You're in Israel – Speak English

Fluency in the international lingua franca has become prerequisite for a slew of jobs.

Haim Bior
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Haim Bior

Marina and Eyal spent five years in New York, where they worked for El Al. Both managed to finish city college while about it. On their return to the Holy Land two years ago, they started looking for work – and found great jobs. Marina works at the Israeli branch of a multinational pharmaceuticals company and Eyal works at one of the big banks.

Both believe they won out over other candidates because of their command of English.

“We didn’t have superior skills to the others, like in education or professional background, human relations or ability to handle pressure,” Marina says candidly. “I assume that we and the other candidates scored about the same in those categories at the placements agency. Some candidates had better education than we did. But the test included English and I finished that section feeling pretty good. That’s apparently why we got the jobs.”

Dina had the opposite experience: As a student she wanted to work in security at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Aptitude tests found her perfectly apt – in fact she outscored the competition. But she was rejected because of one thing – insufficient English. Her high-school level just didn’t cut it, she admits.

No question about it, good English confers a significant advantage for job-seekers except in menial labor, says Michal Dan-Harel, CEO of the Manpower placement company. “Ten years ago, English was required mainly for jobs at multinational companies, mainly in high-tech and biotechnology, or at the embassies, or for key positions at export companies. Today the ability to communicate fluently in English is important for relatively junior positions as well, and at companies that aren’t international by definition.”

So, for more and more jobs, English has become a basic – sometimes outweighing all other considerations, like prior experience or formal education, Dan-Harel says.

For instance, where once it might have been tolerated, “I cannot imagine a customs inspector not speaking English,” she says. In fact the entire field of logistics, technical writing, even storage workers – they need to be able to communicate with people from all over the world and English is the lingua franca.

“If you run a warehouse, you need to be able to read the writing in English and understand what it means, in order to manage inventory and the documentation,” she points out.

Then there’s sales and marketing, not only for the sake of cajoling customers but also in order to keep abreast of developments in the field: the appearance of competing products, new global trends, and so on, Dan-Harel points out. You’re not going to learn all that by tracking the Hebrew press.

TheMarker: Who doesn’t need good English?

“Junior account managers,” Dan-Harel responds. “But at more senior levels, it is needed, because account managers also have to work with auditors, who give the workers material in English.”

In agriculture and construction there’s also no need for English, unless one works with foreign workers, she adds. But even in areas where it hadn’t been a requirement, such as manufacturing and assembly-line production, English is becoming important because that’s the language in which the machines’ instructions are written.

In Netanya and Ashdod, French doesn’t hurt either

Meanwhile, over at the banks they see no need for English at the lower levels of employment, says a branch manager. Nor do they prioritize people with English any higher at the hiring stage, even though Israel’s banks have stepped up their international activity over the last 10 years.

“The terms for working at the bank are holding a bachelor’s degree, preferably in finance or business administration,” he says. “For non-complex jobs such as bank teller or banker in the customers department, the English the worker learned at college is enough. But at more senior levels, like branch manager, retail banking manager or commercial banking, where the worker is exposed to speakers of foreign languages, English becomes crucial.”

At the higher levels, bank workers need English in order to understand contracts and procedures in that language, if only because some of the bank customers will be foreign residents or foreigners who deposited money in Israel, he says. Dealers in the foreign currency trading rooms also need good English, as do bank employees who work with exporters.

However, as Israel’s banks do more work overseas, they do need people with great English, even at mother-tongue level, says our branch manager. Also, bank branches in the proximity of heavily touristed areas will hire with English in mind. “And in Netanya or Ashdod, French wouldn’t hurt either,” he smiles.

One litigious foreign client

Hili Rashkovan, a partner in the Pearl, Cohen, Zedek, Latzer, Baratz attorneys at law, is responsible for hiring interns for the firm. She feels that the growth of the Israeli high-tech industry has made English an essential, certainly when hiring for the law firm. It’s a fundamental requirement, she says, because the law firm also handles biotech companies, as well as medical products.

In fact the hiring process includes an interview in English, and preparation of an imaginary contract or letter to investors in English. “Some law offices engaging in areas like labor law or litigation have less need for English,” says Rashkovan. But all it takes is one foreign client suing somebody in Israel for the office to need somebody who’s fluent in English.”

English also confers a huge advantage for a candidate in the advertising industry, says Rami Yehudiha, founder of the advertising agency Lead. Even the medium-sized ad agencies in Israel have global clients; and even if an account executive only handles small Israeli companies, they may well have to deal with professional information in English. That’s also the language they need to keep abreast of world trends, says Yehudiha. “A copywriter dealing with the Israeli audience has to work in Hebrew, but at all other divisions at the agency – strategy, customer management, media and top management – English is a crucial tool,” he says.

Yarden Gross, founder and manager of a startup called Engie for smartphone-based car maintenance, reminds that high-tech workers need really good English whatever their specific jobs: from programming software to selling it. The market for Israeli high-tech isn’t Israel, it’s the world, Gross points out. Clients may be in the United States or Spain or Russia or China; all will communicate in English.

One who saw it coming was Laurie Oberman, former treasurer at Periclase Dead Sea and, 17 years ago, the founder of Talking Business, a consultancy for business that stresses command of English. At first there wasn’t much demand at high levels for English studies, Oberman says. It grew. “All it takes is for a new cutting machine to arrive for there to be a demand for somebody who can run it and fix it, and a worker who speaks English will have an advantage over the others,” he says.

It isn’t just in high-tech that English is needed, Oberman adds: It’s filtered through to low-tech as well, not to mention commerce. English is the international language of trade and nobody can stay in serious business without it.

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