Young Israeli Arabs Make Strides in Entering Workforce

Fluency in Hebrew and assertiveness at the interview are key. After all, 40% of Arabs 18 to 24 are neither working nor studying.

Ofer Vaknin

Lina Haskaya, a 24-year-old resident of the Arab town of Tira, knew before she started her job search a few months ago that it would be useless to look for work as an occupational psychologist at a company outside the Arab community. “The chances of being accepted were almost zero,” she says.

Holding a BA in psychology from the College for Academic Studies, she’s working, for now, as a placement coordinator for a manpower firm, a job she found through the Employment Guidance Center in Tira. It’s one of 15 such centers in Arab communities around the country.

Another six are planned. The centers are run by the Economy Ministry and operated by Alfanar, an organization specializing in workforce development, in cooperation with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.

“An Arab candidate has difficulty being hired, but for an Arab woman the problem is even greater because of various barriers, one of which is working evening shifts, especially at a job outside the town where she lives,” Haskaya says. “Despite the changes, Arab society still isn’t ready for a woman to return home late at night.”

Other barriers include not having fully fluent Hebrew and a lack of good public transportation for commuting to work. On top of all this is the problem of the head covering.

“Quite a few employers make it clear they aren’t willing to employ a woman with a head covering, even though demanding such a thing is illegal. Most of my friends who finished college in fields such as business administration and social sciences want to work in their field," Haskaya says.

"But they make do, like me, with work unrelated to their education, such as jobs in clothing stores. They usually fail because of the language issue and don’t pass the evaluation-center tests.”

Failure to bring Arabs into the workforce threatens the entire Israeli economy. According to the National Economic Council at the Prime Minister’s Office, as recently as 2009, only 29% of Israelis 25 to 29 entering the labor force were Arabs or ultra-Orthodox Jews. That figure is expected to rise to 41% by 2019 and 47% by 2029.

Meanwhile, it’s hard for an Israeli Arab to make it at a high-tech company, even if he has graduated from a prestigious university, says Rabia Hamdan, 29, who cites a long list of barriers.

“First, they have no experience, since they did not serve in the 8200 [army intelligence] unit. Second, while studying computers, students usually work in jobs like waiting on tables or construction, where it’s easy to get hired. But you don’t gain professional experience,” Hamdan says.

“Language is also a barrier. Another thing is a lack of assertiveness during the interview. If the interviewer isn’t aware in advance of these two problems, he sees them as a weakness and tends to rule the candidate out. And the last reason: Part of the high-tech industry produces for the defense sector, and we don’t have security clearance.”

Confidence is key

Marlene Alawi, 19, is studying accounting and business at Beit Berl College; the guidance center is paying part of her tuition. She works as a secretary for a dentist, a job she found through the center, but her goal is to work as a bookkeeper.

“My situation is relatively good, but the situation of my girlfriends is serious. Out of 11 women who studied with me in high school, only three are working. The rest are unemployed. Not only do they not have jobs, they don’t have the courage to look,” Alawi says.

“They lack self-confidence and prefer to withdraw into their shell. It’s awful, since that’s the way to degeneration — physical and mental. I also lack self-confidence, but I know I have to work, partly because of the tough financial situation at home. So I go to meetings with personal coaches at the guidance center. And to get over my shyness, I come to the center with my mother.”

Hamdan actually got a job he wanted, but it cost him a lot of effort and disappointment. When he finished his degree in computer science at Ramat Gan College, he sent resumes to dozens of employers and didn’t get a response.

After a “long time,” he says, he was hired by a technical-support department, not what he had in mind. So he went to Canada to improve his English.

“When I returned I worked for two small high-tech companies, but I was forced to leave because the conditions deteriorated,” he says. “After four months I was hired by Nice Systems, first in technical support. But later I was promoted and today I’m a trainer at the company, not just at Nice but also for the Employment Guidance Center in Tira.”

One figure from the Bank of Israel is enough to justify the existence of the Employment Guidance Centers: 40% of Arabs 18 to 24 are neither working nor studying. “The path from idleness to crime is very short,” says Nibras Taha, a social worker and organizational consultant, who runs the center in Tira.

“We handle everyone who is looking for work and has a hard time finding a suitable position. Our role is to prepare the candidate for the potential employer,” he says.

“It includes writing resumes, preparing for the job interview — including what not to say — courses in occupational Hebrew and computers, empowerment meetings and referrals to professional training outside the center, including for electricians, computer technicians, cooks, warehouse managers and event production. This year for the first time we’re sending Arab women to a chef’s course and an events-production course.”

The interview is the main hurdle for most Arab job seekers. Taha advises that when a candidate is asked to describe his or her worst traits, “the candidate should turn the sentence into a source of strength; for example, to say ‘I’m stubborn and won’t give up.’”

One might think the proximity of Tira, Kafr Qasem and Kalansua to the center of the country makes it easier for the job hunter, but Taha says the opposite is true.

“The proximity to the center of the country actually encourages the young to drop out of high school. The dropouts, if they don’t sit around the house, look for occasional work in restaurants or in renovations, leaving them with no occupational future,” he says.

“On the other hand, the Arabs of the Galilee show more creativity. They have fewer employment opportunities there, so they get a college education or go into business.”

Women at work

Ayman Saif, the director of the Authority for the Economic Development of the Minorities Sector at the Prime Minister’s Office, is optimistic. In the last seven years, the percentage of Arab women holding jobs or actively seeking work — the labor-force participation rate — has risen to almost 30% from 21%, he notes.

Their average number of years of schooling has climbed to 11 from eight a decade ago. Some 12% of Arab women now have a college education — a level similar to that of Arab men — compared with only 5% in 2008. The labor-force participation rate of Arab women with a college education is 77%.

“Today there are more Arab women students at the universities and colleges than male Arab students, and in another two to three years their number will be higher than that of Arab men,” Saif says. “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe the situation as a revolution.”

More and more Arab families aspire to a middle-class lifestyle, which requires that a family have more than one breadwinner. And having a higher education increases the chance of finding well-paying work.

Saif says that for years educated Arab women typically worked as teachers and social workers. But today they also seek to go into engineering and the paramedical professions. They know that teaching isn’t worth it financially; there’s a surplus of teachers.

“But I want to go back to the beginning to raise the Jewish employer’s awareness of the enormous potential hidden among Arab workers — men and women,” Saif says. “Yes, also in high-tech. I don’t want to call the present situation discrimination, but there’s a huge amount of work to be done to remove the stigmas.”