Is Israel about to be flooded by foreign high-tech workers, and is that the answer to the complaints of high-tech companies here about the difficulty of finding suitable personnel? As far as the Population and Immigration Authority is concerned, the answers to both questions could certainly be positive. "Within a week, we shall launch an online form for submitting applications to bring in foreign experts," Yoel Lipovetsky, head of the employers and foreign workers service administration at the Authority, told "Globes". "We have created an interface with the Innovation Authority. To any company on which I receive feedback from the Innovation Authority that it is a recognized high-tech company I'll automatically give a permit to bring in experts, almost without checking anything. No committees and no long stories. A company that wants an expert will no longer have to send an application by mail as it does today and wait two-three weeks, or apply in person. It will be able to submit applications remotely, and attach all the documentation."
How many such permits will you give?
"As many as they ask for."
Even if they ask for, say, 3,000?
"As many as they ask for. We have no quota for experts."
This is a different solution from the one in the government's decision last January.
"It's a little different, but we're constantly looking for ways in which to help the high-tech industry, which is such an important growth engine for the economy."
A shortage of 10,000 workers
In January a year ago, the government approved the "National Plan for Expanding the Skilled Workforce for the High-Tech Industry", the result of staff work and government decisions on the matter that had been ongoing since 2011. The plan includes a long list of action points, among them the setting up of a ministerial committee headed by the prime minister, and a professional committee lead by the head of the National Economic Council, the Chief Scientist, and the Director of Employment Regulations at the Ministry of the Economy and Industry. The plan's aim is to provide a solution for the estimated shortage of 10,000 high-tech workers, of whom only a few hundred are meant to come from abroad.
The plan mainly focused on potential local manpower, but also dealt with workers from abroad. Among its provisions were the inclusion of high-tech workers on the list of experts in the regulations allowing experts to work in Israel; action on a government decision of July 2016 allowing the life partners of foreign high-tech workers to work in Israel; permission for up to 500 foreign students in Israel to work for up to a year in the local industry; the formation of a database of high-tech companies in order to streamline the process of approval for bringing in foreign experts; and the establishment within four months of an online system for submitting applications for bringing in such experts.
The government's timetable has not been adhered to, but the online system is expected to be up and running within the next few days. Lipovetsky says that the other provisions are also gradually being acted upon. "Regulations allowing life partners to work will come into force within the next month, but only in high-tech. A further relaxation in the procedure is that a foreign student who studies high-tech professions here, who once had to immediately earn double the average wage in order to stay after his or her studies and work here, will now be able to work for a year without restriction, as a kind of apprenticeship. Only after that will the restriction apply."
What's the process at present?
"The process is the barrier that the complaints were about. The situation is that if you submit the paperwork and wait for months, because an opinion is required from the Foreign Trade Administration in the Ministry of the Economy and Industry, and sometimes from the Industry Administration as well. The lawyers involved take NIS 5,500-6000 shekels for every worker, which makes no sense to me. We'll have computerized examination of the applications, and we'll give responses within days, no more than a week."
For how long will the workers receive permits?
"The permit is generally for a year, but for high-tech I give two years."
Another procedure of the Population and Immigration Authority, which came into force six months ago, relates to workers who come to Israel for periods of up to 45 days, and in high tech up to 90 days. Beforehand, these workers entered Israel on tourist visas, and were actually working illegally. "There is now a very expeditious procedure. An application is submitted by email, and an answer is received within a few days," Lipovetsky says. "The condition of the Ministry of Labor is that they should earn at least double the average wage, in order to prevent a situation in which people are brought here for short programming jobs and then leave."
On the basis of this procedure, the Ministry of Finance Budgets Division proposes in the draft Economic Arrangements Bill published today (the annual bill accompanying the state budget) an additional long-term track for high-tech personnel. The proposal is that the fast track will not be for three months only, but will make it possible to bring such personnel to Israel for five years. The Ministry of Finance is also interested in reducing the wage threshold from twice the average wage to 1.5 times, but this is not in the Economic Arrangements Bill.
When the government's original plans for easing the rules for importing high-tech workers were announced, reactions from workers in the local industry were negative to hostile. The arguments against were that there was no genuine shortage, that engineers over age 45 found it hard to find work despite their experience, while university graduates were not being accepted because of their lack of experience. Graduates of technical colleges complained that their abilities were being underestimated. It was alleged that CEOs of high-tech companies were seeking to save costs at both ends: to avoid paying high salaries to experienced people, and at the same time to avoid taking on the cost of training young workers.
Naomi Krieger-Carmy, head of the Societal Challenges Division at the Israel Innovation. Authority, says that the problem of a worker shortage applies to specific niches in high tech. "If at one time the thing you most heard was lacking was money for R&D, today a lack of skilled workers is in close contention for first place. These are people in programming, engineering, at the top of the pyramid. You see it in all the indicators: pay is climbing beyond pay in the rest of industry and the rest of the economy; the time taken to fill every post is lengthening; and the competition is very strong."
Krieger-Carmy, whose responsibilities include implementation of government decisions, explains that reducing the shortage should be via exploitation of the potential among haredim, Arabs, women, and the over 45s, for whom the Director of Employment Regulations has opened new programs, as has the National Economic Council. Another pool is the general population, mainly through the universities and non-academic programming courses, "coding bootcamps", launched last year at an investment of NIS 20 million. In contrast to the approach of the Population and Immigration Authority, Krieger-Carmy stresses that the work plan is not to bring all the missing high-tech personnel from abroad, but a few hundred at most.
This is in line with an announcement by the Innovation Authority three months ago that set a high target of 20,000 new high-tech workers annually, to raise their number from 270,000 today to 600,000 within a decade. According to the Authority's table of figures, only 1,500 of the annual 20,000 will come from abroad, and this number will include returning Israelis and new immigrants.
Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on January 1, 2018
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