Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a former software entrepreneur, said in a speech to the Knesset introducing his new government that the lawmakers will seek to grow the proportion of the Israeli labor force in the high-tech industry, from approximately 10% to 15% by 2026.
Bennett, a former CEO of two software technology companies that each sold for tens of millions of dollars, was sworn in on Sunday following months of political drama.
The tech industry, which gave the “Start-Up Nation” its nickname, is central to Israel’s economy. In 2020, the industry was responsible for 52% of Israeli exports for a total of $57 billion, according to government data.
Nevertheless, the sector suffers from a chronic shortage of qualified workers. A 2019 report from the Economy Ministry’s Israel Innovation Authority (previously known as the office of the chief scientist) noted that there are 18,500 positions within the industry waiting for suitable candidates.
Bennett’s policy, if successful, would not only draw Israelis into better-paying positions – the average salary in the tech sector is more than double that in the wider market, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics – but secure the future growth of a key part of the economy.
However, Prof. Joseph Zeira, who studies the Israeli economy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, thinks Bennett’s goal may be overly ambitious.
“High-tech has taken up 10% of the workforce in Israel since 2000. This appears to be pretty stable,” he told The Media Line. “I am simply wary that this is an unrealistic goal, and that a declaration such as this amounts to little more than empty rhetoric.”
Still, there are voices within the industry that suggest a few paths the government could pursue if it is serious about achieving this goal.
Amit Bivas, vice president for global marketing at Optimove, which develops and markets Relationship Marketing software, told The Media Line: “It all starts with education. Parents and teachers should be encouraged to emphasize subjects that may be less popular, like physics, mathematics, English and other languages, from a young age.”
This will create a good basis for taking on advanced studies that pave the way toward the tech sector later on, he says. Bivas also suggests that funding for college degrees in relevant fields, as well as new scholarships, should be offered to further encourage youth to choose this path, lucrative for the individual as well as the country.
Demi Ben-Ari, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Panorays, a cybersecurity risk management company, also emphasized education.
“All available resources should be shifted backward, all the way to elementary school and high school, in the attempt to direct the workforce to go in these directions,” Ben-Ari told The Media Line.
He adds that the government should encourage training programs offered by tech firms, as well as mentoring platforms for the industry. This, he emphasizes, goes not only for engineering and software development, but also for other professional fields necessary for the industry, such as marketing.
In the long run, Ben-Ari believes that, to alleviate the shortage of skilled workers, the Israeli government should attract developers from abroad. They could be encouraged to live in areas that currently lack tech hubs, which could then develop around them and their employers.
Ben-Ari and Panorays’ head of research, Elad Shapira, both have been involved in mentorship platforms that encourage entry into the field.
Looking forward, Ben-Ari is “sure that I and many of my friends in the industry would be happy to assist with this change,” necessary for growing the number of tech workers.
“What the government needs to do is not make the process more difficult, and designate a body responsible for it, so there’s wide cooperation instead of a one-way street,” he said.
Early intervention in education, Ben-Ari points out, will also be an opportunity to encourage more girls to study relevant fields and later enter the industry.
Parents and teachers should be encouraged to emphasize subjects that may be less popular, like physics, mathematics, English and other languages, from a young age
Bivas says the benefits to the Israeli economy are clear. “At present, the lack [of potential employees] and the high salaries are causing phenomena such as recruitment overseas,” he emphasizes. Increasing the number of relevant applicants will translate to lower salaries but more positions staying in the country – and more revenue for the state.
Zeira is less enthusiastic about direct government involvement that constitutes economic handholding by the state. However, improved education is the way forward regardless. “The government should supply more public education and infrastructure – including networking and communications – and let the economy do its thing,” he said,
The tech industry in Israel has been blamed for being a closed “bubble” of success in the country, with an affinity for programming and math constituting one of the gatekeepers blocking wider populations from joining in the success. Bivas, however, stresses that tech companies have long since broadened the kinds of skills and professions they are looking for and that strengthening the industry will benefit diverse segments of the population.
Zeira adds that if educational reforms are carried out in a way that opens doors for people beyond those who have studied computer science and similar subjects, an increasing emphasis on technical education and the tech sector will not exacerbate the income gaps between segments of the population.