Israel is on the verge of approving a NIS 600 million five-year plan to increase the number of Arab engineers in the hi-tech sector by 250%.
The plan, part of the $9 billion package earmarked for the Arab sector in the upcoming budget, has tremendous potential to increase standards of living in Arab towns and encourage coexistence through shared work experiences, said Revital Duek, co-executive director at Tsofen, an NGO dedicated to promoting hi-tech in Arab society in Israel.
“Today there are 8,000 Arab engineers in Israeli hi-tech, and we want to increase that to 20,000 within five years,” Duek said. “There are already 5,000 Arab students studying technology majors in universities, so the plan is quite realistic. This would be a huge opportunity for the Arab community and its economy, where many live under the poverty line with little opportunity for advancement.”
And also for the national economy, for which hi-tech is its most powerful engine. The tech sector is badly in need of additional manpower to fuel the growth required by hundreds of ambitious start-ups. More than $18b. has been raised by tech companies so far this year, on pace to double the previous record, and companies are having trouble filling all of their available job positions.
Estimates indicate that more than 13,000 Israeli hi-tech positions are currently unfilled, and the government has considered several options to increase the workforce. Earlier this week, a plan was promoted to make it easier for Jewish professionals abroad to immigrate and join the workforce.
“The manpower needed is already here,” Duek said. “We aren’t looking for a policy announcement. We want this to be implemented.”
Tsofen believes a national program for helping Arabs enter the tech sector would pay for itself by adding billions of dollars to the economy, bringing greater prosperity and economic equality to the Arab population, and helping to normalize relationships between Jews and Arabs.
The Arab population is struggling to find its place in an economy increasingly dominated by hi-tech. A recent study by the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya found that as much as 87% of Israel’s adult Arab population lacks basic digital capabilities. Just 36% of Arabs worked in technical or office positions in 2019, compared to 77% of Jews, the report said.
“When you see Jews and Arabs working together in an office, it creates social ties and allows for normal interactions,” Duek said. “Our vision for Tsofen is not to create hi-tech companies in the Arab community. It is to integrate with the Israeli ecosystem as an enabler of a shared society.”
Arab women participate in the workforce at a greater rate than the national average, another aspect with great potential, Duek noted. The program would create technology zones and incubators in Arab cities and upgrade Internet infrastructure that is often patchy.
Tsofen promoted the plan, which was initiated by a group of Arab mayors, and compiled by consultant company Deloitte.
The program requires investment in education, infrastructure development in Arab towns, mentorship, and innovation and investment in the Arab community, Duek said.
These four pillars are at the heart of 10 different initiatives laid out in the five-year plan, Duek said.