Dreaming of nine to five

Anglo immigrants struggle, and often succeed, in the search for jobs in the English-speaking market.

yoel bender 298.88 (photo credit: )
yoel bender 298.88
(photo credit: )
At 25, Chevy Weiss had parlayed over a decade of youthful political activism into a successful career as an independent political consultant in Washington, DC. With numerous Republican connections and her PhD in political science nearly complete, Weiss says moving to Israel was not on her agenda. "I was born [in Israel] but my parents moved back to the US when I was two," she says. "I wasn't interested in moving back." But during a visit to Russia, Weiss met "a great guy living in Israel," eventually giving up a great career and friends to hop on a plane to Israel. Though she has continued to work long-distance for some of her American political clients, Weiss had to begin in Israel at entry level. "You have to be willing to begin at the bottom and take baby steps," she says. "Israel is a hard place to work and you really have to learn your way around. That's what it takes to make it here, and I was very determined to be successful." Today, many of Weiss' former employers have become her clients at Global Visions Israel, the public relations company she founded in 1998 near her home in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Current clients include the International Council of Jewish Women and Yeshiva University in Israel. "I saw there was a huge need for a company like mine," Weiss says. Her company has thrived, she says, bringing "modern US PR strategy to Israel." Weiss' hard work and professional patience appear to have worked. "We started as a one-person office and I now have eight employees," she says. "Our client list is growing and we have earned ourselves a good reputation; people have approached us to open additional offices in Tel Aviv. "Our US clients come to us because we charge less for the same high quality; the Israelis come because we are familiar with foreign audiences. We don't pretend to be in the US. Our clients call us, we call them back and [then] have conference calls. [We] manage the rest through e-mail." Despite her success in Israel, however, Weiss is still wistful about leaving Washington. "The US political arena is more exciting - people making a change for the world and influencing it," she says. But, she adds, "What I do here is not remarkably different. I took my skills and channeled them into a different environment - public relations - which incorporates political, educational, business and non-profit institutions. Much of my political work involved researching public issues and planning campaign strategy, understanding the environment in which I was working and communicating, and that's the stuff I use here." Weiss says she thinks many entrepreneurs born outside Israel make the mistake of moving too aggressively or giving up when trying to find a job. In Israel, she says, flexibility is key. Danielle Slasky, director of employment at Nefesh B'Nefesh, an organization helping Jews from North America make aliya, claims the majority of Nefesh B'Nefesh immigrants have found work in Israel and only a handful have needed to formally retrain. Most of those who came with careers have stayed within their field, she says, though many have switched to new areas within that industry. She cites as examples computer programmers who became technical writers, journalists who entered other writing fields and scientists who have become patent writers. "Very few people totally change their career," says Slasky. "We always want people to have realistic expectations. Some do have to take a step back, though many stay on the same level." Leemor Machnai, Chief Executive Officer of Machnai, Weiss & Partners, an international executive search company based in Tel Aviv, says, "English is definitely relevant for 99% of the positions I work on... Hebrew is an advantage but it is not essential. "I sometimes have very senior positions for which very few people in Israel have the requisite experience," Machnai admits, "we may even bring over talent from outside Israel if that particular talent is not here." Because she looks for professionals who've worked for multi-national companies, Machnai considers corporate experience in the US very valuable. But she says of olim, "If they had a very unique niche position in a large company, here they may find themselves doing that position in addition to two or three other positions, because the companies are not as large." Machnai's other advice: "Network, network and network. Try to focus on what you want to do and what type of skills you have to achieve such a job. Try to find friends, or friends of friends connected to that kind of industry. It is really hard to find jobs just through the regular channels." AT WEISS'S public relations firm, the office manager, Ruth Wellins, graduated with a degree in psychology and the intention to become an industrial psychologist. But a pilot trip to Israel with Tehilla, the religious aliya organization, convinced her to take what she considers a more pragmatic approach. "I spoke with many psychologists, and they all said that without good Hebrew and insight into Israeli society, I wouldn't be able to find a job in my profession," Wellins recalls. "So upon my return to Manchester, I studied for a certificate in TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language)." That plan also turned out to have its shortcomings. While Wellins's husband, a former