Haredi employment problem needs a solution

Harsh news coverage on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community’s lagging participation in the workforce and secular education has mounted in recent weeks.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX Jews gather during a funeral ceremony in Bnei Brak. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
ULTRA-ORTHODOX Jews gather during a funeral ceremony in Bnei Brak.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Israel faces security threats from all directions, having just experienced the latest barrage of rockets in the South, bracing for a possible new wave of terrorism in Judea and Samaria following the deadly attack in Ofra, and recently uncovering Hezbollah’s cross-border terror tunnels in the North.
Yet some media reports seem to convey the gravest threat to Israel is socioeconomic in nature. Harsh news coverage on the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community’s lagging participation in the workforce and secular education has mounted in recent weeks. One headline in Haaretz asserted, “Iran and Hamas Threaten Israel’s External Security. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Leaders Threaten From Within.” Another headline in the same newspaper lamented, “Israel’s Economic Future Is Wasting Away in Israel’s Yeshivas.”
These headlines exaggerate the issue. While the social and economic burden of haredi underemployment is concerning, it’s unfair to compare that situation to the severity of dangerous security threats.
At the same time, Israeli society should take concrete steps to remedy the problem. The Israel Democracy Institute estimates that haredi underemployment costs the economy NIS 8.25 billion ($2.19 billion) annually. Further, more than 54% of Israel’s haredi families live below the poverty line. Greater integration of haredim into the workforce would help create a more inclusive, balanced, harmonious and prosperous Israeli society. It’s certainly an aspiration worth striving for, especially because the haredi share of Israel’s total population is projected to grow from the current 11% to 27% over the next 40 years, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS).
The employment rate for haredi men in Israel was 50.3% at the end of 2017, down from 51.7% in 2016. Most recently, in November 2018, the CBS reported that employment for haredi men had dropped to 47.8%, compared to 51.4% in the previous quarter and 51.7% in the corresponding quarter last year. These figures have prompted a number of observers and commentators to question the premise of continued investment in higher education for haredim.
Yet haredi academia is actually the best solution to the ultra-Orthodox employment problem, not a part of it. Research from the Taub Center has shown that employment for haredi men ages 25-64 doubles with an academic degree. That’s why haredi academics are a cornerstone of the mission of the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), where more than 2,000 of the current 4,500 enrolled students are haredi. JCT graduates have an 89% employment rate, including 77% in the field of their choice. Our institution is working to invert the plot on the haredi employment narrative, and by extension, for Israel’s society and workforce as a whole.
At the same time, several experts have warned me about an impending shortage of administrative job openings in Israel, which could exacerbate the haredi unemployment conundrum, given the relatively low proportion of haredim who possess college degrees. The CBS has found that only 13% of employed haredim work in the business and hi-tech fields. Within those sectors, they earn salaries that are 25% lower than the average compensation for their non-haredi counterparts. But according to the Taub Center, the average monthly wage for haredi men who work full-time and have an academic degree is 80% higher than full-time haredi male employees who haven’t pursued higher education; for haredi women, the figure is 71% higher.
This is why it’s more important than ever for institutions of higher learning to double down on educating haredim in the high-level academic disciplines that will help them gain employment in those fields. JCT advances this priority through special programs like Cyber Elite, which provides intensive cyber training to students in software engineering and computer science, while simultaneously placing them in cyber departments of multinational and start-up aerospace and defense companies.
With 2019 underway, we’re awaiting this year’s final figure for the haredi employment rate. That number will most likely again hover somewhere near 50%. The key to achieving significantly higher haredi employment – and in the long run, alleviating a longtime economic burden and social tension in Israel – is empowering haredim with access and encouragement to pursue the high-quality education they deserve.
The writer is vice president of the Jerusalem College of Technology.