Wanted: Work

As unemployment hits record numbers, former hi-tech and biotech workers find themselves sending out CVs.

By
February 5, 2009 10:01
Wanted: Work

employment 88 248. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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Dafna Pe'er's phone has been ringing off the hook lately. The director of Matan Meitar, a company based in Tel Aviv that provides industrial counseling, Pe'er can barely talk for 30 seconds without being interrupted by another query. It seems like a lot of people need industrial counseling, whatever that is. "We provide an employment assistance program to both employers and employees," Pe'er patiently explains. "For employees who have lost their job, there are so many emotions that they can go through, coping with the change, the possible loss of self-esteem, economic difficulties. We have more than 300 trained clinical psychologists who help them deal with the new situation they find themselves in. It's a form of industrial psychology. "And don't think it's so easy for employers either. A company is about to implement a big layoff, it'll call us in and we'll give advice on how to relay the news, and how to relate to the workers, how to conduct a dialogue. It's never easy to fire someone." Just ask Tzvi Reuven, a media specialist who runs a Jerusalem-based firm that provides on-line, marketing and content services to companies in the US. After recently losing his main client, he's been forced to lay off much of his freelance staff. "The hardest part was telling people - having to fire them. That's never easy, especially without any notice," he says. With a record 17,500 people losing their jobs in December, according to the National Employment Service, there's evidently a lot of firing going on. And that means more people looking for jobs. The number of people looking for work rose 3 percent in December, in seasonally adjusted terms, from 199,800 to 205,800, compared with a rise of 2.2% in November. And according to the National Insurance Institute, the biggest group of new job-seekers comes from the hi-tech sector. "In December 2008, 690 software engineers were laid off, compared with 318 in November and 100 on average in the preceding months," says Yossi Parhi, director-general of the National Employment Service, citing the slowing economic growth at home and financial chaos abroad. Financial chaos is almost an understatement - think Lehman Brothers, AIG, Fannie Mae, GM and the US auto industry collapse, the stock market implosion, pension funds bottoming out. And despite a time lag across the ocean, all the experts say the economic tsunami is not only headed our way, it's already made itself at home. Or as Reuven put it, "When America sneezes, Israel catches a cold." However, those bundling up against the coming storm don't include many of the political parties running in the elections next week. As Israel gears up to elect the 18th Knesset, diplomatic and security issues are dominating the 34 parties' TV ads, speeches and campaign promises. Dr. Amir Vatury, a leader of Power to Workers Trade Union, representing some 2,000 blue-collar workers, told The Jerusalem Post recently that due to the war in Gaza, the focus of both the parties and voters has locked on security and "all these [socio-economic] issues are swept under the rug." Among the three major parties - Likud, Kadima and Labor - there's almost no difference in their socioeconomic approach," said Dr. Efraim Davidi of Tel Aviv University. "I think that one of the tragedies of Israeli politicians is that they don't really reflect the interests of the people," Davidi told the Post's Ruth Eglash. And what is likely to interest the people in 2009 is the Bank of Israel's recent announcement that the economy is going into a recession. Even though the Central Bureau of Statistics November data of 5.9% unemployed remained unchanged from October, both investment house specialists and the Manufacturers Association of Israel predict that the jobless rate for 2009 would rise to 8.2 to 8.4%. "It won't even peak in 2009, but in 2010," Psagot's chief economist Vered Dar told reporters last month. "It's a lagging indicator. It's a matter of time until we start seeing unemployment rise." Well, for thousands of people in the hi-tech sector, that matter of time is now. Well situated companies like Amdocs, NDS, Motorola, Tower Semiconductor and Gilat have implemented substantial layoffs in recent months, leaving longtime, loyal personnel - many of them English-speaking immigrants - unemployed and concerned about the future. Even Microsoft - that benchmark of a growth company for so long - last week announced plans to cut 5,000 jobs, some of which will undoubtedly be eliminated from its Israeli R&D center. "Between October and December, well over 3,500 people were fired in the hi-tech sector," says Ori Shiloh, marketing manager of Nisha, one of the country's leading job placement companies in the areas of hi-tech and biotech. "With the hi-tech sector estimated at almost 150,000 people, we're looking at 2% of the workforce being suddenly laid off. And not only that, the number of open positions in the hi-tech market is down by about 30% - so with more people out