Whether because of shrinking government stipends or the pull of a better material life, Haredi men seem to be gingerly entering the workforce. This should be cause for cheer because their absence deals a double blow to the economy, depriving it of labor, and burdening those who do work with higher taxes. Moreover, the problem grows more painful as the proportion of Haredim in the population increases.
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But sending Haredi men to offices and factory floors is not such a simple process.
There’s the warm-body theory, which holds that every addition of manpower to the workforce is good, no matter what their skills are and no matter what they may leave behind at home. Those who hold this theory look at the 1990s, when Russian immigrants poured into the country. There were adjustment problems, evidenced by a soaring unemployment rate but ultimately, the Russians found jobs increasingly commensurate with their skills and training. The labor force grew, and so did output. All Israelis were better off in the end.
By the warm-body theory, the 2010s can be a repeat of that era, with Arab women – whose labor force participation rate is also notoriously low – joining ultra-Orthodox men instead of Russians. Heigh-ho,heigh-ho, it's off to work they go.
So what’s the downside?
The numbers on Haredi employment and education point to exactly what the downside is. We can examine them through the lens of a typical kollel student who has decided to take the big step.
Our young man has reason to be encouraged. True, the social stigma in their communities on men having jobs and the anathemas pronounced by rabbis on those who don’t devote their life to Torah study are strong disincentives, but the fact is a lot of his friends and relatives have taken jobs. The Bank of Israel, crunching numbers from the Central Bureau of Statistics, estimated earlier this year that the rate of employment among Haredi males had risen from 38.7% in 2009 to 45.6% in 2011 (among those who graduated from a higher yeshiva) or from 30.7% to 38.3% (men belonging to households in which there are “continuing” yeshiva graduates, the core of the Haredi population).
Now, bear in mind that while these figures do represent some growth in the Haredi labor force participation rate, there’s still a long way to go. Among non-Haredi Jews, the rate last year was 81.4%. Moreover, non-Haredi Jews worked more hours per week (46 versus no more than 39.5 for Haredim).
But our neophyte job seeker has probably never heard of the Bank of Israel or the Central Bureau of Statistics. He's also unlikely to have learned very much math during his school years.
According to the Council for Higher Education, the number of ultra-Orthodox students in study programs geared to the ultra-Orthodox sector rose from around 2,000 in 2005 to around 5,000 in 2010, with most of the growth occurring among men. But those numbers are tiny compared to the numbers of students who are not getting any modern education at all.
Don't know no history
Another Central Bureau of Statistics survey asked what subjects were taught in the various educational streams – secular Jewish, state religious, Arab and Haredi. Without even addressing the quality of teaching, the study found that 83% of Haredi elementary schools taught math (versus 100% in all the other streams), with the rate falling to 41% in post-elementary education.
The same kind of statistics occur in other core subjects, leading to absurdities such as Hebrew being taught in more Israeli-Arab high schools (66.8%) than in Haredi equivalents (42.3%).
Worse still, these subjects are probably being taught poorly in the Haredi schools. A Haaretz analysis published last week of the nationwide Meitzav examination of school achievement found that 54% of Haredi elementary school students tested in the bottom two deciles. Admittedly, only a small percentage of schools gave the test at all, but given the absence of teaching to begin with it is hard to imagine that the other schools as a group would perform any better.
But our jobseeker doesn’t know any of this. After all, almost no one else he knows has ever applied for a job and he never got a taste of the bottom rungs of the labor market by working as a waiter or call service drone while a student. He goes from employer to employer with a CV highlighting his lack of experience and education, fails a battery of job tests, refuses to shake hands with his female interviewer and looks at her curiously when she makes a passing reference to some bit of popular culture.
So our job seeker fails, which would not surprise him if he had seen and understood the statistics.
The unemployment rate among Haredi men is similar to the rest of the uneducated population. A study by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies tracked a steady decline in employment rates for men between 35 and 54, with four years of education or less, from 1979 to 2011. The line shows a steady descent for them and Haredi males to less than 50%. The reason, of course, is that neither group has the qualifications to work in a modern economy. Whereas three or four decades ago, you could learn your skills on the job, working today requires a skill set that takes years of preparation in and out of school. The uneducated simply don’t obtain it.
But all is not lost. His friends and family have found out our young man is looking for a job. By whispers, the word reaches his rabbi about his financial struggles and his desperate attempt to solve them by finding a job. And so strings are pulled and soon the young man finds himself working in the Haredi public sector as a male mikve attendant or shatnes inspector at a concrete plant. He’s collecting a salary of sorts and enters the statistics as a gainfully employed Haredi male.
In doing so he joins the great majority of Haredim who are working in the public sector. Among non-Haredi Jews, 68.8 percent worked in the business sector, while among Haredim the numbers were no more than 25 percent. The high rate of public sector employment among Haredim suggests there is a lot of make-up work going on.
There may be fewer Haredim crowding into the workplace today than there were Russians 20 years ago, and Israel's economy today is undoubtedly much larger. But the Russians came with the professional and social skills a modern labor market demands; the Haredim won’t find it nearly as easy.