More than three percent of the worlds population migrates, moving away from their native country. Within this percentage, the share of well-educated people who move to another country is particularly high, varying from country to country. The main reasons why educated people with academic degrees move away from their home country are: a desire to create new opportunities, a desire to advance their careers and a desire to improve their standards of living. Israel is no different in this respect, and there are indeed many educated Israelis living overseas.
The Israeli high-tech industry suffers from a steadily worsening shortage of skilled manpower. This shortage is one of the factors preventing the industry from reaching its full potential. At the same time, there are many Israelis living abroad whose return to Israel could help solve this problem in the short run. In light of this, in 2010 the government of Israel decided to establish a special program for dealing with this issue – the Returning to Industry and Academia in Israel program – that was launched in June 2013.
The programs target audience was defined based on an overall view of the needs of the Israeli economy, with the high-tech industry being especially important. Accordingly, the target audience for the program is every Israeli who holds a B.A. degree or higher, who lives abroad and plans to return to Israel in the near or distant future, and is interested in integrating into Israeli industry or academia, along with his or her family.
An additional and important target audience consists of employers in Israel. This unique view has also led to cooperation in the establishment and leadership of the program by the Office of the Chief Scientist at the Economy Ministry, the Immigration and Absorption Ministry, the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education and the Finance Ministry.
The program focuses on assisting returnees as well as understanding the factors that lead people to leave Israel in the first place. Other objectives include identifying obstacles and difficulties related to returning to Israel, solving problems, conducting studies and surveys in these areas, researching demand versus supply and initiating programs to bring about the needed change.
A survey  conducted in cooperation with the Central Bureau of Statistics  indicates that as of 2011 more than 22,000 Israelis were living abroad, constituting 3.6% of all Israelis who completed an academic degree since 1985. Of these, there are about 2,500 medical doctors and others with doctorates, constituting 9.4% of the total number of Israelis who hold those degrees.
To reinforce the findings of the survey, holders of degrees from Israeli universities living abroad and registered on the business social network LinkedIn were also examined. This check showed that 23,300 graduates of the seven Israeli universities were living abroad at the time the survey was conducted . Compared to other OECD countries with characteristics similar to Israel, this percentage resembles Denmarks (less than 5%) and is significantly lower than Finlands (less than 10%) and Irelands (less than 20%).
Brain transfer rather than brain drain
Examining the phenomenon over time has showed that, despite the significant increase in the number of graduates holding academic degrees in Israel, the number of educated Israelis living abroad either remains constant or decreases from year to year. Between 2008 and 2011, there was a 6.7% drop in the number of Israeli degree holders who remained abroad for more than three years . This length of time is the average period for staying abroad for purposes of a post-doctorate, relocation on behalf of an Israeli firm or filling a particular position.
Segmentation by academic disciplines shows that graduates in certain fields live abroad for a longer period than others. For example, more than 10% of holders of degrees in the exact sciences remained abroad for more than three years. This phenomenon requires further research in order to understand the reasons this group remains abroad longer. This research should examine the number of years they remain abroad and should also recommend steps Israel can take on this issue.
These figures show that, contrary to the prevailing impression, there is no accumulation or increase in the number of Israelis holding various degrees who live abroad. However, it is possible that this phenomenon can be partially explained by the deep economic recession during those years. For the most part, Israelis who go abroad for their post-docs as well as those who go abroad to work and develop their careers return to Israel at the end of a certain period of time. Therefore, it appears that it is possible to relate to the phenomenon as brain transfer rather than as brain drain.
The distinction between brain drain and brain transfer enables an examination of the phenomenon in light of the opportunities inherent in it. While brain drain applies to university graduates who leave their country of origin and do not return to it for long periods, brain transfer refers to those who leave their country of origin and return to it a number of times during the course of their career.
Brain transfer is also part of the development of Israeli industry. Many Israeli companies choose to establish branches elsewhere in the world in order to be close to target markets and investors, in the same way that international companies establish research and development centers in Israel. This global partnership requires mobility of employees and executives, who contribute to the Israeli economy both when they are abroad and upon their return to Israel.
Brain transfer has great potential, since during their stay abroad these Israelis enhance their human capital and accumulate experience relevant to the Israeli economy. If we are able to return them to Israel, we will benefit from their significant contribution to the economy and to the country, including, among other things, management experience, sales and exports, establishing new industrial plants and an impact on Israeli academia.
Despite this great potential, there are many cases in which educated Israelis who return to Israel after a long period abroad have difficulty finding employment – especially those with PhD degrees in the natural sciences and the exact sciences. In light of this difficulty, the national program to bring back academics is engaged in examining the need to initiate special programs for this population, such as a grant program to encourage the high-tech industry to hire PhD holders or to direct graduates in the life sciences to pursue further educational opportunities in the global pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries as an alternative to an academic post-doc. These types of programs could help both returning Israelis and Israeli industry.
By any measure, investing in bringing educated Israelis back to Israel pays off. The great potential becomes very clear in light of a comparison between the cost of direct investment in training and the cost of bringing them back to Israel in terms of return on investment. 
As of the end of 2014 – only about a year and a half after its launch – more than 4,000 educated Israelis living abroad have enrolled in the program. They constitute about a quarter of the Israeli degree holders living abroad who can come back and integrate into Israeli academia and industry, as stated in the programs definition. About half of the Israelis with doctoral degrees who live abroad have registered with the program. In addition, more than 150 employers interested in high-quality manpower with international experience have partnered with the program.
The program offers a package of information and administrative help regarding the process of returning to Israel. It also helps identify suitable positions, resolves bureaucratic obstacles and more. An Internet fast track has been introduced at the National Insurance Institute for the benefit of returnees registered with the program. Moreover, web workshops have been developed for dealing with absorption issues related to family members and for preparing to enter the local workforce.
Those who wish to return to Israel through the program also receive help with plane tickets to Israel for job interviews, and an informative website has been established for them that offers a question and answer forum as well as information about programs and scholarships, and about daily life in Israel.
In addition, the program organizes meetings with educated Israelis living abroad, keeps in touch with them via a monthly bulletin, maintains a focused and up-to-date job listing and puts together targeted solutions to ease re-entry into Israeli life and the Israeli workplace. So far more than 250 Israeli degree holders living abroad have returned home through the program.
A national effort
The effort to bring back educated Israelis is a national effort that requires partnership between the government and all sectors of society. Israeli industry and academia must join hands with the program in order to benefit fully from this resource. Although the assimilation of a highly educated Israeli who has been living abroad can be challenging due to the hardships of transitioning and acclimatizing back to Israel, the benefits to both the absorbing organization and to the economy as a whole are priceless.
Written by the Returning to Industry and Academia in Israel program and the Chief Scientist at the Economy and Industry Ministry.