of jobs, there are more qualified people available for every position out there." While some of the terminated hi-tech professionals could sense tremors taking place ahead of time, others were hit with their dismissals like a Grad rocket - with little or no warning, leaving them shaken, out of breath and bruised. Many had comfortably planned to remain at their companies, if not for the rest of their career, at least for the foreseeable future. They haven't written a resumé or interviewed for a job in more than a decade. Consider them ahead of the trend - the canaries in the coal mine - white collar, upper-middle-class members of the workforce who are stuck in a limbo that many more of us may find ourselves in before the situation begins to improve. Meet the newly unemployed and find out what they're doing about it. JERUSALEM'S Center 1 central cafe is not generally bustling with activity on weekday mornings, and this sunny day, in the middle of Operation Cast Lead, finds it even quieter than usual. It's not a location that David Goldhar is used to frequenting during working hours. That's because for the last 13 years, the former Torontonian has been gainfully employed as a project manager at NDS in the city's Har Hotzvim industrial park. "Back then, they weren't called NDS, they were News Datacom," the thoughtful, amiable Goldhar recalls over a cup of tea. "Back in those days, even more so than now, it was a popular haunt for English speaking tech people." The Rupert Murdoch-owned NDS is a pioneer in developing digital TV solutions for some of the most successful satellite broadcasters around the world. Open up your HOT box on top of your TV (not recommended) and you'll find an NDS imprint. More than 40% of the world's satellite operators use NDS technologies including BSkyB, SkyLife and DIRECTV. That's why there are over 30 million TV viewers around the world watching their favorite shows due to NDS's technology. One of Jerusalem's largest hi-tech employers, NDS's formidable, four-year-old state-of-the-art building looms like a beacon against the landscape. Goldhar, who lives in the Har Nof neighborhood with his wife and four children, worked his way up at the company, from testing products and quality control to managing teams which worked directly with customers worldwide. "We'd test the products, ship them to customer sites, install them and integrate them with the customer's broadcasting system. - get the whole thing working," says Goldhar. Most recently, Goldhar, in his early 50s, was working on NDS's IPTV project - broadcasting television over the telephone via an ADSL line. "It's a relatively new market and it's slower taking off. NDS didn't put its full weight into that area. Its policy has always been to support the core customers first - it's a huge footprint in digital TV - and keeping those customers happy consumes the bulk of its resources and generates the bulk of its income," says Goldhar. That's why when in November a discouraging financial report was released after years of growth and profit, whispers in the corridors and internal e-mails started going around speculating on possible layoffs. Despite his longevity, Goldhar was concerned. "My project was already two tiers down - it might have potential in a few years, but at this point it was small. The total combined for all the ADSL customers crossed a million a couple of months ago - nothing compared to the 30 million, but respectable. "A few days before, it was already an open secret and people were calling it Black Sunday - November 30. There was all kinds of black humor. Nobody knew who or how many, it was all under wraps. There was a lot of trepidation." When he was called in on Black Sunday and given his pink slip, Goldhar says he didn't really know how to react. "Betrayed isn't the right word, perhaps a little bit of anger. Since I had somewhat expected it, I had already gone through some of the emotions beforehand," he says. While NDS refused to talk to the Post about the layoffs, and prohibited any employees from speaking as well, Goldhar estimates that approximately 100 people - 10% of the company's workforce - were sent home on Black Sunday, from vice presidents and other senior staff and all the ranks down from there. "It was very sudden too. You were given a month's notice but essentially you were asked to clear out as soon as possible. There were people who left that morning," says Goldhar. "I stayed until the end of the day, and I didn't tell people what had happened. I just played it normally. I started wrapping things up. I wasn't interested in getting all the sympathy, and I didn't want to go home. I just wanted to stay at the office and think about it. So I just didn't let on that anything was amiss. People left me alone." Goldhar did eventually go home, and started to pick up the pieces of his life. His wife was already prepared for the possibility of cutbacks, so the news didn't come as too much of a shock. "We realized after assessing the situation that, financially, our immediate worries were taken care of. We could live for a while. Perhaps even a year or so. We'd have to cut back, which is a good thing anyway," says Goldhar. "I was aware that the job market wasn't in the best period, and