Who Is Building Israel's Homes?

There are around 50,000 foreign workers in the trade, of whom 82% are Palestinians. A dearth of training has made it a labor to find Israeli workers.

Emil Salman

The legend that it was ancient Israelites who built the great ancient Egyptian cities of Rameses and Pithom, as told in the Book of Genesis, sounds roughly as wondrous as the story of the Ten Plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea. Jews breaking their backs in construction? Give me a break! At most they were lounging in a chariot, supervising the works – if the contemporary Israel is any guide.

Yet maybe a little bit of Egypt was left inside us. Jews can build, as they showed ahead of Israel’s establishment, and after that, too. Construction decades ago was a common job among the Jews; even a distinguished one, next to agriculture – it fit the Zionist ethos of reviving the land and building the nation. The “New Jew” in the Zionist vision was not afraid of physical labor, unlike his contemporaries in the Diaspora.

“Builders in early Israel earned more than bank managers. It was considered a very distinguished profession,” says Haim Feiglin, among the owners of the construction company ZMH Hammerman. When he began working in construction as a boy, during summer vacation from school, he was alongside not a few proud Jewish laborers.

Times changed. Following the Six-Day War, low-cost Palestinian labor became available and the Jews were crowded out, Feiglin says.

But that’s just part of the story. In parallel with Jews leaving the profession, training for would-be builders dried up. Vocational colleges run by the state closed, one after another.

In recent years, however, the issue has resurfaced because the construction industry is desperately short of workers. Some sources think it needs tens of thousands of workers. Meanwhile, contractors have discovered that if they want to hire Israelis, they’ll have to settle for untrained ones, because there are almost no training institutions left.

In contrast to the 1940s and ’50s, construction today is highly technological. Workers need skills. They need training.

Thus, four years ago, a pilot began to train Israelis to work in construction. The pilot is a joint endeavor by the Histadrut labor federation, the Israel Builders Association (Boney Haaretz), and the Economy Ministry. So far, the venture has trained about 1,000 workers, of whom 700 went to work. (Training is four months and when the newly trained workers actually start to work and see that the profession is a hard one, many drop out.) Even of these 700, not all are still in the industry. Anecdotal evidence from the new trainees shows that those who stick to it are satisfied, though they have suggestions for improvements.

Meanwhile, Israel’s construction industry has about 50,000 foreign workers, of whom 82% are Palestinians and the rest mostly from Bulgaria, Moldova and China.

Mom’s upset

“To say that construction isn’t a profession for Jews is bullshit! If not us, who’s supposed to do it?” asks Mishal Iluz, who works at the construction company Solel Boneh as a molder and iron bender. “It’s a profession that brings a lot of satisfaction and it’s important to give it a better image, to attract quality people who aren’t afraid of work.”

Iluz took the course and began working a year and a half ago, building a sewage treatment plant in Rishon Letzion. In September, he’ll be starting a year-long course for construction site managers. “You learn a lot on the job,” says Iluz, who recently married and wanted a steady income. “I started as a simple laborer, but advanced in six months to manager. Now I have a team of 12 workers.”

How did the family react when you decided to become a construction worker?

“At first my parents were not supportive, especially not my mother. ‘Go study, be a manager, why get your hands dirty?’ they said. I took into account that there would be some tough months in the beginning, but their attitude also changed with time. Now they admit they were wrong. My wife supported me from the get-go.”

Many trainees tell of wary families. Tedesa Mansabat, 26, of Ashdod, also felt his parents were opposed because of the profession’s low image. “I also had a work accident at the start: I got a nail in my foot,” he says. “I had to stop working for three weeks, which naturally alarmed them. Every week or two, you hear about a construction worker falling. But meanwhile, they got used to it.”

Yitzhak Moyal, chairman of the Construction and Wood Workers Union, notes that after years of relying on foreign labor and training, with no Israelis building, it’s no wonder there’s nobody to teach Israelis to use advanced construction technology. “We opened a school and discovered we had nobody who could teach about today’s technology,” says Moyal. “The syllabus at the Economy Ministry hadn’t been updated for years.”

He believes the solution, which probably isn’t a realistic one, is to send several dozen people designated for management and teaching overseas to learn, and hope they return with the know-how to run a modern construction site and can in turn teach tomorrow’s managers. Private construction companies are already doing that very thing, says Moyal, but the problem has grown to national proportions.

