In shift, JDC turns to private sector to tackle labor challenges

Israel regularly vied for the lowest spot in the OECD's poverty rankings. Between 1997 and 2013, the percentage of working poor has steadily risen.

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July 26, 2015 20:34
3 minute read.
Bank of Israel

The Bank of Israel building in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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After years of working with the government developing programs to boost the labor force – most notably dozens of skill centers designed to help integrate ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arabs into the workforce – the Joint Distribution Committee has begun turning to the private sector.

“We recently made a conscious change to bring in private businesses, and they brought a level of commitment we didn’t expect,” said Sigal Shelach, the executive director of the JDC’s TEVET employment initiative.

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Speaking to The Jerusalem Post at a Thursday event aimed at developing and promulgating TEVET’s tools to human resource directors from the country’s largest employers, Shelach said working Israelis faced tougher conditions than most in the OECD, and had less economic mobility than in the past.

The Bank of Israel’s lead researcher, Nitza Kasir, laid out the stark statistics. Israel regularly vies for the lowest spot in the OECD’s poverty rankings. Between 1997 and 2013, the percentage of working poor has steadily risen. Even in households with two income-earners, the poverty level has quadrupled in that 16-year period. Inequality is relatively high, while productivity is relatively low.

With the population aging, and the least productive sectors of society (ultra-Orthodox and Arabs) expected to grow from a combined 30 percent of the population to 50% by 2059, Israel needs to take serious steps to keep its economy afloat, Kasir said.

Some 70% of Israel’s poor work. The figure used to hover at 50%.

“This should concern us,” said Kasir.

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Shalech agreed that the trends were worrying.

“Thirty years ago, on the wage dispersion, you saw that the young weren’t earning well, but they had potential. Today, we are beginning to see that people are getting stuck in low-paying jobs,” she said.

Though much of the onus of fixing the problems falls on the government, TEVET hopes that private employers will take on tools that help alleviate at least part of the burden.

For example, one of the difficulties in integrating groups such as Arabs and Ethiopians into the workplace comes from hiring practices, said Liat Basis, who carries out psychological research on the workplace.

“I know people like to say, ‘Tell me about yourself’ in job interviews. They shouldn’t. It’s not economical, and it doesn’t tell you anything productive,” she said. Basis has developed a standardized interview format that research shows is more efficient in making good hiring decisions, and leaves less of a role for bias to creep in. She compares it to air force pilots who are taught to trust their flight instruments more than their gut feelings, a strategy that helps them avoid disaster if they get vertigo.

Some of the toolkits, which cover issues from providing mentorship to continuing education, are still in earlier phases of testing.

For example, in a discussion of ways for companies to provide career paths to advance employees and keep them from getting stuck in unproductive ruts, a human resources from Coca-Cola Israel noted the company was moving to raise its minimum wage and provide extra benefits for all their workers.

An industrialist running a medium- sized manufacturing plant responded that, nice though it sounds, he couldn’t offer his employees the kinds of benefits a major corporation could. The cost, he said, would make his product uncompetitive, and probably make it cheaper to simply automate his business, which would mean fewer workers.

Despite the challenges presented by both global and local economic forces, Shelach said there are ways to mitigate the pain. Countries such as Germany and Switzerland, for example, have pioneered successful apprenticeship and vocational training programs that help keep the labor force up to snuff. While the government plays an important role, she continued, there was much the private sector had to offer.

“We have a way to go, but the tools are there today, which we couldn’t say 10 years ago,” she said.

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