that it could take a while to find something." Goldhar set up a small office in the corner of his living room. "That's my command center. We just finished renovating our living room, so I actually have a nice space there with a nice view. I've actually been in very good spirits. I surprised myself. At first, I had a lot of trepidation with no schedule. What do I do in the morning? What do I do next? How will I pass the day? "But I have schedule which I find fairly full. My wife and I have lunch together, run errands together, I've set up a hevruta [study partnership] in the morning with a friend, something I haven't done in a long time. I exercise in the mornings, which I've done for years, but now I can do it in a more leisurely manner. All in all, I'm not bored. But I haven't plugged into anything like 'if I had the time, I would do this... read this book, see this movie' - the books are still piled up," he says with a smile. DAVID BRIEF'S home in Modi'in features an upright piano. But until Brief, the father of six children, seven to 18, was laid off recently from his job as the principal architect at a small hi-tech startup, he had never had much time to play it. "The other day I was playing, and one of my kids said to me, 'Abba, I didn't know you could play the piano,'" says Brief, who was working at National Semiconductor in California in 1994 when he was asked if he'd like to spend a year at the company's Herzliya offices. He's been here ever since. While Brief enjoys the short respite of tinkling the ivories, he, like Goldhar, is spending most of his time looking for a job. He, too, has become a victim of the hi-tech crash. "Being a system architect - which is at the intersection between marketing, sales and engineering - always made me employable," says Brief, who left National in 2001 to work for a startup before joining Intel Israel in 2006 to work in the advanced multimedia cellphone field. However Intel soon decided to get out of the cellphone market and sold the division to Marvell. By the end of 2007, a shift in Marvell's marketing approach basically canceled all future development. Brief got caught in the restructuring that resulted in the layoff of about 15% of its Israel workforce of some 1,200. "All of our project's senior staff, researchers and advanced development staff were let go. At that time, the job market wasn't great, but not that bad. It was just a guess on their part where it was going," Brief recalls. However, he landed on his feet with a young company called Tru Media, which specialized in the field of face recognition for digital signage in the advertising market. "I was wary of going back into the startup world, but I was assured that they had investor money and they had signed a contract with a company from the US for hundreds of thousands of units," he says. However, with the economic downturn looming in the US, the American company reprioritized its budget and canceled the contract with Tru Media, resulting in almost half the staff, including Brief, being downsized. "I was there for only six months," says Brief, who had two jobs in 21 years and is now looking for a new job for the second time in a year. "The main thing in looking for a job is a good attitude and working regularly at the job search. You have to treat the whole thing like a job, and spend a couple of hours a day doing it. It's like a roller coaster with a lot of ups and downs, and it's hard to know if an advertised job is even a real job. Even if you go on an interview, the job might not be an actual position. Even if there is work and they need somebody, there might not be approval to bring somebody in." While Brief is generally up to date on the latest on-line methods of pounding the cyber pavement to find employment, job seekers like David Goldhar, who have been out of the market for more than a decade, are discovering there's a whole new set of tools to learn. "THE whole world has changed since some of these people last looked for jobs," says Pe'er. "Resumes aren't faxed or sent in the mail. They're e-mailed. A headhunter today receives hundreds of resumés a week. There's just a bigger pool, which requires more thinking about how you can make your resumé more attractive and stand out." In addition to helping clients prepare resumés, Pe'er's company also helps in interview preparation as well as familiarizing the newly unemployed with the modern day concepts of networking and head-hunting. "Ten years ago, you looked in the weekend newspaper for a job. Today nobody does that, at least not in hi-tech," says Pe'er. "The best advice I can give is to connect with friends and to network. A lot of things happen by word of mouth." NDS's Goldhar says that it's been more than 20 years since he had written a resumé, and he had to learn the latest methods of writing and designing his CV. "I went directly from my last job to NDS, and I don't think I even wrote a resumé then. The format and method has changed. You don't send them by mail, you send e-mail or you have your own Web site that you refer prospective employers to," he says. Charley Warady, a telemarketer from Tzur Hadassah, who was laid off from the IDT Global Israel call center near the end of the year, agrees that the key to