of these Arab with degrees, 77% (44,500 in total) were employed, but only half of them in jobs that utilized their education.

? 3.6% were unemployed, and 19.8% weren't in the work force (meaning, they were not looking for jobs or seeking unemployment benefits).

? For the sake of comparison, in the Jewish population 83.4% of college graduates were working, 3.6% were unemployed and 12.9% were not in the work force.

? 24% of Arabs with degrees said they had despaired of finding work that met their skills, as compared to 3% of Jews.

? The salary of an Arab college graduate was (and remains) 35% lower than that of a Jewish graduate.

Another statistic? Every year 11,000 Arabs complete a degree program, but only 20% of them study professions that are in demand in the job market. And still, every year more than 2,000 graduates seek jobs in Israel. And they find it's tough going.

"We now have a team of 10 employees who are working in three main directions," says the executive director of Kav Mashve, Irit Tamir. "The first activity is individual placement of workers in companies. The second is empowering Arab candidates by means of professional training programs, whose objective is to adapt their abilities to employers' demands. The third is raising businesses' awareness about the importance of diversity, the multicultural outlook. We also examine whether they know how to adapt assessment exams to workers from different cultures, and we teach them how to work toward that."

In the organization's two years, 170 Arabs were found jobs that utilized their training, at Jewish-owned firms. However, this is only a small percentage of the 3,000 people whose resumes the organization sent to employers.

Only 500 candidates were invited to interviews.

The Kav Hamashve database currently contains about 5,000 Arab college graduates. Of them, 3,500 were referred at least once to a Jewish employer. One-hundred-fifty completed the the professional training offered by the organization. The database contains about 300 businesses that are considered "clients." Some already have hired Arab workers, and others are in the process of internalizing the concept of multicultural hiring practices.

"There are good beginnings, although all the companies still have a long way to go," says Tamir. She says Indigo HP, Matrix, IBM, Intel, Bank Hapoalim, Teva and Strauss have come the farthest in changing their outlook, and they have begun to think in terms of multicultural employment. Other companies that are on the right path are SAP, Deloitte Brightman Almagor, Kesselman and Kesselman, Keter Plastics and Check Point.

"Most of the senior executives are living in denial, and they declare that 'At my firm everything is fine, and there's no discrimination," says Tamir. "Others claim, 'There are no good college graduates in the professions we're looking for,' and another version we hear is 'We won't compromise on quality.' But it's a stigma that accepting an Arab means compromising on quality. It's not true."

Tamir admits that there are real barriers to employing Arab graduates, such as geographical distance and weak English - a fourth language in the Arab sector, following spoken Arabic, literary Arabic and Hebrew. Another barrier is the lack of seniority required to fill executive positions, because of a vicious cycle: The Arab market is closed, and the graduates are not exposed to occupations that could be stepping stones to executive positions.

"Traditionally, they go to study what they think will provide them with jobs afterward, and that's mainly medicine and law," says Tamir. "That puts them down an independent, circular route: They open a small office, they can't make a living and their independence doesn't suit employers who want proof of teamwork. The more they sense openness in the job market, the more they'll study [other] professions that are in demand."

One of the major barriers for Arabs are the hiring exams, most of which are cognitive and based on language and culture. The interview is also based on the candidate's ability to sell himself - something that contradicts Arab culture, which is more collective than individualistic.

"When the exams and interviews do not take cultural differences into account, the Arab academics simply fail, and that's not justified," says Tamir.

As an example, Tamir cites A., who has a master's in law from Bar-Ilan University. A. applied to be an attorney at one of the banks. A. failed the regular assessment exams, but after a conversation with the human resources director at the bank, A. was sent to another testing center. Those tests lasted a full day, and analyzed candidates' abilities - and A. did fantastically. Since then he has been working at the bank, and everyone is satisfied.

And there is the problem of the internal glass ceiling. Even when an Arab is hired for a job in high-tech, he is subject to discrimination against in terms of salary and conditions. Y. was hired to work as a high-tech engineer, and discovered he was earning about half what his colleagues were making - and he didn't get a company car, either. His attempts to improve his terms hit a wall, so he decided to resign and to switch to another firm. After reaching understandings with the second firm about his employment terms, he informed his employer he was leaving. Then the fight over him began - because he was an outstanding worker. He eventually wound up staying at his current job, but gained a company car and a much higher salary.

A year and a half ago, Lautman performed an experiment: He sent the resumes of 14 graduates of the same university departments to industrial and service companies in the center of the country. Only seven graduates received replies. All of them were Jewish. The Arab graduates with the same educational background went unanswered.

"For some reason the human resources directors and the companies are prejudiced, and believe that an Arab graduate is not as good as a Jewish one," said Lautman. "They also think that the Jewish employees might not accept the Arab on their team, and feel that they don't need those problems. It's quite similar to the situation facing the disabled. There are disabled people who can fill jobs with greater motivation, but the manpower directors think 'Why have problems with them at work?'"

Lautman, chairman of Kav Mashve, was recently appointed to head four committees established by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose objective is to promote the integration of Arabs in the economy. One reason for the government effort is that as a condition for joining, the OECD has demanded Israel narrow the socioeconomic gap between Jews and Arabs.

"The director general of the organization, Irit Tamir, and I are working with more than 2,000 manpower directors, from the banks to high-tech, in order to persuade them, to provide them with information and to explain that they are losing out by not hiring Arabs who can serve as outstanding manpower for them," said Lautman.

"There's discrimination and it must be uprooted from the workplaces - with the exception of hospitals, where the situation is good - and the universities," added Lautman. He said that because of the disparity in Hebrew language skills, Arab university candidate will do worse than Jews on the psychometric exam, which is written in Hebrew - even before their abilities are tested.

Lautman said that the light at the end of the tunnel is already visible, but is not enough. "I convinced the Israel Center for Management to open a branch in the Arab sector," he said. "The Israel Export Institute is mobilizing to promote exports in the sector. We still have to strengthen education and infrastructure, which will enable women to work near their villages."

Lautman was one of the first in the country to integrate Arabs and Druze into all levels of management - and not only in sewing workshops - in his Delta Galil plants. In 1969, when he opened a factory in the Druze village of Daliat al-Carmel, he appointed Imad Telhami as his deputy. Now, he says, Telhami heads Babcom Centers, which he founded. The company operates call centers in the north of the country.