Bye, bye Bessie.
Bye, bye Bessie: Today's kids want silicon, not soil. Photo by Eyal Toueg
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Daniel Bar-On
U.S. college graduate Jaye Kasper just completed an internship at TA start-up Any.do. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
David Bachar
At least the farmers still have some volunteers: Israeli kids help harvest potatoes on a kibbutz. Photo by David Bachar

For thousands of college graduates who still haven't found their dream job, or any job for that matter, professional internships in Israel are becoming the option of choice. The opportunity to gain hands-on job experience is particularly beckoning to young Americans, who've discovered in recent years that a college degree is no longer a guaranteed ticket to gainful employment.

"Thirty years ago, these kids would come to Israel to milk cows on a kibbutz. Now they're coming to work in high-tech companies in Tel Aviv," says Avi Rubel, the executive director of Masa North America, which runs many of these internship programs. Masa is a joint venture of the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency.

Yet another interesting twist is that if in the past young Israelis would go to America to gain experience that would make them more attractive job candidates back home, today it is the Americans who are coming to Israel for that very same reason.

"Israel is known around the world as a 'start-up nation,' and these college graduates want to boost their resumes, so having work experience in Israel gives them an edge, and it's certainly a better option than working as a barista at Starbucks," says Rubel.

In fact, Israel has become so associated with startup-ups that it's been dubbed "Silicon Wadi," a-la that hotbed of technology in the Silicon Valley, California.

For many young incomers, it's a way to do something useful and pass time until the global economy turns around. For others, especially the relatively older ones, it's an opportunity to explore a career change once they've reached a dead end.

For still others, it's a way of checking out the possibility of aliyah by working and living among Israelis.

About five organizations, each working with its own separate network of employers, are involved in placing these university graduates in internships in Israel. Altogether, they work with several hundred employers, mainly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The best known among these organizations is Career Israel.

Five years ago, when most of these programs were first launched, they attracted a total of 850 participants. This year, the number ballooned to 2,300, and according to Rubel, this is just the tip of the iceberg. "We anticipate that by 2015, there'll be somewhere between 4,000 and 4,500 young Jewish adults participating in these internship programs. Of all the programs we run in Israel, this is our fastest-growing sector," he says. All told, close to 11,500 young adults have interned in Israel through these programs in recent years, according to Rubel.

About 25 percent of the participants intern at high-tech companies, he says. The others span the spectrum. Some participants work in public relations and finance, others work with African refugees and autistic children, some are placed at government agencies, and still others work in the arts, designing costumes for actors on the Tel Aviv stage.

Most of the internships last from five months to a year and require the participants to put in a 30-hour week. Not only don't these internships pay, but the participants are expected to fork out $6,000 to enroll, mainly to cover the costs of their housing and ulpan. For those coming from the United States, where internships have become almost a mandatory requirement for job market entry these days, the costs of the program don't seem to be a deterrent.

"When I tell Israelis that I work in high-tech but that I don't get paid, they're in absolute shock," says Jaye Kasper, a 23-year-old who recently graduated from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and has just completed an internship at Any.do, an Internet start-up in Tel Aviv. "But honestly, the tools I've acquired and the contacts I've made - I couldn't have paid enough for that."

A 2008 survey undertaken by the National Association of College Graduates and Employers found that 50 percent of all college graduates in the United States had participated in internships. That compares with merely 17 percent in 1992.

But several recent lawsuits have revealed that in many cases, despite the glamorous descriptions that come along with them, these internships essentially amount to exploitation of unpaid labor. As a result, many states have begun to crack down on them.

Those participating in internships in Israel insist that is not the case here. "This was not about grabbing coffee or lunch for anyone or making photocopies. I actually got to work," maintains Kasper. "I was involved in implementing new services, translating programs into different languages, and my co-workers would often consult with me about the American market because they saw me as a representative of that market."

Rubel calls it a "win-win" situation. "The interns are gaining fabulous experience, while their employers get people in the office who speak the language of their customers," says Rubel. Plus, he says, nobody is taking away jobs from Israelis because Israelis would never agree to work for free.

After working in Deloitte Consulting, Larissa Marco, 25, a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, started an internship last October at MATIMOP, a government agency that promotes bilateral research and development projects. Initially, she was responsible for specific countries, but eventually, she was put in charge of much of the agency's collaboration efforts with Western Europe. In September, she will begin Harvard Business School. "There's no question that having had the chance to work in another country and to see how the public sector interacts with the private sector will help me wherever I go," she says.

About 65 percent of the participants in the internship programs come from North America, according to Rubel. The rest come from places as diverse as England, Scotland, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, South Africa and Kazakhstan.

Danny Davies, who hails from Manchester, England, spent the past year interning and then working for pay as an editor at AllMyFaves, a Tel Aviv-based Internet company. In September, he returns to London, where he will begin law school. "I could've easily had an internship in London, but that would have been just a job," says the 24-year-old. "As a Jew, it was important for me to experience this country. I'd heard from friends that Tel Aviv was a liberal and open place with lots of job opportunities. I thought it was worth a look, and I was right."

Although Davies says he was offered several internships in the legal profession, he preferred to be placed in high-tech. "I figured that since I was going to become a corporate lawyer, it was a good idea for me to get experience in the field in which I'd be consulting," he says.

Davies says he's become such an intrinsic part of operations at AllMyFaves that he will continue working for the company part-time from London while he's attending law school.

For Kasper, by contrast, high-tech was not a top choice. "I had studied business administration, and I asked for an internship in finance, but I was told that I didn't have enough experience and that I should take a position in high-tech instead," she says. "I was resistant because I knew nothing about technology, and I knew I'd be working with all these programmers and computer scientists, all of them men, by the way." In the end, she says, it turned out to be such a worthwhile experience that she even contemplated staying on another year.

After graduating from the Pratt Institute in New York, Beth Meluch decided that she didn't want to pursue a career in the arts, and instead began running a Pilates studio in Brooklyn, where she says she learned she liked working with people. After taking a trip to Israel on Birthright, she decided she wanted to come back. This year, she interned at the Association for Children at Risk, where she worked with autistic children. The experience turned out to be so fulfilling, she says, that she decided to stay in Israel and perhaps pursue a graduate degree in art or occupational therapy. "I felt in New York that I was in a rat race and that I was only driven by my career," she says. "It's different here, and I like that."

Although the goal of these internships is not specifically to promote aliyah, Rubel estimates that about 10 percent of the participants in these programs either end up staying in Israel or eventually come back to live in the country.

Another such example is 27-year-old Karen Vellensky, who graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey with a degree in costume technology. She did find work straight out of college at a local theater company, but it was a seasonal contract that was eventually terminated. "I had always dreamed of working on a kibbutz, so I thought that here's my opportunity," she recalls.

The kibbutz plan never materialized, but Vellensky did land an internship last year at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv, where she worked backstage on hair and makeup design and sometimes even costume fittings. When the internship was over, Vellensky was asked to stay on full time. She accepted.