Israel's High-tech Staff Shortage Gives Immigrants a Rare Chance

Corin Degani
Corin Degani
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Jake Levant (center) with employees of Lightico who immigrated to Israel.
Jake Levant (center) with employees of Lightico who immigrated to Israel.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Corin Degani
Corin Degani

Immigrating to a new country is generally seen as a challenge that often involves difficulties finding work and financial setbacks. In Israel, a nation of immigrants, however, a unique phenomenon is taking hold. The local high-tech industry has long been a professional destination for immigrants, but over the past year or two, even immigrants who lack experience or background in the tech industry have found exceptional opportunities.

The demand for these workers – most of whom come from English-speaking countries or speak other Western European languages – is centered in sectors that are blossoming in Israel alongside the core technical positions. Chief among them are jobs in sales and other positions that include working with customers.

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One notable testament to this phenomenon is Salesclass, an inexpensive course that trains new immigrants for entry-level positions in high-tech sales. The third class to complete the course saw some 80 percent of the students find jobs in the industry. The fourth session – with more participants – will open soon, with plans to begin a new course on content writing.

“These are professional opportunities that didn’t exist two years ago,” says Jake Levant, who identified local high-tech companies’ burning need for salespeople and founded the course, bringing on experts from well-known companies, like Similiarweb and Amazon, to serve as lecturers. “Up until two years ago, immigrants asked themselves how they would make money, and now there’s a solution. It’s not just making aliyah to Israel, but also a step up professionally.”

According to the quarterly employment report published by OurCrowd at the end of August, sales and business development positions had the second highest demand, making up 15 percent of open jobs. The most in demand position is software engineers, which make up 18 percent of open positions.

The high demand is reflected in the salaries. “Usually the graduates of the course enter the industry at a salary of 18,000 shekels to 20,000 shekels ($5,600-6,200) a month,” says Levant, who also serves as the marketing vice president of the start up Lightico. “When someone tells me that they were offered 15,000 shekels a month, I tell them: ‘Don’t take it.’”

Even more surprising is the modest scope of Levant’s course. Students meet twice a week on Zoom for only a few weeks. “They need to be ready to change their professional lives within six weeks,” he says of the course participants. He recounts success stories, which include professional retraining for high-tech of one participant who was a shepherd and another who was homeless and completed the course on his phone.

Coincidentally or not, Lightico is an exceptional example of new immigrant integration into high-tech. Almost half of the firm’s 120 employees are new immigrants. Some hail from English-speaking countries like the United States, Canada and Britain, but the company also employs olim from Argentina, India and Ethiopia. On one side of the open plan office where the company operates in central Tel Aviv sit Israeli developers. On the other side of the office sit the sales, customer service and other employees – most of whom are immigrants. “They speak more than 10 languages here,” Levant says.

Tech revolution

While the immigrant takeover of sales and customer service may be new, olim make up a high percentage of the entire high-tech industry – much larger than their relative share of the population. According to research by the National Economic Council, which is set to be released soon, about 30 percent of industry employees are olim – in other words, people who moved to Israel under the Law of Return – as of 2018.

This is an enormous percentage, but it doesn’t only include new immigrants. Also included, for example, are workers who arrived in Israel as children in the 1990s as part of the large waves of aliyah from the former Soviet Union.

According to the Aliyah and Integration Ministry, 274,000 immigrants arrived in Israel over the past decade, comprising three percent of the population. But in many high tech companies, including DataRails, Rookout, Melio, Bringg, Panorays and Ubtel, olim who arrived over the past decade make up 15 to 20 percent of the employees.

It appears that the coronavirus pandemic only amplified this trend. Despite the sharp drop in immigration in 2020, the number of olim from North America fell only slightly and remained over 3,000 – similar to the years preceding the pandemic. This year, the number of olim from North America is expected to rise significantly and could reach 5,000. Of these, the number of young people between the ages of 21 and 35 is set to climb by over 40 percent compared to last year. Along with the United States and Canada, other major countries of origin include Russia and Ukraine.

“In March 2020, we were supposed to hold a large fair in North America,” said Zev Gershinsky, executive vice president of Nefesh B’Nefesh, a nonprofit organization that encourages aliyah and aids new immigrants from English-speaking countries. “The event was planned for 1,000 families, but because of the pandemic it moved to Zoom, and 2,500 households participated. We understood there was an opportunity here. In the 12 months since, the number of new [potential olim who have opened aliyah files online] doubled. The jump that we saw this year in the number of olim is in fact the fulfillment of this interest.”

Gershinsky attributes a large part of the new trend to the coronavirus: “Every crisis creates a sense of rethinking your plans, and the pandemic also brought down psychological barriers. If people are already connected to their families through Zoom, does it matter where they are? In regards to employment, people spoke to us about their aliyah plans in hushed tones, so their bosses wouldn’t overhear. Today, managers don’t care where their workers are as long as they log onto Zoom on time.”

