“My goal is to pull the haredi community out of poverty so people can earn a living honorably,” Liberman said in regard to the new government policy, which states that both parents must work or study in a non-religious educational institute for at least 24 hours a week in order to receive the childcare subsidies.
Liberman also declared, “I didn’t come here to appease anyone. My responsibility is to do what is right for Israel’s economy.”
Yet if Liberman wants to actually help both the haredi community and the economy as a whole, he needs to examine the bigger picture surrounding key developments for the workforce, beginning with the country’s shortage of hi-tech professionals.
A report issued by State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman earlier this year documented 18,500 vacant positions in the hi-tech sector, resulting from a shortage of skilled university graduates with training in the computer software and hardware fields. In the report, 27% of Israeli companies stated that they have opened development centers or software testing facilities abroad.
Accordingly, it is in Israel’s best interest to expand education and employment opportunities among largely untapped talent pools in the haredi and Arab communities. But a different report, from Start-Up Nation Central and the Israel Innovation Authority, revealed that the country is lagging on that front. The report said the previous trend of growing representation of Arab and haredi employees in hi-tech has “halted in the past year,” with Arabs and haredim accounting for less than 3% and 3.3% of the hi-tech workforce, respectively.
Israel urgently needs more hi-tech professionals in order to preserve its international reputation as the “Start-Up Nation.” In that regard, Liberman’s new policy is counterproductive. The directive will force countless haredi women to give up their jobs because they will need to care for their children at home, meaning that the already thin hi-tech workforce will miss out on their contributions. It also marks a severe financial blow to haredi families, many of whom depend on women as breadwinners while their husbands study Torah.
The government is initiating programs such as six-month vocational training courses that teach haredim one specialized skill and nothing else. What the hi-tech sector needs, however, are engineers and other technology professionals with a comprehensive and well-rounded education in their discipline.
A higher education degree — not a short-term vocational training — is the ticket to gainful employment in high-demand professions, as evidenced by the fact that at the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT), the employment rate among our haredi graduates is approximately 90%.
By studying one computer programming language in isolation as part of a vocational course, a student does not build the critical thinking skills and outside-the-box thinking capability to solve problems or function as part of a larger team. Only higher education, by conveying a breadth of knowledge in different subjects and also featuring a social component on campus, adequately sets students up for success in the world of work.
At a time when Knesset lawmakers outside the haredi parties — and especially in the current governing coalition — are failing to look out for the interests of the haredi community, Israel cannot lose sight of the importance of ensuring that enough haredim are empowered to join the job market and contribute to the economy. JCT prioritizes this objective through initiatives such as a nursing program designed specifically for haredi men and a new pharmacology track that meets a pressing need in one of the fastest-growing professions in the country’s health system. Our haredi students are increasingly taking advantage of these academic offerings, understanding that the light at the end of the tunnel is a prosperous career.
For the state, pivoting its focus from vocational training to incentivizing more haredim to pursue higher education would be an important first step toward achieving both of Liberman’s stated goals: pulling the haredi community out of poverty and stimulating national economic growth.
By allegedly “helping” haredim by revoking childcare subsidies, Liberman offered a stick. Instead, the government should strategize around how to offer a carrot, in the form of expanded access to higher education among haredim and other underserved populations.
The writer is vice president of the Jerusalem College of Technology.