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The large waiting room at Tel Aviv branch of the Employment Service may have been packed with people early last week, but it was surprisingly quiet and calm. The unemployed, who have come to sign on so they can receive their unemployment benefits - or if they are very, very lucky find a lead for an appropriate job - sit quietly without speaking to one another. They simply sit in their seats quietly waiting for their turn to see a clerk.

Oded (all the names of the unemployed in this story are pseudonyms) is 31, an engineer who until very recently managed a team in a startup. The company collapsed and started cutting back, and Oded was fired. Since then he comes once a week to the employment bureau, but refuses to accept any of the jobs offered. "I am not really looking here for jobs anymore - I'm really coming to sign on [for unemployment]," he admitted.

Michal is sitting and waiting near Oded. She is 28, has an MBA and worked in a real estate company before being fired in a round of cutbacks. Naor, 33, worked for a large computer company. Michal and Naor have come to the Employment Service for the first time. They still have hopes that the service will find them a job.

It is easy to pick out the newly fired, those who joined the ranks of the jobless only recently: They are young, from the Tel Aviv area, well-dressed, educated, well-mannered and waiting patiently every week at the Employment Service for their turn. Some only lost their jobs last week. Those who have been here a few times have learned how to get out faster: They go straight to the computer terminal, somewhat like an ATM, to swipe their cards, while others need the unemployment clerk to sign their forms so they can collect an unemployment stipend.

Most are well-dressed, as if they were going for a day at the office, and with a briefcase - possibly to make a good impression at an interview later in the day. As the morning winds on, the numbers thin out and by noon the offices are almost empty.

In March the number of newly-unemployed hit over 20,000, but last week was not representative because of the approaching Passover holiday. Normally, say Employment Service employees, it is much more packed. But the employment bureau waiting room accurately reflects the Employment Service's official figures: In February, 16,108 people were fired, 65% of the total 24,636 new job-seekers. These numbers reflect those fired, not those who left voluntarily.

Most of those fired so far in 2009 are better educated and were employed in professions with higher salaries than those fired during the same period of 2008. Half of the newly-fired are young, aged 18-34, and 57% are male. A third of those fired live in the Dan region, between Herzliya and Yavneh. The number of fired employees in this region jumped 80% over last year. The north, including Haifa, has also taken a painful wave of firings, with a jump of 68%. The south actually had the smallest increase in firings, but this number was still huge: 55%.

"Unemployment is a plague, but unlike past years, the main victims are high-tech people, engineers and from startups," says the director general of the Employment Service, Yossi Farhi. The numbers reflect this. In February 2009 there was a 87% jump in the number of college graduates fired. They had worked as researchers, lecturers and engineers mostly, including many from the high-tech sector. Such workers now make up 16% of the newly-fired.

Professionals and technical workers showed a 88% rise in the numbers let go compared to last year, and represent 11% of those recently fired. Senior executives are also being laid off at a pace 70% higher than in 2008.

"There is huge pressure on the bureau on one hand, and great embarrassment on the other. These are people who had very high salaries, and until recently headhunters enticed them with wonderful conditions. Suddenly, they found themselves without a salary," explains Farhi.

Nevertheless, a quarter of those fired in February worked in factories, manufacturing or construction. But their number also jumped 85% this year. The sector with the biggest rise in layoffs was agriculture, up 96%, though they comprised only 1% of those fired because of the relatively small number of people working in agriculture.

A few professions have been less affected by the recession: Administrative workers saw "only" a 42% rise in layoffs, the Employment Service figures show. Sales and service personnel jobless were up 46%, compared to the overall average of 69%.

The real difference shows in the education levels of the newly jobless. The number of fired college graduates leaped 90% this year, and made up a quarter of those fired in the first quarter of 2009.

Oded is not at all pleased with the jobs the bureau has to offer: "They are offering me positions that I was in charge of before I was fired - these are beneath my level," he said. Oded is not alone. Most of the newly jobless, says the Employment Service, are not taking their new situation easily. "This is a high-quality group who wants to work and not just receive unemployment, but the service cannot always meet their expectations," says Farhi.