For Alex Gertel, 23, the coronavirus crisis was a catalyst. Gertel, who grew up in Philadelphia and studied computer science and business administration in Los Angeles, made the move to Israel two months ago. He lives alone in the Florentin neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. Today he works as a programmer at a start-up, BigId, which develops tools for managing private customer data. Gertel had worked at the company as an intern for the past two summers.

Employees at DataRails' offices.Credit: Data Rails

“I always planned to move here,” says Gertel, whose older brother also lives in Tel Aviv and works in high-tech, “but when the coronavirus began it became more attractive, because crazy things happened in the United States. I took advantage of the opportunity with BigId,” he said.

In contrast, Jillian Goldberg, VP of marketing and investor relations for Guardknox, a Ramle-based startup developing cybersecurity products for automotive apps and platforms, fell into the industry almost by accident. Goldberg, 30, came to Israel for a graduate degree at Tel Aviv University after working as a science teacher in Texas.

“I had a student visa and was planning to leave at the end of my studies. One of the lecturers asked if I’d like to work on a start-up he’d founded, and I told him he was crazy. I thought I’d stay in Israel for a year, and since then, six years have gone by,” she says.

The lecturer was Guardknox CEO Moshe Shlisel, one of the company’s three founders, who is overseeing Goldberg professionally. “I think many young people like me have many opportunities in Israel and a broader career horizon,” says Goldberg, who has become an enthusiastic spokeswoman for Israeli high-tech.

‘In America, the rules are more restrictive’

Rachel Berger, VP of employment and recruitment at Nefesh B’Nefesh, says that immigrants’ preferences have clearly changed in the last two to three years. “For 20 years I’ve been helping immigrants from North America find employment. Over the years their first priority was to find work in NGOs and nonprofit groups, but because of the Israeli high-tech’s success, people’s first priority now is to go into the industry. It’s a ‘tech revolution’ and the coronavirus [crisis] simply strengthened it.”

Nefesh B’Nefesh also helps to market the course and is in touch with about 70 high-tech companies. “There’s a high demand for English-speaking sales and marketing people,” says Berger. “Far above what we can provide.”

Quite a few organizations help immigrants find employment in Israeli high-tech and offer mentoring from people in the industry or help with networking. One such organization is Gvahim, which helps academics find employment.

Gvahim Tech, a program launched in 2017, is aimed at reducing the shortage of software developers by finding potential candidates abroad and encouraging them to settle in Israel.

“We built a very flexible program of personal consultation, and long before the [coronavirus pandemic] it was all done on Zoom,” says Jonni Niemann, who runs Gvahim tech.

“After three or four consultation meetings, we assign the candidate to an Israeli mentor. Since Israelis love to volunteer and help, we have more than 120 mentors from leading high-tech companies. The immigrant finds a supportive community and mentors often make connections to companies. That helps candidates decide to take the leap.”

It was hard to find the candidates at first, Niemann says, but now the program is sustained by word-of-mouth. While 47 developers found work and settled in Israel in 2017, this year 160 developers are expected to do so. A little more than a quarter are from Russia and Ukraine. A similar number hail from Argentina and Brazil. Developers from the United States make up about 16 percent of this year’s candidates, and 90 percent find employment in the industry, Niemann says.

One of the companies that Gvahim works with is the social trading and investment platform eToro. About 100 of the company’s 900 employees in Israel are new immigrants. About 60 percent of them arrived in the last three or four years, says Miri Kedem, the company’s VP of human resources.

“Over the years,” she says, “we’ve been characterized by employing immigrants. First of all because the company’s activities include support for English, Italian and Spanish-speaking clients, among others. We hired new immigrants for entry-level positions on the basis of language, but over the years immigrants have moved into positions that demand financial understanding of the capital and investments market, as well as other professional departments like insurance and trade.”

“In the past we didn’t fully appreciate the experience that immigrants brought with them from their countries of origin,” says Lilach Dor, the company’s human resources business partner manager. “Today we understand that experience better, especially when it comes to immigrants from the United States, who have worked in large banks and companies. Their background is a big help to us in business ventures.”

State intervention

The deepening personnel crisis is forcing the government to seek new solutions. The Innovation Authority, which is under the Science, Technology and Space Ministry, recently offered 30 million shekels to bodies that can propose models to increase the supply of high-tech workers. The ministry is seeking to locate and employ people from abroad, such as new immigrants, returning Israelis and foreign experts.

The question is whether the state should be earmarking more funds to encourage immigrants to enter high-tech, given that young people from all over the world are thronging to the industry and there is a slew of organizations to mediate between the olim and the high-tech industry.

Levant says he works with new immigrants because it’s familiar. In his opinion, there’s no reason to import workers from Boston or New York when suitable employees can be trained in Israel. “I’m not a great supporter of government intervention, but in the case of professional training, it’s necessary,” he says. “The number of courses I can run is limited and small- and medium-sized companies find it hard to produce such courses on their own. We must make it possible for more people to enjoy these possibilities.”

In any case, it’s clear that the current window of high-tech opportunities is a rare opening for social mobility, and requires very little training for new candidates. It remains to be seen who will most benefit.

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