A leg up

Ethiopian immigrants are targeted to become the next wave of hi-tech workers.

ethiopian hi tech 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy )
ethiopian hi tech 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy )
When people use the term "immigration," they almost always refer to the physical movement of population groups from point A to point B - with B being the place where those on the move hope to find a new, better life. But there's another side of immigration - the movement from the the Third World to modern, hi-tech life. For Ethiopian immigrants, the challenges of the road "home" - both physically and from life in a part of the world the industrial revolution left behind to one of the world's most hi-tech societies - have been legion. Those who survived the great trek, the "masa" through the desert to come to the Promised Land, quickly realized that getting here was just half the journey - the easy part. Without language or technical skills, Ethiopian immigrants are essentially unemployable when they first get here. According to a 2006 study by the Bank of Israel it's been a rough road when it comes to integration of members of the Ethiopian community in the workplace, despite the government's efforts to help. About 40 percent of working-age members of the 106,000 strong community have finished at most elementary school (through eighth grade); only 57% have ever worked (compared to 76% of the general Jewish population); and 52% of Ethiopian immigrant households live below the poverty line , as opposed to 16% of the general Jewish population. The government does try to prepare and integrate the immigrants; many who were waiting for their turn to enter the country passed through special pre-aliya orientation courses before coming here, and there are a host of ulpan and social orientation courses available when they get here. And there are all sorts of training programs available to get them ready for a job. For example, the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jewry is currently offering courses in metalworking, nursing-home staff, basic photography, pharmaceutical industry jobs and leadership skills for demobilized soldiers to work within the community. Regardless, the Bank of Israel study said, there are only about 3,000 members of the community with college degrees - and the vast majority work in social service positions within the community. That, according to a separate study by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, is because of the "negative image" that employers have of Ethiopians in general, although businesses that have hired immigrants are generally satisfied with their performance. High unemployment, poor prospects, "negative images," training courses for mostly blue-collar jobs - it has the scent of another Western phenomenon Ethiopian immigrants are quickly becoming familiar with: The "cycle of poverty," in which successive generations are condemned to the lowest rungs of the economic ladder. One third of Ethiopians in Israel aren't even immigrants - they were born here, and already it is becoming clear that the next generation is going to be stuck in working-class jobs, with their accompanying low salaries. IF FOR NO other reason than to give kids hope for a better tomorrow, the establishment of Tech-Career would have been worthwhile, says Asher Elias, founder and director of the innovative hi-tech "college" geared to Ethiopian youths who have completed their army service. Tech-Career, says Elias, has as its goal nothing less than setting off an educational revolution in the Ethiopian community. "If we're retraining people for jobs anyway," he says, "why not go for the cream of the crop and train them for the best jobs out there - hi-tech programming and management jobs?" If you're wondering why the hundreds of government bureaucrats whose job it is to set policy for education in the Ethiopian community didn't think this really obvious idea up perhaps it's because bureaucrats think - well, like bureaucrats, limited in their vision by budget constraints, statistics and other symptoms of institutional thinking. Plus, most bureaucrats never worked in hi-tech themselves - unlike Elias, one of the few Ethiopians to make it here before the great aliya (he was born in Israel in 1970). After a lucrative career, he realized that he, perhaps more than any other member of the community, was in a unique position to serve as a leader for those who needed help integrating into Israeli society. After working with IAEJ for several years, Elias used his connections in the hi-tech world, and drawing on the experience of a similar program in Washington DC, he organized a course that would teach computer programming skills to young Ethiopians, enabling them to get first-class jobs in Israel's "Silicon Valley" firms. And like a savvy hi-tech investor, Elias has leveraged his idea to set up not just a programming course, but what could be considered perhaps the ultimate programming course - over 1,000 hours of studies on all aspects of computer technology, the business of hi-tech, English-language speaking and writing skills, interviewing techniques and everything else job-seekers could possibly need to know to get their dream jobs. The actual instruction is given by teachers from John Bryce, one of the country's biggest and best computer skills training organizations and a division of Matrix, the country's biggest hi-tech placement and consulting organization. "The education we're giving them is top of the line, no question," says Yigal Shachak, Jerusalem area director for John Bryce. "They're learning the most in-demand skills - Microsoft dot net - and the list of guest speakers and advisers include some of the top people in hi-tech." Plus, the fact that the course is taught by John Bryce instructors puts students "in the loop," Shachak says. "Chances are very high that the person interviewing them for a job is going to be a someone who has gone through John Bryce training at some point, so they know they're getting a qualified worker," he says. The Tech-Career course extends over about six months, and students are subject to a very demanding schedule, says Elias - which is why it's a dorm program, with students staying for the duration at Kibbutz Nahshon, near Latrun. And, he says, although the course work is hard, dropouts are rare: "Out of the last group of 16 students, only one dropped out. This term we have 23 students, so I would expect no more than two." Potential students are carefully checked out for their potential, Elias says, interviewed by hi-tech executives, social workers and others who determine if the student has the drive necessary to undertake the grueling course. Each spot in the course is too valuable to squander on someone who doesn't have a reasonable shot at finishing it, he says - hence the careful checking. For the first couple of terms, Elias says he had trouble filling the 15 or so seats he needed to start the course in 2004. No more; he says, more than 120 applied to join the most recent course, which began several weeks ago, "and we're still getting applications." Graduates tell their friends, community organizations spread the word - and young people in the community see with their own eyes that a career in hi-tech is a reality for dozens who have already finished the course. "All those who have gone through the course are working at good-paying jobs, mostly in programming. Some are making as much as NIS 20,000 a month," says Elias. This makes them role models for a whole generation of Ethiopian youth. As word gets out about Tech-Career, Elias says, he expects that his project will expand, with bigger classes going on in several cities. The course is paid for by students, who use their demobilization education grant for tuition. The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor pays for some services, providing a social worker and some instruction time. But the heart of the program is Elias - he's the driving force, the man who brings it all together. "Ethiopian kids are smart and savvy - and they know how to deal with challenges; they face them every day. Tech-Career helps them channel their talents into a money-making career," Elias says. "This is a hi-tech society, and if we're going to be part of it, we need to be a hi-tech community. That's what Tech-Career is all about."