Friday, March 18, 2011
Bringing Israeli Arabs into high-tech
President Shimon Peres aims to introduce Israel's Arabs into the country's lucrative high-tech sector with a new program to channel the best and brightest into the industry.
Israel's prowess as the "startup nation" is in no small part due to a relatively small, but well-trained, workforce of engineers and technicians. However, good intentions and a development plan will get a small company only so far if it does not have sufficient personnel to design and produce the product. Israeli technology employers need substantially more people online and on the cleanroom floor.
Turns out that the call for more, and better-trained high tech personnel dovetails well with an oft-stated, long-term goal of Israeli President Shimon Peres: to better integrate Israel's Arab sector (which makes up over 20 percent of the population) into Israeli society and the Israeli job market.
With that need in mind, Israeli President Shimon Peres recently inaugurated a public-private-sector initiative called Project Maantech. The comprehensive program is aimed at channeling the best and the brightest among Israeli-Arab high school and university graduates toward the thriving but understaffed high-tech sector. Peres and Cisco Systems chairman and CEO John Chambers came up with the idea at last year's World Economic Forum Meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
The term maan in Arabic means "together," and the tech side of that cooperation includes 20 leading Israeli and international powerhouses, among them Amdocs, Check Point, Cisco, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Oracle.The Israeli government is kicking in $20 million of the $50 million total fund, with the remainder coming from private sources.
'Let society profit'
Peres insists that the idea was not merely a corporate goodwill gesture, but rather good business practice. "The non-governmental sector has gained more power than actual government and it is critical to recruit them for this national mission," Peres said. "The spirit of the thing is to give, the spirit of the thing is to aid, the spirit of the thing is to let society profit and not just the corporations."
Recruitment, training and placement are to be handled by Israel's Manpower human resources company. After registering online, suitable candidates who pass an initial round of testing will take part in a one-day "career marathon." The schedule includes tips on how to prepare for the job interview, a briefing on the high-tech industry, and English language lessons where needed. The next step is matching up the candidates with the appropriate firms.
"It is a blessing to the Israeli economy that, instead of bringing in foreign workers, we have the people of Israel," Peres told dozens of industry leaders gathered in Tel Aviv for the website's launch in February 2011.
The plan is meant to aid the more than 1.5 million Israeli-Arabs who make up almost 21 percent of Israel's population. According to the Authority for the Economic Development of the Arab, Druze and Circassian Sectors in the prime minister's office, the lost potential of the Israeli economy as a result of not implementing the potential workforce of Arab men and women totals NIS 31 billion ($8.39 billion) annually.
Many Israeli Arabs do not enter technology fields due to unfamiliarity with Israeli high-tech culture, as well as lingering prejudices against Arabs - two of the stumbling blocks the plan is meant to tackle. "There are talented Israeli Arabs in the sciences and there is no reason why they shouldn't be integrated," according to Peres. Existing laws and government schemes to better integrate the Arab sector into the economy aren't necessarily implemented, he added.
Last March, the government approved a $216 million, five-year development plan for the Israeli Arab sector focusing on 13 towns, primarily in the Galilee area. One of the chief goals was to increase job accessibility, with an emphasis on women and academics. It aims to add close to 15,000 new employees to the work roster by 2014.
A call to action
Peres said Maantech "is a call to action."
"I call on young Arabs to participate in this initiative. Our intentions are serious and sincere," the president said. "This is a win-win situation."
One Israeli Arab taking up the offer is Said Bakri, a computer sciences student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Bakri told the gathering that he believed "Jews and Arabs can, together, advance Israel's interests - especially in the high-tech field."
The CEO of one of the companies backing Maantech acknowledged its limits. "This initiative is very necessary, but very far from sufficient," said Russell Ellwanger, CEO of the integrated circuit maker, Tower Jazz. Offering his firm's four-year, half-scholarship mentoring program for Israeli-Arabs as an example, Ellwanger said that if this plan were copied by 20 other firms on a yearly basis, "we would not need an initiative or affirmative-action for hiring an Arab - they would have a résumé that's worthwhile on their own for getting a job."
Peres commented that correcting discrimination will be based on science and technology. "This quiet revolution can be done. It is entirely based on good will."
Bakri noted that despite having to overcome societal and educational hurdles, Arab candidates should build on that good will and aim high.
"I say to the Arab sector: 'Give it your best shot and don't give up. If you believe in yourselves, you can make it happen,’" said Bakri.