Arabs in Israeli hi-tech: Fact and fiction

Computer keyboard [illustrative]. (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Computer keyboard [illustrative].
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
What was unclear two years ago is now consensus among industry leaders and government officials: Israeli hi-tech cannot maintain its robust growth without tapping into the talent of the country’s minorities. Israel’s hi-tech industries face a severe labor shortage. The market needs 5,000 to 6,000 additional developers and programmers.
At the same time, thousands of qualified Arab professionals are unemployed, with many more in the pipeline.
So why do Israeli hi-tech companies – desperately in need of talent – fail to recruit Arabs citizens? Why do Arabs make up a mere 2.5 percent of industry professionals? In the course of our work at Tsofen, an organization that helps Arab citizens of Israel gain hi-tech employment, we have heard many explanations.
Some of them are myths:
The myth of security: Arabs cannot work in hi-tech companies that deal with sensitive security issues.
Without getting into a moral discussion, this argument is irrelevant at a practical level.
In the 1980s, Israeli hi-tech was dominated by security giants like Elbit and Rafael, but their prominence in the market has steadily declined. Now, in 2015, only 15% of Israeli hi-tech firms deal with security issues.
The myth of entrepreneurship: Israel is a start-up nation; Arabs citizens lack the entrepreneurial spirit of their Jewish counterparts.
While entrepreneurship is important, it isn’t the key to significant change. Many forget that Israeli start-ups only began to flourish after two decades of a hi-tech market dominated by global companies that enjoyed massive state subsidies. In contrast to established companies, new start-ups do not necessarily produce more employment. In the past five years, Israeli start-ups have not created – as a whole – additional hi-tech employment.
The myth of merit: Hi-tech firms hire based on talent and don’t care about their employees’ background.
In practice, 50% of hi-tech hires are friends of existing employees. “Bring a Friend” schemes are popular in hi-tech and favored by HR departments. This practice works against the entrance of minorities into hi-tech firms.
The myth of gender and tradition: Traditional Arab society opposes the employment of women.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Although Arab woman are still the primary caregivers, Arab leaders are very supportive of women’s inclusion in the workforce.
THESE MYTHS threaten the growth of Israeli hi-tech. We must stop perpetuating them and recognize that the hi-tech labor market will not correct itself. To improve the situation, the state must create links between government, hi-tech industry and Arab society.
This means the creation of policies – such as those below – that actively promote the inclusion of Arab citizens in hi-tech industries: • Providing real estate developers in Arab towns with the necessary incentives to attract hi-tech companies.
• Incentivizing the employments of Arab citizens in hi-tech firms, especially women and entry-level candidates.
• Introducing positive discrimination for Arab candidates.
These initiatives will significantly raise the number of Arab college graduates in Israel’s hi-tech industries and at a minimal cost to the government.
Paz Hirschmann and Sami Saadi are co-CEOS of Tsofen, an organization that strives to integrate Arabs into Israeli hi-tech and bring hi-tech companies to Arab cities.