computer programmer at Intel UK, successfully transferred to Intel in Israel, Ruth juggled a variety of English teaching jobs until the couple moved to Ramat Bet Shemesh, home to a high proportion of English-speaking olim, and Wellins's English teaching skills lost much of their value. Searching for an alternative, she landed her administrative position at Global Visions Israel. She calls the job "the perfect match - part-time, close to home, close to my children's schools and intellectually challenging." Another immigrant who adapted her skills is Sarah Bronson, who made aliya with Nefesh B'Nefesh in July 2003, arriving in Israel with a Masters degree in journalism and freelancing experience at, among others, New York's Observer, The Jewish Week, Hadassah Magazine and the London Jewish Chronicle. Bronson hit the deck running. "I started working as soon as I had my Internet connection and got back in touch with my previous clients," Bronson says. "One of the problems was that my Jewish media clients already had correspondents in Jerusalem, and there isn't as much room to break in." Somewhat paradoxically, Bronson's move to Israel led her to focus on non-Israel-related topics, especially for women's magazines. "I can do all the research on the phone and through the Internet, and it makes absolutely no difference where I live as long as I'm willing to stay up late enough at night to make my phone calls. The world is my office," Bronson says. One of her key tools, she says, is a Packet8 telephone with a US telephone number. Unlike Weiss, who says she dislikes the sound quality of VOIP communication, Bronson points out the advantages of having a US phone number. "The chances of a client or interviewee returning my call increase 10-fold if they can dial within the US," she explains. Like Weiss, Bronson says most of her editors are aware of her location, and sometimes find it useful. "Figure magazine once had a feature on dating mores around the world and assigned me the Israel section," she says. Though working for overseas publications, Bronson is careful her payments are processed though Yiul Sachir, a service that converts her receipts to shekels and pays her national insurance, health fund and other taxes. "The job market has not improved much over the past three years," says Chaim Fox-Emmett, the founder and CEO of job search firm ISRAEMPLOY. "There may be more jobs in some industries, but many people are not in the jobs of their choice." An ISRAEMPLOY survey last year of 450 respondents found that most respondents are merely satisfied but not thrilled with their jobs. However, Fox-Emmett says, the survey showed that very few of them would be prepared to relocate within Israel for a better position - a finding he considers odd. "If people can stay in their profession, obviously that is the best choice. But in the main, the majority are not fortunate enough to get what they trained for. When people first come, they are often not realistic enough to look beyond their first profession. When they do look further afield, some discover they are happier and have more satisfaction from their second profession," Fox-Emmett says. The exceptions, he says, are licensed professionals - accountants, dentists and doctors, 95 percent of whom find work in their profession, though most of these require bilingual ability and a limited amount of study in Israel to qualify. The legal profession, on the other hand, already has too many people competing for positions here. Fox-Emmett founded ISRAEMPLOY from his Ramat Bet Shemesh home in November 2002, when he was himself an unemployed new immigrant from London with a background in human resources. He created an e-mail list of job opportunities and related information for English-speakers, then watched the number of subscribers snowball. In 2004, Fox-Emmett was awarded the first Venture Network Israel Social Entrepreneur Fellowship (ISEP) in a partnership with the New Israel Fund (NIF). This gave him the equivalent of a full-time stipend for two years, as well as the mentoring and connections needed to develop his list into the brand name it has become today. With over 15,000 subscriptions, ISRAEMPLOY outgrew the mailing list and launched an interactive website in March that has attracted 40,000 unique hits and over 400,000 page views in its first eight weeks. Around 15 people join ISRAEMPLOY per day - but those who find jobs often unsubscribe from the service, a number he estimates to be about five people per day. According to Fox-Emmett, the jobs most in demand today are in technical writing, software engineering and general administrative work. "There are many Anglos who teach for private schools," he adds, "but the regular teaching profession in this country is not a desirous profession - teachers suffer from low pay [and] are subject to violence, and classroom management is an absolute nightmare." One reason Fox-Emmett gives for the popularity of technical writing is that it can be done by English-speakers from many different work backgrounds. A Web group for technical writers, Techshoret, has around 1,300 members, all of whom are Anglos. Because of the relative absence of ageism in technical writing, many of the applicants for writing positions are women. "There are a lot of very intelligent women who stopped their careers to have families, and [they] see this as an ideal job to be retrained into," explains Lynn Kolber, co-founder and general manager of OnTarget, a documentation service for high tech companies. "One