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Around 17,500 workers lost their jobs in December, the highest one-month figure in more than 20 years, the Employment Service says. A year earlier, only 10,400 workers were laid off.

"The average monthly number of those fired is 10,000, and this is an exceptional rise of 80%," said Yossi Farhi, the director general of the Employment Service.

He said he feared the new record would be broken in 2009 if predictions that the world economy will continue to worsen come true. This would also affect Israel.

The Bank of Israel forecasts that 46,000 more people will be added to the unemployment rolls in 2009.

The number of job seekers, defined as those who report to employment offices, was 205,800 in December. This was a 3% increase over November and broke the 200,000 barrier. There was an increase of 8.3% in the number of people with college degrees looking for work, Farhi said. "This shows that in the current crisis, professionals and college graduates are paying a heavier price than unskilled workers or those without degrees," he added.

Another change in the distribution of the newly unemployed was that the largest group came from the center of the country, not the periphery. Some 5,900 of those who lost their jobs in December live in the Dan Region, compared with 4,000 in the north.

The number of high-tech employees laid off also stands out: 690 software engineers compared with 318 in November and only about 100 on average in previous months, the Employment Service said.

The service received requests for 23,272 new workers in December, and the service managed to place the unemployed in 40% of the openings. Nevertheless, most of the offers of new jobs received by the service were for jobs such as unskilled construction work or factory labor. Only a few of the jobs were in high tech or finance.

The Employment Service's figures match those of the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, which shows a steep drop in the number of available jobs in the last quarter of 2008.

The slowdown has been going on for a year. The number of open jobs in the last three months of 2008 fell 45% compared with the previous three months, and 60% compared with the same quarter of 2007. This is the largest fall in jobs since the ministry began collecting such figures.

Ofer Eini, the chairman of the Histadrut labor federation, responded yesterday: "I fear that March will be a catastrophic month for Israeli employment."

He called on party leaders to formulate a joint emergency economic plan, and called for the implementation of the Histadrut's plans to fight unemployment.