Haredi academics and employment

The Jewish state’s future economy and society can’t possibly prosper if over a quarter of the country’s citizens are left behind.

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Haredi students at the Jerusalem College of Technology

Haredi students at the Jerusalem College of Technology. (photo credit: JERUSALEM COLLEGE OF TECHNOLOGY)The Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) projects that Israel’s haredi community will grow from its current 11% share of the total population to 27% during the next 40 years. It is simply too important to fail. The Jewish state’s future economy and society can’t possibly prosper if over a quarter of the country’s citizens are left behind.

Yet “failing” is what’s taking place, according to a new report issued by the state comptroller and the subsequent media coverage about the report.

In an effort to raise haredi employment levels (which have hovered around 50% among men and 70% among women) so that they are closer to those of the non-haredi population (90% for men and 80% for women), the Israeli government invested NIS 550 million ($153m.) from 2011-2018 and earmarked another NIS 1.1 billion ($306m.) through 2022 for higher education programs for Haredim.

Indeed, from 2011 to the 2016-17 academic year, enrollment in Israel’s gender-segregated colleges geared towards the haredi community rose from 6,000 to 11,465 students. But that didn’t meet the government’s goal of 14,500, and the enrollment decreased by 500 students in 2017-18.

The State Comptroller’s report found that despite the government’s goal of greater academic participation and ultimately greater employment among Haredi men, a striking gender imbalance remains: 78% of graduates of haredi academic programs are women. Meanwhile, 75% of men and more than half of women dropped out of these programs before earning their degrees.

Perhaps most concerning – as State Comptroller Joseph Shapira articulated – is the state’s misallocation of resources to the teaching profession, where a surplus of qualified labor exists in the Israeli job market. This is especially true in the haredi community, where 86% of trained educators eventually pursue jobs in other professions.

At the haredi academic institutions examined in the comptroller’s report, nearly half of the enrolled students study education (29%) or social sciences (19%).

Meanwhile, a total of only 18% study engineering and architecture (9%) as well as math, statistics, and computer science (9%). Nonetheless, Israel’s Council for Higher Education has continued to invest in teaching programs.

“If so, the state is investing much of its resources to encourage women to learn a subject in which the supply far exceeds the demand,” Shapira wrote in the report. But Israel shouldn’t accept this “failure” as inevitable. For years, the Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) has maintained that providing high-quality STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education is the key to greater employment in the haredi community.

For JCT’s more than 2,000 haredi students (within a total student body of 4,500), this formula works – 89% of our haredi graduates attain employment, including 77% in their field of choice. How is this possible? It’s really no secret: STEM majors pursue careers with shortages of professionals in the Israeli economy, rather than exacerbating the surpluses in fields like teaching.

Accordingly, the state has a clear way forward to a much brighter future in haredi academics and employment: dramatically increasing its investment in STEM education, not only at institutions specifically geared towards haredim, but at all of Israel’s colleges and universities. 

After all, JCT is not a “haredi college.” We’re the second-largest academic institution in Jerusalem. 

Haredim make up about 45% of our students, as we also serve the National Religious community. What we do offer haredi students is a religiously sensitive campus environment where they can thrive academically, maintain a significant time commitment for Jewish studies and chart a practical course to a fulfilling and financially viable future career.

Concerns about the State Comptroller’s report are surely justified – Israelis should expect a tangible return on their investment when the government dedicates such substantial sums for haredi academics. 

Yet the current problem can be overcome. 

The state can take a major step towards solving it by allocating more funds for training professionals in fields which aren’t oversaturated. That means greater investment in STEM education in haredi-friendly institutions offering high-quality training.

Israel can’t give up on haredi academics and employment. It is too important to fail.

The writer is vice president of the Jerusalem College of Technology.