The problem with ageism

Many older olim have a tough time finding work, but according to one expert, ‘there are jobs for older people. They may not be the most attractive, but there are jobs’

David Scemama and Paula Adelman (photo credit: Courtesy: Michael Alvarez-Pereyre/Gvahim)
David Scemama and Paula Adelman
(photo credit: Courtesy: Michael Alvarez-Pereyre/Gvahim)

Immigration to any country isn’t a simple process, and more so for those in the late-middle age bracket who often are no longer in demand but are still too young to retire. Along with the diverse challenges facing olim in general, older newcomers also have to deal with alleged discrimination in the workforce. Ageism is a universal issue, but many olim have concluded that it’s more intense here, particularly in the hi-tech world. “We have no knowledge of age discrimination in employing olim,” stated Elad Son, spokesman for the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. “The ministry welcomes olim, respects olim… provides training, professional development and placement assistance. We have never been approached about a case involving age discrimination. Nobody came to us about this.” “We don’t have any information about the issue,” affirmed ministry spokeswoman Oshrat Hazan. “Just like there are no gays and lesbians in Iran [as claimed by former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad], there are no issues of ageism in the Israeli workforce,” quipped a 50-something unemployed computer programmer/analyst from England. Several individuals in their late 40s and 50s discussed their situations with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, but asked not to use their real names so as not to sabotage possible opportunities. According to Helen Hartel, vocational counselor at the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI), “Most of the government agencies are the worst offenders of ageism – not including veterans, of course. But hiring older employees is very, very rare.” Ageism is an issue in the “most lucrative fields, such as in the hi-tech industry, marketing and even tourism. It is illegal, but the problem is proving it with each individual case,” she says. Is it justified? “Sometimes,” she replies. “This is a very small country with limited job options, and you have at least five universities and quite a number of smaller colleges that graduate potential professionals every year. They have to go somewhere, and the job 9 market can only absorb so many. And this doesn’t even include [considerations of] aliya. “There are jobs for older people. They may not be the most attractive, but there are jobs. You have to be flexible. You may not be hired as the team leader or marketing manager. An oleh who comes at an advanced age can’t expect that the life that he or she left behind is the life they’re going to lead here. What I would suggest is that they look into fields that require mother-tongue English, where you work in a support capacity behind the scenes. There is work. It’s not always full-time and it often doesn’t include anything but the basic benefits.” Hartel provided suggestions, such as writing (including technical), customer support and teaching English in an adult environment. Still, an older person “who’s very, very talented, who is fluent in Hebrew and has the unique skills required by a company could get hired… If there’s a lot of traveling, they might prefer younger people. I don’t know of any places that wouldn’t hire a very skilled 45- or even 50-year-old who is fluent in Hebrew. And the more languages you have, the more marketable you are, especially in Israel.” Most important, “You have to learn Hebrew, just like you couldn’t expect to join the workforce in the US without good English.” Roni Einav, 68, is an icon in the Israeli hi-tech industry. Now active as a financial angel, he opines: “I think that 40 is not a real barrier; maybe 50-plus.” He believes that older olim with good experience could be an asset in areas such as technical support, documentation and quality assurance, but their age could be “problematic regarding development and frontal marketing.” Also, “if you are really young, it’s not easy to manage older people.” Peter (not his real name), 52, hails from New Zealand. A business analyst in information technology, he worked for many years at prestigious firms. Still unemployed since making aliya just over a year ago, he cites age as a main obstacle. “Nobody has ever said it to me at an interview, but I hear it and feel it,” he says. People on the outside “say it straight out. They say, ‘Face reality. You’re unemployable. You need to reinvent yourself.’” He sees competition as the other major barrier. “There are not enough jobs in Israel. For every job, they can get 20 good people, so why not take the person who studied at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology or at the Hebrew University or the one who’s 20 years younger?” “Within the competition, there’s also sub-competition,” he adds. “Israelis, too, take seven to 10 months to find a position. They’re also fighting competition.” PROF. YARON ZELEKHA, dean of the Faculty of Business Administration at Ono Academic College, recently authored a study soon to be published in Kyklos: International Review for Social Sciences, advocating the position that immigration stimulates the entrepreneurial spirit. According to the study, which was not limited to Israel, immigrants turning to pioneering new businesses were, on the most part, never entrepreneurs in their countries of origin. According to Zelekha, countries hosting new immigrants “are sometimes blamed for stealing entrepreneurs from other countries. But this is not necessarily the case. The study has found that successful immigrant entrepreneurs mostly became that way to overcome exclusion and other obstacles.” “Absolutely,” Peter agrees. “People wake up one morning and face reality and start to think outside of the box. But entrepreneurship is not for everybody. Others might retrain. I’ve done two [academic] degrees. I’m a hard worker and have always done well. I’m a good employee. But I’ll never be an entrepreneur.”

Peter’s Hebrew is at a very high level, although he speaks with a strong accent. He believes that it’s “only natural” that employers would choose a native Israeli when given the choice.

