No Israelis Left to Work in Tech?

A report released by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies shows that many Israelis don't have the skills required to work in the tech industry. Arabs and ultra-Orthodox are the two main groups lacking proper education to fill jobs

FILE Photo: High tech workers in Tel Aviv.
Amit Grun

Are there almost no Israelis left with the necessary skills to ease the shortage of high-tech workers? Or did researchers who reached that conclusion make assumptions about the capabilities of minorities?

The Taub Center for Social Policy Studies released a report this week that makes the case that there aren’t very many Israelis with the high levels of skills required by the tech industry who aren’t already working in it.

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The report, “Can the Israeli Start-Up Nation Continue to Grow?,” takes aim at a two-year-old government program that calls for spending 900 million shekels ($240 million) on education and training over six years.

The plans aims to boost the number of computer science students at the universities, improve government retraining programs (coding boot camps) and provide guidance and job placement for populations in the under-representation in the sector, namely women, Arabs and ultra-Orthodox

Naomi Krieger-Carmy, who heads the Societal Challenges Division of the Israel Innovation Authority, attacked the study’s conclusions.

“The statement that emerges from the study is discriminatory and even bigoted against women and minorities, on the grounds that they do not have the necessary skills for high-tech,” Krieger-Carmy said Wednesday, shortly after the report was published.

“We are stunned that a serious researcher in 2018 would claim such a thing,” she added.

Taub researcher Gilad Brand bases his conclusions on the overall skill level of the Israeli workforce as measured by the Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC). Conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, it measures skill levels in literacy, numeracy and problem-solving among people ages 16 to 65. Fluent English is another criterion.

Israelis fare poorly among the 27 countries surveyed. The share of Israeli workers whose skills are in the lowest decile stood at about 16% of the adult population. Only about 7% of Israeli workers were ranked in the highest skill level, it found.

Among Israeli Arabs, skills are the weakest, with half the population ranking in the two lowest deciles. Of Israeli workers ranked in the highest skills quintile, 22% are already working in the high-tech sector, the highest percentage of all the countries surveyed.

Because the skill levels of Israelis outside the tech sector is so low, the pool of candidates to join the industry is small. Brand estimated that all those aged 25 to 44 in the top third of skills not already working in high-tech amounted to just 4% of the of the working-age population not currently employed in the industry..

Since more than two thirds of that group already works at high-paying, rewarding jobs, most of them are unlikely to switch careers, Brand concluded.

If true, his conclusions have disappointing implications for Israel’s high-tech industry. Employers have complained for years about the shortage of skilled workers and the industry has ceased to be an engine of growth for the wider economy. Only about 8% of Israelis work in tech, a figure that has not increased in years.

If the government’s program failed to expand the labor pool, the industry’s potential will be severely constrained.

“There is little potential for growth in high tech employment in Israel, at least in the short term,” the report concluded. “The study also raises the question of how worthwhile it is to invest in the high tech industry.”

In defense of the government’s program, Krieger-Carmy said many groups in society were severely underrepresented in high-tech, and not because they lacked the basic skills. She noted that women account for only a quarter of tech workers. Israeli Arabs account for 18% of students in higher education but only 3% of the country’s high-tech workforce.

She said the tech labor shortage was due to the fact colleges and universities failed to increase the numbers of graduates with engineering and computer science degrees.

A Taub spokesman denied the accusation of racism, pointing out that the report cited improvement in Arab and Haredi skills. “As for women, there is no doubt that their high skills are exploited in other fields, but the question is why is this not reflected in high-tech,” the center said.

It said high-tech’s culture, not lack of skills, that was deterred women from working in the sector.