Arab high tech integration program making strides

Peres receives mixed report from companies and Arab employees involved in the Maantech initiative.

President Shimon Peres at Rabin memorial 311 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
President Shimon Peres at Rabin memorial 311
(photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO)
Nine months after inaugurating a program to encourage the recruitment and training of high tech professionals from the Arab sector, President Shimon Peres on Sunday received a progress report from some of the companies and their Arab employees.
Peres recognized an unfulfilled potential in the Israeli-Arab community, and in February, established Maantech in a joint initiative with John Chambers, president and CEO of Cisco Systems, Kav Mashve, Tsofen, Manpower and MIT. The voluntary coalition of high tech companies that were interested in recruiting and training high tech professionals from the Arab sector and integrating them into Israel’s high tech industry also included Intel, HP, SAP, Oracle, Amdocs, RSA, Galil Software, Google, Matrix, ECI, IBM, NICE, Checkpoint and CA Technologies, among others.
On Sunday, they gathered at the president’s residence to celebrate the fact that although the project is going slowly, it is working.
Zika Abzuk who heads Cisco’s corporate responsibility division for Israel and the Palestinian Authority, in which she adapts and implements programs in diverse communities with the emphasis on collaboration, building leadership and increasing economic opportunities, reported that since February, 125 Arabs have been added to the high tech work force. The aim, she said, is to have as many Arabs in high tech as their demographic ratio in the population.
It’s not as if there were no Arabs prior to the advent of Maantech, but they were few. For Arab graduates in computer sciences, engineering and other relevant fields, it was extremely frustrating to go job hunting and to be constantly rejected, even when they were qualified.
One of the drawbacks, it emerged from comments of representatives of other companies, is that most of the Arab applicants were not sufficiently proficient in English, which is an essential language in the industry.
Awareness of this problem caused Peres to remark that English is now a universal language and that everyone should start learning it from age 2.
Aiman Saif, who represents Arab interests in the Prime Minister’s Office, said although 125 may appear to be a small number in relation to the number of job vacancies in Israel’s high tech industry, it is a tremendous forward step for the Arab community.
“High tech was almost a closed shop for Arab academics,” he said, and voiced hope the revolution in the medical profession, which now includes a large number of Arab doctors, nurses, technicians and paramedics, will be emulated in the realm of high tech.
While enthusiasm and morale was high, Orna Segal, managing director of Manpower Israel, cautioned there were still major challenges ahead.
“The train has already left the station, but we’re just at the beginning of the journey.”
HP CEO Joshua Bakola, said that over the past eight months, his company had taken on 22 Arabs. The company’s human resources personnel are head hunting at universities to get the best possible students to come and work on the principle that each Arab employee, if he or she is satisfied with their job, will bring in another high tech graduate from the Arab sector. People who have studied together know about each other, both the good and the bad, and will therefore bring only the best, he said.
Maxine Fassberg, vice president of Intel’s Technology and Manufacturing Group, said the company had recruited 31 Arabs this year. Of these, half work in the Haifa plant and the other half are divided between Kiryat Gat and Jerusalem. Fassberg admitted that until Intel joined the Maantech project, she never understood the sacrifices made by Arabs to reach their workplace.
She discovered that someone who has been on the payroll for five years had travelled to work for hours, at his own expense, and then arrived home at 10 p.m. The company has now put a stop to this and provides transport through the various villages where its Arab employees live. This kind of consideration helps to build company loyalty because the workers realize management respects them and is interested in their welfare, but also affects their income, because they no longer have the expense of running a car or paying for public transportation.
It also saves a lot of time.
Mickey Steiner, managing director at SAP reported the company had taken on 20 Arabs, while Shai Levy, vice president finance at Amdocs, said when people ask the secret of successfully employing Arabs in high tech, the reply was there is no secret other than to give everyone equal opportunity – both Arabs and Jews.
EMC and RSA CEO Michal Braverman welcomed the Maantech initiative saying diversity was good for the company. More than that, human resources managers at the company had been trained to recognize potential in Arab job applicants. MIT’s Erez Benovich noted the Arab high stars are all working, but there’s a need to find potential new luminaries among the masses.
Only one company, Galil Software, actually has more Arabs than Jews on staff. Of its 150 employees CEO Inas Said revealed 120 are Arabs, and even the Jews on payroll, he said, had difficulty finding work elsewhere.
The company works according to high international standards he said, and is proud the fact that it has brought high tech out of the center of the country and into the periphery. But he was even prouder when making the declaration: “We’ve opened a wide door for Arab university graduates.”
The very first person to find work through the Maantech project was Omar Gawi, 23, from Kafr Kari. A Technion graduate Gawi is currently working for Cisco. There wasn’t much awareness of high tech in his village as he was growing up, he said, perhaps because people were afraid of modernity. Those making career choices tended to go for something safer like teaching or medicine.
But he’d always been interested in high tech, and even as a high school student he had studied physics and maths in preparation for a high tech course at the Technion. People tried to dissuade him, telling him it would be too difficult, but he couldn’t see himself doing anything else. He was grateful to Peres, to Cisco and to all those involved in the project, saying the hurdles between the Jewish and Arab sectors should be broken down.
“Arabs can be outstandingly good at high tech,” Gawi asserted. “Times have changed and Arabs are much more high tech conscious. Today, there are a record number of Arab students at the Technion.”
Riham Matar, 24, is also a Technion graduate. She studied biomedical engineering, and although she passed her courses with top marks, her qualifications failed to impress employers. It was extremely difficult for her to find work.
All that changed when her mother saw a television program about the inauguration of Maantech.
Matar immediately checked out the website and registered. Now she works for Matrix. She recommended that all Arab students with ambitions to work in high tech get in touch with Maantech. Speaking on behalf of untold numbers of potential Arab employees, Matar said she was sure they would contribute qualitatively to the human capital of any company.
Peres said while there is no formal discrimination in Israel, it does unfortunately exist in practice, and must be eradicated.
In thanking the companies that have associated themselves with the project, Peres said: “Aside from business, there’s a lot of sensitivity and social awareness here.” Today, he commented, 40 percent of Israel’s economy is based on high tech.
which offers not only higher salaries, but also prestige.
There was no reason he said, why Arabs should not be part of this.
“We didn’t want anyone to be discriminated against on ethnic or religious grounds and we had to do something about it,” Peres stated.
The blame was not entirely that of Jewish-owned or managed companies, he observed. The Arabs were also at fault because they weren’t sufficiently interested.
But attitudes changed as the Internet became part and parcel of people’s lives.
“The Internet is a great matchmaker enabling people from different backgrounds to communicate more easily than they would face to face,” said Peres. “It has created a revolution.”
There are now 60,000 Arab university graduates in Israel and 40,000 Arabs are admitted to Israeli universities each year. Half are women, Peres noted with satisfaction. “We are not only amending discrimination against Arabs but also against women,” he said.
While some people are ill disposed to globalization, Peres sees it as something positive.
“Globalization is a new force against racism and tyranny,” he said.
The largest market is the global market and any player who is prejudiced against the color of someone’s skin, or a person’s faith or ethnic background has lost the battle before it begins.” Peres is also convinced that if high tech helps Palestinians and Israeli Arabs to raise their standard of living, this will also be beneficial to the peace process.