When Svetlana Laife made aliya from Ukraine 11 years ago, she was hoping for a better life for herself and her baby daughter. But she lacked two key prerequisites - proficiency in Hebrew and work experience. So year after year she wandered from one low-paying casual job to another, eventually turning to welfare to stave off hunger. But after the National Insurance Institute sent her last year to Israel Workforce Solutions (IWS), the company that runs the "Lights to Employment" welfare-to-work program in Ashkelon-Sderot, the 32-year-old single mother was able, with the program's help, to escape grinding poverty and become financially independent. Lights to Employment was approved in July 2007 as a replacement for the "Wisconsin Plan." "IWS has been a huge help to me," the Ashkelon resident told The Jerusalem Post last week. "By helping me find and keep a job they've turned my life around. It means the world to me to have a steady and permanent job. I'm a lot happier now and a much better mother." Laife is one of 3,500 residents of Ashkelon and Sderot who have been helped by IWS to get off welfare. "The aim of our program is to place welfare recipients in the workforce," said Mickey Manor, the CEO of IWS. "The fact that we've helped over 3,500 people to support their families with dignity, and that people are now voluntarily participating in our programs, means we're doing something right." Twenty years ago 20,000 Israelis were receiving welfare payments. By 2003 the number jumped to 150,000. To combat this disturbing trend, the government called on O.R.S., a Tel-Aviv-based human resources company, to partner with the international consulting firm Maximus, which successfully curbed growing unemployment and welfare rates in the United States, Canada, and Australia. Together the companies created IWS, which runs one of the four welfare-to-work programs in Israel. The Lights to Employment program also operates in Jerusalem, Hadera-Netanya, and Nazareth. "From O.R.S. we learn where the job opportunities are for our clients and how to capitalize on them," Manor said. "From Maximus we learned how to adequately assess the strengths and needs of our participants and how best to prepare them and maintain them in the workforce." In keeping with Maximus's programs in other countries, IWS doesn't just place clients in jobs compatible with their abilities and interests - it also hires case managers to identify and overcome the barriers they had faced in the past. "We are successful because we don't just place people and abandon them to the demands and responsibilities of their new lifestyle," said Manor. "We provide ongoing support, and help with the many obstacles that keep our clients out of the workforce. Obstacles like child-care arrangements, transportation, eyeglass prescriptions and even finding appropriate work attire - whatever is needed to ensure that our clients remain gainfully employed." For Laife, that support came first in the form of Hebrew and computer classes and a support group for single mothers. She then trained in wiring and welding, which resulted in part time work at Vectria Ltd. To bolster her employment prospects, IWS then enrolled her in advanced wiring and welding programs and helped with the costs of textbooks and private tutorials when necessary. It wasn't long before she was offered a full-time welding job at Vectria and became eligible for a NIS 3,500 retention bonus. This bonus and the negative income tax initiative are additional perks for IWS's clients. "The negative income tax can add up to NIS 400 per month," said Manor. "One of the main reasons our recidivism levels are so low is that we stay involved with our clients until they are settled and self-reliant," he said. "We don't abandon them once they are placed but stay involved to help them adjust successfully to their new lifestyle." Encouraged by its success, the government has decided to extend Lights to Employment to the rest of the country in 2010. "It's a flexible and user-friendly program and has done really well in placing people," said Ron Bar-Yoseph, from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry. He added that final results of research into the program's efficacy had yet to be released. The decision to expand the program didn't surprise Manor. "It's a very successful program. And with the current economic climate and global financial crisis, Israel can benefit from the IWS's resources and expertise in being able to help many more people find jobs," he said. "When we started the program, employers were hesitant to come aboard. They worried about the ability of our clients. But after a while they saw that our clients had the requisite skills and began requesting additional employees." IWS's case managers don't just bring professional credentials to the company, but their personal experiences, which often mirror those of the clients, he said. Some, in fact, are former clients. "With similar backgrounds, our well-trained staff is very sensitive and responsive to the needs of our clients," said Manor. "We can see the seeds of change in the well-being of these local communities. We set examples for other employers. We say that if we can recruit them, you can as well."