Why Can't Israeli Arabs Find Jobs in High-tech?

Israeli-Arab engineering graduates get the cold shoulder when they try to find work in Startup Nation. 'My Jewish classmates with similar grades have had jobs for several months at companies I’ve applied to' is an all-too-common gripe.

Ofer Vaknin

Taha Zoabi is in the final year of his electronic-engineering degree at Tel Aviv University. He’s been trying to find a job for the past seven months, but so far the task has proved impossible.

“I’ve sent my résumé to a long list of high-tech companies that I found nearly every which way – online, employment fairs and even newspaper ads – but I haven’t had any results yet,” says Zoabi, 24, originally from the northern village of Naura and now living in Tel Aviv.

Zoabi says he attended the last employment fair held by Tel Aviv University and met with representatives of some of Israel’s largest companies. “They received my résumé, told me about the company’s operations and said they’d get back to me. We didn’t talk salary or conditions, but I left each meeting feeling like I’d left a good impression, and thought I’d at least be invited in for an interview – these companies need employees, given the repeated hiring ads they publish.”

But his optimism quickly faded. “Since then, nothing has happened,” says Zoabi. “I haven’t even been called in for one interview. My average grade isn’t bad – an 81 – and I’m good at electronics-component programming, a field with a high demand for workers. Still, it hasn’t helped.”

Asked whether he thinks the fact that he’s an Arab is a factor, he answers in the affirmative. “My Jewish classmates with similar grades have had jobs for several months at companies that I applied to. Clearly, there are employers who are hesitant to employ Arabs – I haven’t even been called in for an interview. If I was initially optimistic, now I’m less so. And clearly the current tension is making it even harder.”

Maron Eid, 25, originally from Nazareth and now also living in Tel Aviv, finished his degree in mechanical engineering at Tel Aviv University this summer. He’s been looking for work ever since, to no avail.

One problem is that there isn’t a well-defined career path for people with his degree, he notes – it’s not like people graduating with a law degree, who go straight to a job at a law firm, for instance. Therefore, it’s particularly important to have connections at a workplace in order to be hired, he says.

Arabs face several problems when trying to be hired as engineers, he explains. They tend to be younger than Jewish applicants, since they didn’t serve in the army for three years, and they also lack the experience their Jewish compatriots gained in the army’s technical divisions. Furthermore, generally they don’t have the inside connections that are so important to getting hired.

Olivier Fitoussi

Furthermore, Arab society does not encourage its youngsters to seek out careers in engineering. Instead, it encourages employment in fields in which Arabs are already well represented – such as medicine, pharmacology and law. “Most people my age want to work in service jobs, not to build machines,” says Eid.

The defense issue

And then there’s the defense issue. There is a lot of work in the defense industry, but it’s closed to Arab candidates. “Not only is Rafael Advanced Defense Systems unwilling to hire me, even a company like Motorola wouldn’t take me on – since when I sent my résumé, I was told they were working on a major project for the defense establishment,” he says.

Eid has sent out 150 résumés so far, yet is yet to receive a single response – not even from the Israel Electric Corporation. “Every day I apply for a job or two. Lately, I’ve been applying mainly to the large companies, those with human resources departments, which seem less antagonistic toward Arab candidates.”

In the meantime, he’s making ends meet by volunteering for Engineers Without Borders, which makes useful mechanical machines for the poor in Israel and abroad, and also by teaching extracurricular robotics activities at Arab primary schools.

Eiad Shalabne, from Rehovot, finished his MBA specializing in finance and marketing a year and a half ago at the University of Colorado. The 34-year-old worked as an analyst at a startup incubator there, and at Comcast, the world’s largest cable company. Five months ago, while he was still in the United States, he started looking for a job in Israel online and with the assistance of the Immigrant Absorption Ministry.

“I’m not interested in the capital market – I’m looking for work for a high-tech company in strategic management and business development,” Shalabne says. He’s approached scores of companies, but most of them are not currently hiring.

“I speak English well because of my studies in the United States and have good recommendations, but it doesn’t help,” he recounts. “Not a single company answered me. One sent an automated reply saying, ‘We appreciate your application but are not looking to fill the position. We will be in touch with you in the future.’ This saddens me, because I know that other candidates for those jobs got responses. Meanwhile, in order to make money, I’m working as a sales manager for a foreign company in financial services. There’s no career horizon, but I have to do it to earn a salary.”

Ofer Vaknin

You started having a good career in the United States. Why didn’t you stay there?

“Yes, I thought about staying and working there, but increasingly I missed being in Israel. I haven’t given up. I’m going to upgrade my skills with a course on Java and developing applications. Also, I’m going to go to professional conferences, because networking is the key to everything.”

Ifat Baron, the CEO of ITWorks, which helps people from weaker sections of the population find work in high-tech, says the problem for Arab job candidates isn’t necessarily their lack of technology expertise. The difference is how they see the world and cope with obstacles, she notes.

“It starts with the idea that a ‘Friend bringing a friend’ doesn’t work for them,” explains Baron. “There’s no one to open doors for them at companies. It continues with their writing a bad CV that doesn’t focus on the main points, and also poor interview techniques – poor appearance; too self-effacing; lacking energy .. All of these things make it harder for Arab job candidates, even if they excel in their fields, to compete for work.”

Baron says another common mistake of Arabs looking for work in high-tech is that, in contrast to their Jewish peers who start looking for work in their second year of college, “they prefer to focus on their studies and getting good grades, on the assumption that this is what will get them a job in the future.”

Start looking sooner

These mistakes can be addressed, she says. “In the workshops our organization offers, we provide the message that it’s important to begin looking for work while you’re a student, because companies like Intel and SAP hire employees before they have finished their studies. We tell them that if they wait until they finish their bachelor’s degree, they’re missing out on opportunities to find a good position and will end up having a harder time.”

Baron says employers have everything to gain from hiring Israeli Arabs. “They are reliable, want to persevere and are motivated because of the challenges they’ve faced in getting hired. Surprisingly, high-tech companies operating in Tel Aviv claim that they lack staff, but they don’t make much of an effort to hire Arabs living in Tel Aviv or the central region – even when you’re talking about very qualified people.”

Jihad Akel, a leading Histadrut labor federation official, believes the main problem is the absence of any government program with the short- or long-term goal of ensuring Israeli Arabs are absorbed into the workforce. “Old-fashioned views don’t help, either,” he adds. “But many employers who were hesitant to take on Arab workers realize after they’ve eventually decided to do so that they made the right choice.”

These days, the wave of terror attacks had made Jewish-Arab relations more fraught than usual. “It’s difficult to talk about integrating Arabs into the workplace when the conversation in the Arab community is, ‘How should I behave when I get on a bus?’ Or, ‘How can I avoid doing anything suspicious because it risks my life?’” says Akel. “To bring more Arabs into the workforce requires a change of approach, but we can’t starting talking about this until later,” he concludes.