“Everyone likes to see their own faces, their own culture,” he says.
“This is human nature,” Zelekha concurs. The olim are “joining different work environments, and people tend to discriminate against those who they’re not familiar with. Hi-tech olim who face discrimination are practicing entrepreneurship more than native Israelis.
But it’s not only hi-tech. We are quite sure that the findings are relevant to all fields of business. A friend of mine, Dr. Galia Tzabar, runs the [Middle Eastern and] African Studies Department at Tel Aviv University.
She did research on African immigrants [in Israel], legal and illegal, and found that they, too, are practicing entrepreneurship in low-tech businesses, such as restaurants.”
Zelekha maintains that Israel offers very little employment opportunity in comparison with other Western countries. He points to a lack of economic growth as the main culprit. If there’s a need for employees, “they can’t afford to discriminate. But if it’s the opposite, then they can discriminate. In other words, the better the economy, the better chance there is of finding employment.”
The problem is greater in the hi-tech arena for olim, especially for older people who haven’t been working for an extended period of time – but with good reason, he says. “There are limits to the extent that you can update yourself in a field that changes rapidly.”
Although Zelekha is critical of Israel’s economic policies, he praises the treatment of olim: “I think that the State of Israel does a lot for them. The problem is that the state of the economy is not doing well.”
“On the positive side, people are trying to help,” Peter says. “Once you talk to people, they pass on your CV or put a word in. The Misrad Haklita [Immigrant Absorption Ministry] tries to help. I do believe that they’re trying. But the problem is that there just aren’t enough jobs.”
A 54-year-old unemployed computer programmer who made aliya from Canada a year-and-ahalf ago (we’ll call him Michael) notes that several employers, especially in his line of work, have been taking advantage of the desperate situation faced by many educated olim, offering positions at outrageously low salaries and poor conditions.
“Even if you work, it’s not a livable salary,” he laments.
“[Economy and Trade Minister Naftali] Bennett now wants to bring all the haredim to the workforce, but to do what? There are so many qualified people hitting the road every day, looking for work. They’ll bring the wages down even further, from NIS 6,000 to NIS 5,000. I just want to scream at the government: Create new jobs in Israel! “And [Finance Minister] Yair Lapid wants to raise the retirement age [for men] from 67 to 70. What does he expect them to do?” OF COURSE, there are success stories too.
David Scemama, 45, a French immigrant, found a position within a year leading a development team in computing systems.
“I was very lucky because a company in France [operating in Israel] was looking for somebody with my exact profile,” he explains. “I heard about it through a friend in France.”
He believes, however, that in Israel, “at age 40-45, it’s already a problem; in France, not before 50.”
Asked if he thinks he could have attained his current position at the age of 50, he replies: “Honestly, no.”
Scemama had also attended a program at Gvahim, an Israeli NGO which, according to its website, “leads the effort to make Israel’s ‘Brain Gain’ succeed, by offering highly skilled olim and returning citizens from all over the world the proper tools, guidance, support, empathy and community for a successful professional and social aliya.”
He lauds Gvahim as an “excellent program, especially for young people,” stressing that the problems facing older olim are “not because of Gvahim, but because of the market.”
At the age of 63, Paula Adelman, an immigrant from the US, also attended the Gvahim program and felt no age discrimination. “I was the ultimate networker and people would ask me to help them. Age is definitely just a number as far as my life is concerned,” she says.
Yet Adelman is an entrepreneur who could afford to wait while building her business. “I have always had an interest in gadgets and helping people, and now the two have come together in my start-up,” called, a site geared for people 49 years of age and up. “It aims to bridge the gap between the fast pace of technology and the slow pace of our minds… without having to bother our kids.
I realized there was a huge void. It’s progressing well.”
BoomerSurf is one of 10 start-ups chosen to participate in an accelerator in Israel called The Hive, under the umbrella of Gvahim and located at Tel Aviv University.
Describing herself as “semi-fluent” in Hebrew, she believes that English speakers, especially Americans, “have an advantage in the start-up world. At Gvahim, I was an asset. They’d ask me how to word things properly.”
“Being an older woman has its challenges,” she concedes.
However, she sees the issue more from the angle of sex discrimination, which exists “equally so in the US. It’s just a reality in life that will hopefully change in the next generation.”
Asked if ageism exists in the job market in all fields, Michael Alvarez-Pereyre, Gvahim’s director of resource development, responds: “We do not have numbers, but based on our experience, the answer is yes.”
Indeed, “in the 15 percent or so of olim in our programs who need continued support past the first year, there tends to be a higher proportion of 40-plus and 50-plus – also because a more senior experience may mean a longer time to find a position at a higher level.
Note that we have a tendency to feel ageism more for 50-plus olim than for 40-plus.
“Sometimes, the solution is not so much a career change as a leap into working as an independent or setting up one’s business. Thus some of our most interesting ventures at The Hive have been started by 50- plus entrepreneurs.”
RACHEL BERGER, director of post-aliya and employment at Nefesh b’Nefesh, also recognizes ageism in the Israeli job market. “The question is: What can be done about it? When the workplace says ‘I am not interested in a candidate because he or she might not fit into the work culture, or might cost too much money or might be unhappy because they are overqualified,’ what is the more experienced job seeker going to do?” Berger presents the following questions/strategies to consider: 1. What is your unique selling point? What do you bring to the market that is valuable and that an employer might be interested in? Focus on that aspect of your skill set. When writing your resumé, do not stress your life story; instead, discuss how you bring added value based on your knowledge and experience.
2. If finding a job is a real challenge, consider consulting or working for yourself.
Sometimes that is a go-around for employers who wouldn’t hire you but would like the benefit of your expertise.
3. If the local market is not interested in you, what about the global market? Can you put together a Linked-in profile that wows recruiters and try to get an opportunity with a company in Europe or the US? 4. If nothing seems to work, do you need additional training? Is your background and experience outdated? Finally, Berger advises that very few people find work before making aliya.
“Most employers want to know you are here, settled in and ready to work.”