job searches today is on-line networking. "I've found Facebook to be really beneficial," says Warady, who is also a standup comedian and part of the Israel-Palestinian Comedy tour. "The team I was in at IDT had their last salaries held up in addition to severance pay. One day, I updated my Facebook status and mentioned it, and all of a sudden I got four or five messages, and we were able to organize to get the funds released. "Even with my new job, it was through a guy I had been in touch with on Facebook." Ran Gordon, a software engineer from Modi'in, is an expert in social networking for employment purposes. He's been laid off a handful of times since he began working in hi-tech 24 years ago. He was with his most recent company - a Yavne R&D center for a worldwide software company - for seven years before the ax fell in November. "You need to go through the motions, use the Internet, the papers and agencies and headhunters. Do the work for as long as it takes, an hour or two and then try to enjoy the free time. But try to create a framework for yourself during the week - give yourself things to do," says Gordon. "My first reaction was to hibernate for five months and then hope something would open up. I wasn't sure whether the market would improve for a while. But I ended up getting a new position within a few weeks, not through a headhunter, but through networking. I had gone to a couple of agencies and I'm still getting calls," says Gordon, saying he had a similar short layoff when he was fired from his previous job 11 years earlier. A quick learner, David Goldhar is using every resource at his disposal in his job search. "I started networking on LinkedIn, I've e-mailed headhunters and I've signed up with a number of Web sites like Jobmaster, Alljob and Jobs Israel. These days, you can blanket the whole world with your resumé," he says. "At times, it's just luck," concludes Gordon. "You never know what's going to happen." While an unemployed person can make things happen with the new job searching tools of the trade, sometimes it might be worthwhile to remember how it used to be done in the old days - by going to the local unemployment office. A GOVERNMENT employment office is by definition not normally a happy, bustling place. After all, most of the people you see there are out of work - and unemployed people can be miserable. But Jerusalem's Employment Service, situated in a smart, modern office above the Central Bus Station, is actually quite pleasant - bright, efficient looking and not a bad place to spend an hour. "On the average, we get around 1,000 new job seekers that come here every month," says Moshe Yifrach, the 38-year-old office manager. "There's a lot of work in Jerusalem - more government offices - we have about 2,000 jobs every month, from cleaning and security to clerical and engineers, even doctors. "Currently, there's less of a demand for hi-tech, and we haven't seen a big wave of hi-tech workers who have been laid off coming in. We know there have been a lot of layoffs from places like Amdocs, but so far we haven't seen them flowing in here. There's been a slight increase in the number of people coming in, but it isn't the big wave that we had been warned about." People on the dole younger than 50 are required to visit the office once a week in order to collect their unemployment checks - once a month if they are over 50. But today, there's only a smattering of customers, ranging in ages and socioeconomic levels. Yifrach takes his visitor on a tour of the facilities, especially the feature he's most proud of: computer stations where the job seeker can log on himself, see what positions are available in his field and make the proper connections. "These are state of the art - using fingerprint algorithm IDs - you just need to come in, check in with your thumb and see reams of job possibilities," explains Yifrach. He walks a visitor through a sample search, and loads of jobs come up, ranging from nursing positions to chemical engineers and security guards. Not surprisingly, no journalist positions showed up, an omission the visitor made keen note of. Each job provided a description, but no contact information. "That's intentional," explains Yifrach. "If someone with a salesman past brings the clerk a job for a physicist, he'll explain that it might not be the best job for him. Or if there's a job opening for a cook, and the person who's interested and wants to go on an interview is observant and can't work on Shabbat, then that issue will be raised before handing over the information." Job seekers can also go into the office's Web site at http://www.taasuka.gov.il/Taasuka and search through additional job postings, as well as other information related to unemployment benefits, courses and workshops. In addition to the job log with thousands of positions, the Employment Service also offers workshops on writing resumés, preparing for interviews and job retraining. While there may be a stigma attached to unemployment offices being the stomping grounds of only "menial" or nonprofessional positions, Yifrach is adamant that even the brainiest engineer can benefit from its services. "My advice for a recently laid-off hi-tech person is, first and foremost, come to the