For all the hype, The Start-Up Nation is in decline. The latest figures from the Israel Innovation Authority show a drop in new start-ups being created amid a flush of investment and floundering recruitment, all the while remaining within 10% of the country’s total employment.
Important solutions like those proposed by Ariel Beery focus on changing the economic and structural start of the Start-Up Nation; in this piece, I focus on two issues that have persisted before and outside of Israel’s start-up scene, and how solving them together will be a game-changer in growing out this sector: The Israeli workplace’s lack of human resources management (HR) and harnessing the profitability of a Liberal Arts degree.
Israeli workplaces are largely lacking HR beyond the hiring, firing, and pay-slip printing. Up until recently, Israeli wage-earners had a job and not a career — they stayed employed in a job for decades for both the stable paycheck and eventual pension, and professional development was not prioritized beyond accruing a pension and the occasional company outing or pre-holiday toast. With little need for doing more than the above, it’s no wonder that many start-ups offer stock options and off-site events: Different packaging, same contents as their parents’ workplaces.
This phenomenon is facilitated by a key component in Israeli society: The lack of a widespread liberal arts education. With the exception of Shalem College in Jerusalem and PPE degrees for honors students at public universities, Israel’s higher education is modeled off the Central European model of learning a trade – rightly so, as Israel needed to quickly build a workforce from even before its independence. It’s why the hard-skills focused Bezalel Academy and the Technion were not only the first institutes of higher education founded by the Zionist movement, but the latter’s first language of instruction was German. To this day and even before college, high-school students are still placed in ‘megamot,’ academic learning tracks, and the IDF utilizes this directed learning for their own human resources management during recruitment and enlistment.
Over a century later, however, this model is showing its cracks. Learning a subject in the Humanities primarily to teach said subject is an outdated model, especially without an HR system in place that’s able to recognize existing and emerging talent for employment. And while STEM education is important, not everyone is meant (nor should!) to specialize in it. If all HR is doing is checking off a set of prescribed boxes for a role, how will entry-level positions be filled? What will incentivize employee retention beyond that 10% and the occasional company outing? How will skills beyond computer coding and engineering ever be codified?
As both an employer and employee, and now self-employed, I personally know how important opportunities for professional growth are to both the individual and company’s long-term success. I’ve heard from one-too-many Israeli how disenchanted they are at work; and even those who’ve gone back to work to study Organizational Psychology, in order to tackle this issue from within.
Enter the Liberal Arts graduate who, by and large in Israel, are immigrants (Olim) coming from an English-speaking country.
As opposed to the average Israeli college graduate, Liberal Arts affords both a deep-dive into topics of interest, as well as the intensive acquisition and application of generalist skills. Often mislabeled as ‘soft skills,’ there are three generalist skills that stand out in general, and in particular for the professional success of a Liberal Arts graduate: Research Prowess, Critical Analysis, and Expository Writing.
These three skills are not only crucial for an employee’s ability to fit into a variety of workplace sectors and to grow within them, they are crucial for a start-up’s survival. Business Development, Sales, Marketing, Customer Relations – all of these are mastered through experience, and bolstered by the sharpening of the three skills above before and during getting hired.
So how do we make a change in Israel’s status quo?
First and foremost, those with Liberal Arts degrees need to recognize and overcome the stigma they face from older generations as well as those from the hard sciences and ‘professional studies.’ The old “So what do you do with a Philosophy degree?” joke is indeed very old, as evidenced by the amount of people gainfully employed in other OECD countries with a Philosophy degree.
Fellow Immigrants by Choice with Liberal Arts Degrees, the time for self-advocacy and self-marketing is yesterday. From the career development workshops I do for internationals visiting and studying in Israel, it’s painfully clear how much we under-sell ourselves: Recognize the three skills above in your own academic and professional experience, and find the language to weave them into your elevator pitch and professional narrative.
Second, we need to better advocate for ourselves in the workplace. We’re seeing the start of this in the difficulty many start-ups are having in recruitment, as much the result of a lack of HR as prospective employees are leveraging the situation by holding out for higher salaries.
The word that’s missing here is ‘investment:’ When the interviewee states their intention to be invested in by the interviewer and their company, and in turn invest their resources into the company, the conversation can switch from filling in a hastily-written job description to finding a long-term relationship.
Likewise, the company that can look at interviewees as company investments, and with the right executive-level leadership in charge, will win out with opportunities for growth that as much benefit the individual as well as the company; everyone else, get used to a ho-hum workforce and meh employee retention. The workplace buzz-terms of CSR (corporate social responsibility) and DEI (diversity, equality, and inclusion) are no less relevant in Israel as they are in other developed economies, and it’s time for Israel’s supposed vanguard to act as such by investing in its workforce through these and other operational values.
Third, we need to be better at selling ourselves to the larger world – yes, an ongoing problem when it comes to Israel, and especially in its latest iteration of Start-Up Nation euphoria. A company’s leadership which doesn’t self-audit will lose precious insight: Programs which expose internationals to Israel’s workplace — Lahav, Start-Up Nation Central, TAMID, etc. — can help when they empower their participants to both weave Israel into their professional narrative and give constructive feedback on the jobsite experience.
A degree from the Liberal Arts is not only profitable, but a potential game-changer in Israel’s increasingly stagnant start-up and employment ecosystems. Without a significant cohort of employees with generalist skills, and the internalizing of said skills that can lead to better self-advocacy in the workplace, the status quo will stay in place for perpetuity: It pays the bills, it keeps people busy – but just barely profiting, and definitely not advancing. Fellow English-speaking immigrants, the time has never been so ripe for you.
Through better HR practices on the one end, and better self-awareness and self-marketing on the other end, The Start-Up Nation can come roaring back in favor of growth for both company and larger society alike.