You may be surprised to find out who is being left behind by the employment revolution in the Haredi community.
For more than a decade, there has been a slow but steady rise in employment rates among Haredi men. The widespread assumption, based on several research studies and “conventional wisdom” is that Haredi men struggle to enter and succeed in the high-quality labor market due to a lack in education. And those who do find a way to overcome the substantial knowledge gaps resulting from years of Torah study pay a substantial price, both socially and economically.
However, findings from a new study conducted by the Ministry of Labor’s Research Administration, based on special analysis of the PIAAC skills survey carried out by the Central Bureau of Statistics (under the auspices of the OECD’s Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies), reveals a unique phenomenon. The survey examined the skill levels of different population groups in reading, mathematics and problem-solving in a computerized environment.
It turns out that not only were the reading levels of working Haredi men found to be lower than those who study in yeshivas, but the average technological skills of the former were significantly lower than those of the latter.
This is a unique phenomenon, in which people with stronger skills remain unemployed because, among other reasons, they can advance via Torah study to senior and highly-respected religious and educational positions.
As such, there is an urgent need for an in-depth rethinking of Haredi education. The 50% of young Haredi men who are expected to enter the labor market are actually those with poorer skills and abilities, or at the very least, those who lack the necessary interest in continued, intensive Torah study. Meanwhile, the Israeli employment market increasingly requires more highly-skilled workers. As such, this phenomenon is likely to contribute to already high poverty levels and increase unemployment. Given the expected growth in the size of the Haredi community, such a situation if left unaddressed will ultimately damage the entire Israeli economy.
To reverse this course it is not sufficient to strengthen Haredi men’s skillset only after they’ve reached adulthood, as is done currently. By the time they’re adults, Haredi men must contend with familial and financial responsibilities that make it difficult to gain a well-rounded education.
Instead, strengthening these skills should begin at high-school age, within the yeshivas. To do so, it would be necessary to create options that do not forcibly damage the prospects of those who will clearly continue along the Torah study path. One way to achieve this change would be to offer sizable economic incentives, such as scholarships and living stipends for young Haredi men interested in engaging in general studies from high school onward and making these grants conditional on military or civilian service.
Overall, this intervention would increase the value of Haredim to the Israeli labor market, which is already very much in need of educated, innovative and technologically-savvy workers.
The writer is a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute and coordinator of Haredi studies at the Ministry of Labor, Social Affairs, and Social Services’ Research Administration.