office. It doesn't matter what his status is regarding unemployment compensation, whether he's eligible or not, he should still come in. Even if someone isn't unemployed and just thinking about a job change, he can come here. Most people don't know that." IN THE current economic climate, however, if you have a job, you might want to think about keeping it, cautions Ori Shiloh of Nisha, the head-hunting firm. "Even if it's hurting us, we recommend to working people not to be looking around these days. Only if you have information or an idea that the company might close or undergo major layoffs. Otherwise, it's better to stay put for the time being," says Shiloh, whose company also hasn't avoided the economic slowdown, firing 10% of its 100-person staff recently. "Until October, there were more hi-tech positions than people; we called it a market of candidates. Now it's very hard to find a job. Then, if you were looking for a job, you might get three or four offers and you were able to choose the best one. Now you're lucky if you get one offer," he says. Shiloh warns that the next two months might prove difficult as company annual reports are published. "If they're as bad as we think they'll be, then it won't be surprising if there's another round of layoffs at least as big as in the last months of 2008. But I think we'll start to see an improvement during the second half of the year," he says. According to a study by Prof. Moshe Zviran of Tel Aviv University's Leon Recanati Graduate School of Business Administration, 50% of companies surveyed did not expect to cut staff in the first half of 2009, 30% said they have not decided yet and 20% expected to fire employees. It's in this cloudy environment that people like Goldhar and Brief are trying to find their way back to the job market. "I'm open to possibility of a career change - it's an interesting process to go through," says Goldhar. "I've been in engineering for quite a number of years. The whole process of thinking about something new is a little jarring - I haven't had something in the back of my mind, dreaming I wish I could do this. "Trying to figure out what other thing I might do is a thinking process requiring a certain amount of discipline. A friend of mine who's a writer, who was also laid off, said, 'I'm writing now' - he's working on a book. He saw it as an opportunity, and I'm also looking at it that way." In the meantime Goldhar has also been busy preparing a resumé and practicing interview techniques. And ironically, he's received help - both indirectly and directly - from his former employer, NDS. "A year ago, they hired a professional to give a workshop for NDS people on how to interview, but from the employer's side - what to look for," says Goldhar. "It was a brilliant two-day workshop - we learned a lot of things sitting on the other side, what to ask, how to structure it. So I just took the same notes and now I'm flipping them around, from the interviewee's point of view." When Goldhar was fired, NDS provided him and the other castoffs with information kits and contacts, and made available to them a company like Matan Meitar which provides industrial counseling. "I've met with them regarding all the options of job retraining, resumé and interview skills," he says, adding that he holds no grudges toward his former employer. "It was a very nice place to work - it still is. I wish NDS well - it was a good employer and it treats its employees well. I guess it's bittersweet, but in general I understand why it had to do what it did. I had many good years there." Goldhar is resigned to the fact that he may have to look outside Jerusalem for a job and commute to the country's center. On the other hand, with so many international hi-tech positions requiring not location, but just Internet access, he may end up finding himself working at his living room station. In either scenario, he feels like things will work out for the best. "I'm optimistic. It could be a bit of time, but things will turn around. The economy will get better at some point. We lived through the same thing 10 years ago. And everything imploded. But within two years, people had already forgotten what had happened - no remnant left. At some point things will pick up and there'll be opportunities. So yeah, I'm optimistic." "The hi-tech industry is still very strong," adds Ori Shiloh of Nisha. "We survived the crisis in 2000, when thousands of people lost their jobs, and we'll pass this one too. We're a big global development center, with companies like Microsoft and IBM still investing here, and we'll end up standing." For David Brief from Modi'in, there's even an upside to this downturn. "This could be a very creative time. I had worked at Elta on the Lavi project in the 1980s. When it was canceled, it freed up people with lots of technical capabilities. And a lot of innovative companies rose out of the Lavi project. That could happen in this period too," he says. "There's a saying that tough times don't last but tough people do. Let's hope that's true. It reminds me of the story of Joseph and the seven years of feast followed by the seven years of famine. I just hope it's really not seven years."

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