of our interns is in her 50s, we placed someone over 60 at Amdocs the other day. [The] oldest writer I know in the profession is 77." Kolber says technical writing is a great profession because it pays relatively well - a serious consideration when one recalls that many of the English-speaking immigrants who leave Israel do so due to financial difficulties. Kolber made aliya from South Africa eight years ago, selling a successful training business that had six branches nationwide. "I finished ulpan, was building a cottage [in Hod Hasharon] and saw lots of Anglos in technical writing. I had written courseware for my business and got a job on contract for Docustar," she explains. "After two years I decided to start my own business, together with a South African accountant I met here who began technical writing in his 50s." Applicants for OnTarget's four-month internship program are carefully screened for the ability to write logically and fluently, and for persistence. The profession is not for every English speaker, Kolber warns, adding that "if you don't have the basic ability and attitude, it can be lethal." Of 25 applicants for the last internship, only eight were accepted, including a social worker, a real estate agent, a bookkeeper and a special needs teacher. While the average technical writer doesn't need a technical background, he or she does need a lifelong aptitude for learning. A good command of Hebrew is not mandatory but provides a distinct advantage. Technical writing salaries range from between NIS 10,000 and 25,000 a month, making the profession very attractive for new olim. LAURIE HELLER considers herself an exception to the aliya rule, having moved to Jerusalem 13 years ago after transferring her position as director of the Legacy Fund at the UJA-Federation of New York to the organization's Israel Office. "I initiated the transfer," says Heller, "coming on a three-year trial. After six years in the Israel office it was time to move on." With 12 years of experience allocating over one hundred million dollars in Israel, Heller founded Laurie Heller Associates, which provides local non-profit organizations with fundraising, development and grant writing services from a funder's perspective. "If I had stayed in the US, I would probably have remained in the Federation world and not gone to the other side of the table," says Heller. "I brought my experience as a funder to help organizations to obtain a grant, but I also had to learn new skills. I hadn't overseen grant writing before." Heller employs four full-time and five part-time staff, but admits her writers need a grasp of Hebrew to connect with clients and work with documents. Nonetheless, she does hire new olim. "Last year I hired someone from Nefesh B'Nefesh who had been here for four days," Heller says. "We have had lawyers, social workers, teachers. I don't look at the history of the person, other than ascertaining that they are reliable and stable." While she realizes that money is a concern to new immigrants, Heller points out that olim don't move to Israel to get rich quick. "Most people want to make a difference," she says. "Most days I feel very blessed with my work. My staff get a sense of gratification working with non-profits who are doing good things here." Perhaps the best-known employer of Anglo immigrants today is Jerusalem-based IDT, an outsourcing center that offers English speakers the opportunity to continue working in their native language, albeit often during US business hours. One of IDT's first employees, Yoel Bender, 29, came to Israel from St. Louis four years ago to join the rest of his family, which had previously made aliya. Before his move, Bender was working in industrial graphic design for a shoe company. "In the States, everyone warned me that I wouldn't be able to find a job here in my field... It was right after the high tech crash and I was a little concerned, but I stayed optimistic," he recalls. Bender began an ulpan program but dropped out when he was accepted in the second intake of IDT's call-center staff. "I started at the very birth of the company, before there were any graphic opportunities... it wasn't easy to find a job and so I did what was available. The [call center's nighttime] hours were hard, and of course I felt the lack and continued to look for other jobs and opportunities in my field," he says. "After a year the company began to expand into other professional services, and one was graphic design." In the right place at the right time, Bender was asked to do some temporary graphics work for a client, which led to his position today as IDT's Creative Director. He's now responsible for graphic production and managing an in-house staff of five designers and two project managers. "Career-wise, I am absolutely satisfied," he says. "I couldn't have asked for more." Plus, his department works regular Israeli business hours. "As a general rule, not everybody here ends up doing what they were trained to do. That is the reality," he admits, and advises potential olim to make sure their CVs are up-to-date and that they have the required skills for their intended profession. "There is a high level of graphic design in the States, and I felt that with my skills I could make a difference in the industry here. I still don't see that as being out of reach." "I would never discourage a person from making aliya based on their career," he continues. "If they are capable and have determination, they can come, succeed and create their place here."