Emigres Flood Israeli Job Market
Thousands of new professionals spur debate over how to create jobs in state-based economy
JERUSALEM — EACH year, after much study and many exams, Israeli medical schools graduate 280 doctors.In just one week last December, 300 arrived from the Soviet Union. There are in Israel some 12,000 PhDs, spread among universities and businesses. By 1995, if current immigration predictions hold up, they will be outnumbered more than three-to-one by their Soviet colleagues. Musicians, managers, scientists, artists, engineers in the tens of thousands, dentists, professors, laboratory technicians, and teachers are pouring into Israel in an extraordinarily unbalanced wave of immigration made up more than 75 percent by professionals.
Reservoir of skills If this enormous pool of skills can be properly tapped, it represents a reservoir of economic possibilities unmatched in Israel's history. But as they step off the planes day by day, the disproportionate number of highly educated immigrants is worrying planners who have little idea of how to employ them gainfully. Crouching on the roof of a half-completed apartment block, hammer in hand, under the glaring sun, Vladimir Sushinsky is a case in point. A sports doctor in the Soviet Union, he has decided that, "It is impossible to work as a doctor here now; there are too many doctors from the USSR and, anyway, there is not much sport in Israel." Rather than choose another line of work, Dr. Sushinsky now works 11 hours a day as an unskilled building laborer to earn the money he hopes will take him to the United States - and a job to match his professional talents. "The government was slow to realize that employment is the one issue that will determine if this historic process is a success or a failure," says Mikhail Kleiner, head of the Israeli parliament's Aliyah and Absorption committee. "The principal problem of the next few years," echoed the Bank of Israel in a recent report, "is the creation of 600,000 jobs ... starting at a time when Israel is experiencing its highest-ever unemployment rate." How to meet that challenge is a subject of keen debate over how large a role the state should play. Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir's right-wing government is ideologically inclined to lay the burden on private enterprise. The Central Bank report, too, stressed that "absorption of the additional manpower into the public services is to be avoided.... Economic policy must ensure that most of the labor increment is absorbed by the business sector." But there are doubts whether Israel's business sector is vital enough, or could find enough capital, to grow as fast as would be required. And Israel's traditionally state-oriented economy remains unfamiliar territory to foreign businessmen who have still to be convinced that this is profitable ground for investment. Reservations about the private sector's ability to employ all the newcomers have prompted calls for the government to step in as it has often done in the past. "Zionism has never been a program of profitability," argues Uri Gordon, head of the Aliyah department at the Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental group. "This is a moral question, not an economic question." Even if the government does step in, however, the task will not be simple, economists warn. "Stronger countries than Israel have found the business of creating jobs very difficult to tackle artificially," Kleiner points out. "The last time it was done on this scale was the New Deal." New Deal-type proposals abound, and the Finance Ministry plans to invest nearly $800 million over the next year to build and improve roads, railways, water and sewage systems, and energy plants. Calls have been heard for the government to lay a railway all the way to Eilat, on the Red Sea, to build desalination plants along the Mediterranean coast, to massively expand the country's road system, and even to dig a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea along which hydroelectric stations would be placed. Such huge projects, however, would take at least two years to get under way. And in the meantime, Finance Minister Yitzhak Modai has been reduced to suggesting that big firms, many of them state-owned, be obliged to take on 50,000 workers, whether needed or not, whose wages the government would pay. This plan has not been adopted, nor has any other comprehensive approach to the problem.
No program yet "We don't have jobs for them at the moment," says Nitza Ben Zvi, head of the new immigrants' department at the Ministry of Labor. "So they have no choice, they agree to do any job, in construction, in factories, in agriculture, in hotels, as street cleaners. "They say 'We'll do anything because we need the money,' and that's a good thing because otherwise we would have a very big problem." Many of the immigrants doing manual labor appear to be taking the jobs away from Palestinians, although no statistics have been compiled on this development. Ms. Ben Zvi says the Labor Ministry is encouraging Soviet immigrants to work on rural agricultural settlements, "replacing outsiders," and veteran Israelis say they notice Russians pumping gas or washing up in restaurants - duties once carried out largely by Palestinians. How long such safety-valves will be open is unclear. According to Dr. Aaron Fein, who heads the polling organization Tazpit, 74 percent of Soviet immigrant families who arrived at the end of 1989 have at least one member with a full- or part-time job. "This is very encouraging," he says, "except that only 12,000 people arrived in 1989. It's like describing the capacity of a parking lot - those who come early find slots and those who come later don't. You cannot project from those who came early onto those who came late." The outlook for those who come late and at an older age is especially bleak: Government officials and immigrant aid workers agree that any new arrival over the age of 50 is virtually condemned to a life of unemployment. But younger people continue to have high hopes.
Food yes, jobs no "We send lecturers to the USSR to explain what to expect, but it seems people don't want to understand," sighs Dvora Shmagin, a counselor with the Soviet Jewry Zionist Forum office. "They like to hear that you can find food in the market, but not that you can't find a job." Some bow to reality and start thinking about alternative careers. Dr. Fein has found that, on arrival, 16 percent of the immigrants say they will retrain. After a few months, 30 percent are prepared for such a change. Others make do with whatever jobs they can find in the hope that more suitable opportunities will open up later. But they will not do so forever, warns Knesset committee chairman Kleiner. "People will accept these temporary jobs," he says, and be glad of the money. "But only so long as they feel that the government is doing its utmost to create jobs in their fields."