Integrating Arabs Into Israel’s High-Tech Sector

Over the past two decades, even as Israel has developed a strong high-tech industry and earned the sobriquet “start-up nation,” much of its Arab population has remained on the outside. Arabs comprise 20% of Israel’s population, but only contribute to 8% of its GDP. It is estimated that of the 100,000-plus software developers in the country at present, Arabs account for only 2,000.

Dan Senor and Saul Singer, authors of the 2009 book, Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle, list two major reasons for this lack of integration. First, because, unlike Jewish Israelis, Arabs aren’t included in mandatory service in the Israeli army, they are less likely to develop technology skills that the Israeli defense forces inculcate. Second, they do not develop the business networks that Israeli Jews do while serving in the army.

Smadar Nehab, a Jewish Israeli, and Sami Saadi, an Arab Israeli, co-founders and original managing partners of Tsofen, a non-profit organization devoted to integrating Arab engineers into the Israeli high-tech sector, note that the engine of growth of the Jewish economy has been inaccessible to the Arab workforce. This has resulted in a huge chasm separating the two societies. Tsofen aims to bridge this divide.

“High-tech is a major driving force for the Jewish economy. It can be the growth engine for the Arab economy, too,” says Nehab. Pointing out that there is a shortage of engineers in the high-tech sector, she adds that there is no reason why Arabs cannot fill these positions. “Our goal is that by the year 2020, 10% of the workforce in high-tech in Israel must be Arab.”

Tsofen, founded in 2008, is already making an impact: Nazareth, the largest Arab city in Israel’s Lower Galilee, is slowly becoming the Arab Silicon Valley of the north. The number of engineering jobs here has grown from 30 to 700 in the past seven years according to Tsofen. And while at present there are almost 3,000 Arab software developers in the country, this number is actually up almost eight times since Tsofen began its activities. In 2008, there were only 350 Arab software developers. The opening of Stef Wertheirmer’s Industrial Park in Nazareth back in 2007 was a major catalyst for this growth and Tsofen certainly played an important part in this increase – and with the growth of the entire eco-system in general in Nazareth which now boasts around 20 hi-tech companies, including global brands such as Galil Software, Amdocs, Broadcom and Alpha Omega. Tsofen has also helped encourage entrepreneurship and a hi-tech community through its events such as Mobile Mondays, now in its fourth year.

Enhancing Employability

How has Tsofen brought about this change? To begin with, it offers three to four courses a year designed for college graduates in computer science, software engineering, electrical engineering, bio-medicine and bio-tech. These courses are conducted at Tsofen centers and typically spread over three to four months, four days a week. Currently, Tsofen has two centers — one in Nazareth and the other in Tira in the Triangle region in central Israel. By 2017, Nehab and Saadi plan to operate two more centers in the country; in Shefaram, a predominantly Arab city in the north, and in the Negev in the south.

“By 2025 there will be 10,000 Arabs in the hi-tech sector” –Paz Hirschmann

The courses include a practical software development project that simulates an internship experience. There is also special emphasis on projects that are equivalent to three to four months of work experience. In addition, participants undergo soft skills training and preparation for the work environment. The content is defined according to the needs of the industry and students meet with industry heads and mentors to familiarize themselves with the demands of the workplace. On completing the course, every participant is required to submit at least two original projects. These serve as the basis of their presentations in their job interviews.

Twenty participants are selected for each course after a rigorous selection process, which includes testing them on their technical knowledge, personality, intelligence and aptitude. According to the cofounders, the tests are in line with what prospective employers look for. Paz Hirschmann, Co-CEO at Tsofen, adds that the course fees are heavily subsidized with the government and philanthropic institutions paying 80% and the students paying 20%. The students are required to pay only once they are placed in a job.

“Our roots in Arab society help us recruit suitable potential students through social networks in the universities and the technology social networks,” says Saadi. Adds Nehab: “Tsofen’s programs provide the graduates with the equivalent of prior experience [and the advantage] that their Jewish counterparts [get] due to their early entry in the industry, working with the army or through the heavy social networking in the Jewish sector.”

Building Bridges

Tsofen also acts as an interface with high-tech companies connecting Arab graduates with jobs in the sector. Special workshops are held in universities to provide Arab students with direct access to executives and engineers of leading high-tech companies. And since 60% of recruiting is done through ‘friend bring friend’ or referrals, Tsofen creates a robust social network that connects candidates with companies. “We expose them to opportunities and also provide them with Tsofen’s services for support as they graduate,” says Saadi. Pointing out that Tsofen has an 87% success rate in placing its students, Nehab notes that placement is “about four times easier in companies that are located in Arab cities.”

Sari Qashuw, a 24-year-old college graduate who completed a course in software development with Tsofen in 2014, credits the organization with helping him find employment. Says Qashuw: “Tsofen helped me integrate my computer skills with practical software development competency. They also composed my CV, which they sent to companies, and coached me in interviewing skills. All this helped me get a job at a software engineering company despite not having the required years of experience.”

Getting women into the workforce is also high on Tsofen’s priorities. Over the past six years, the organization has had around 100 women students and all of them have been placed in the high-tech sector. According to Nehab, at the industrial park in Nazareth established in April 2013, a quarter of the 214 employees are women. Tsofen, which participated in the establishing this industrial park, is now looking towards the Triangle, a concentration of Arab towns and villages in the center of Israel close to the Green line, the unofficial border with Palestine.

“Our objective is to do in the Triangle what we’ve done in the north,” says Saadi. “But since the majority of the unemployed population in the Triangle are women with non-science degrees, we want high-tech companies to create development centers there that require more than just engineers. Through this, we will be able to develop a high-tech support industry.” He goes on to add: “Arab women want to work outside the home to support their families with dignity. The potential is huge, and the [industry] needs to reach out and allow them to do so. We believe that bringing advanced industries to Arab communities will help to develop Arab cities and provide women with employment.”

Zvi Eckstein, dean of the schools of economics and business administration at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya,

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