“The government privatized training, so until the pilot began, there was no training for construction workers – only to a small extent in the private sector,” he says. “There is no directed or planned policy. There are workers who want to work, and employers who have decided they want Israeli labor, but nobody to teach them.”

Following the four-year pilot, more courses – for 2,000 people altogether – should be opening very soon, funded by the Economy Ministry at a cost of 80 million shekels ($20 million) over two years.

Come rain or shine

Employment terms have improved with a new collective bargaining agreement signed between the Histadrut and the Construction and Wood Workers Union, says Moyal. “The minimum wage per worker is 5,000 shekels a month – the highest minimum wage in the land,” notes Moyal. “It will be updated by seniority, not depending on the specific employer.”

In order to attract quality workers, graduates of the training course will start at 8,000 shekels per month, gross, and within months can reach 10,000 shekels. “What other profession in Israel starts at 8,000 shekels?” asks Moyal with pride, adding that the social benefits, including risk insurance, are also in place.

The really high pay will go to people who finish the training and proceed to site management courses, which is possible after three years of actual work in the field. After a year’s site management training, pay can start at 15,000 shekels and reach 25,000 shekels (gross) a month.

Money isn’t everything, of course: Less than two-thirds of the 1,000 who did the pilot so far stayed in construction, according to the Histadrut’s figures. Moyal sighs that they filter candidates carefully and warn them about the hard work, in all weather, rain or shine, but some realize after starting that construction isn’t for them.

Israel Skovronek of Jerusalem started working four years ago and is now, in parallel, studying to be a construction manager. “Some people break after the course. They don’t see what they’re doing there, carrying things and climbing scaffolding,” he says. “Then the ones who don’t really want to work in the industry start to fall like dominoes. But anybody who gave it a chance usually succeeded.” Out of 30 who started basic training, only five reached training for management, he says. Most of the rest moved onto other work, he suspects.

Iluz and Mansabat went into construction after the army. Skovronek, 36, found religion and is a Breslev Hasid, married with two daughters. He exemplifies people who came into construction later in life, after failing to find suitable work elsewhere. He assisted a gardener, worked at a kiosk; this was a chance to gain a profession and steady income, he explains. “My family was delighted at the move, said finally I was being a human being. They know what construction is and what the potential in the industry is. The ones who looked at me askance in the beginning were my wife’s family, but they support me today,” he recounts.

Skovronek works today for BB Yuval Construction and Engineering, a company that maintains public buildings in Jerusalem, as well as infrastructure works for the city’s light rail. He works mostly on the ground, not high up, he says, and is responsible for a team that does specific jobs. “For instance, 700 meters of tiling by Safra Square was my responsibility,” he explains. “I meet with the owners, receive a mission, choose the number of workers, materials and time required, and get to it.”

As an ultra-Orthodox Jew, isn’t he an odd duck in the industry? Skovronek had never been considered a “handy” man, he says. “At first, I was jealous of people who came to it with the right background. One had been a handyman, another had been engaged in his father’s awnings business. I came with no background, I barely knew what a hammer looked like.” Yet he persevered.

Meni Daboosh, 24, of Kfar Sava, a deputy site manager at a Tidhar project in Be’er Yaakov, is one with doubts. He’d like more Israelis in construction, but as a manager feels they can be less reliable than Chinese, European or Palestinian workers. Many Israelis shy from the hard work, he says. “Also, Israeli workers play tricks with you. You give them a job, even a pretty simple one; come back 20 minutes later and discover that the guy’s been smoking a cigarette or playing on his smartphone the whole time. Why would a manager want workers who demand more money and have less output? That may change, but that’s how it is now.”

Certain areas are now controlled by foreign workers, Daboosh says: tiling by the Palestinians, flooring by the Chinese – and they pay well. “It hurts me that Israelis don’t last in these professions. If they did, it would be a blessing. It would improve the economic situation of a lot of families.”

ZMH Hammerman co-owner Feiglin dismisses the claims about Israeli workers, but does say that those who enter construction very quickly develop thoughts of advancement. “They’ll work for a year or two as simple laborers, but their goal is to advance and become site and project managers. On the other hand, foreign workers come to make a living.”