Ukrainian techies: Is Israel being short-sighted?

Sophia Tupolev-Luz, founder, The Reboot Startup Nation initiative  credit: Cadya Levy
Sophia Tupolev-Luz, founder, The Reboot Startup Nation initiative credit: Cadya Levy

It looks like a perfect match: qualified refugees, and Israel's tech worker shortage. But it's taking private initiatives to make it happen.

Late last year, the government launched a plan to bring foreign workers into the Israeli technology industry. The idea was to alleviate the chronic shortage of workers, estimated at about 15,000. In addition to an initiative to bring North American Jews with tech experience on aliya, and provide them with employment in Israeli high-tech sector, the plan - promoted by Minister of Interior Ayelet Shaked and Minister of Science and Technology Orit Farkash-Hacohen - explicitly mentioned incentives to bring non-Jewish foreign workers to whom the Law of Return does not apply.

The measures put forth by Shaked and Farkash-Hacohen include establishing a special visa track for foreign tech experts, and increasing the number of work permits granted to foreign students, enabling them to extend their stay after their studies. There was even a decision to issue work permits to programmers from the Palestinian Authority wishing to cross checkpoints into Israel and work in Tel Aviv.

Ironically, the war in Ukraine - which has created a refugee crisis unparalleled since the Second World War, with over three million Ukrainians abandoning their homes - has been met with indifference by the government. The only recent comment from Farkash-Hacohen has been about the national AI development program, while Shaked has been busy with different types of restrictions on refugee entries to Israel.

Just as Ukraine is sometimes termed the bread basket of Europe, so Kyiv has been called the back office of Israeli high-tech. According to the Israeli High-Tech Association (IHTA) and other organizations, until the outbreak of the war, about 20,000 Ukrainian programmers were working for Israeli companies, with several thousand more serving the industry as freelancers. In all, this represented about one-tenth of the Israeli high-tech workforce, and about one-fifth of the entire programming labor-pool in Ukraine.

Ukrainian absorption sidelined

To date, about 14,500 refugees have arrived in Israel, of whom some 4,000 are entitled to enter under the Law of Return. At the same time, the number of entries from Russia is an estimated 11,000. Every day a few thousand more, from both countries, continue to land.

Not all the arrivals are programmers or e-commerce specialists. There is, however, great demand as well for marketers, content producers, and testers, says Sophia Tupolev-Luz, founder of The Reboot Startup Nation initiative, which helps place refugees in Israeli high-tech. "There are talented people coming to Israel - or who are thinking of coming - and even though the Israeli economy has much to gain, the government doesn't encourage them to move here," she claims. "There's no information to help them make decisions and no marketing efforts to make them choose Israel over other countries."

Last week, MK Ron Katz convened the Economics Affairs Committee Subcommittee for Advancing Israeli High-Tech. By doing so, he became the only public servant addressing the employment potential of refugees, but that discussion was overtaken by talk about plans to increase the participation of the Haredi and Arab populations in the high-tech sector. The discussion about the potential absorption of Ukrainians was postponed without any objection by the participants.

"Integrating underprivileged populations is an important issue, but decisive action by the government could bring thousands of workers to Israeli high-tech in the short term and alleviate the worker shortage," says IHTA President Marian (Moshe) Cohen. His comments came in the wake of a remark by MK Simcha Rothman, who tried to invalidate the importance of the debate by citing the Talmudic precept that, "The poor of your town take precedence."

Israel not a preferred destination

Israel is offering possible solutions to techie refugees, but these solutions aren't unique. The Population and Immigration Authority has launched a special visa track for experts that enables high-tech companies to hire senior employees, if they commit to paying them over NIS 20,900 per month. In the past few days, the option of issuing work permits for couples has also been added.

The Innovation Authority is also trying to help companies operating in Ukraine - and Russia, too - wishing to bring workers to Israel. The Authority runs a program with aliya organization Gvahim and high-tech training program Infinity Labs R&D, to target techies abroad and bring them to Israel. However, the program is not focused on the Russian or Ukrainian markets. The Jewish Agency, which could have been the vanguard in bringing refugees and matching them with companies, instead dragged its feet. Since January, it has found only 650 people from the CIS interested in making aliya.

Instead, it is a private initiative founded by former immigrants, Reboot, that has taken on the Jewish Agency's role, locating 6,000 people interested in coming to work in Israel and entitled to enter Israel under the Law of Return. Reboot, led Sophia Tupolev-Luz, Ariella Raviv, Daniil Chernov, Katerina Greenstein and Tamar Eisenberg-Abramson, has compiled a database of résumés from refugees that contains information on positions held and technological capabilities, and a pool of hiring companies.

Part of Tupolev-Luz's family is still in Russia, while many of her friends in Moscow were forced to flee the country, and are now in limbo. "They had to leave with a suitcase and ten thousand dollars - that's all the government would allow them," she says. "Most have no idea what to do, how to find a job in Israel, and how the absorption process works." Tupolev-Luz and her team use the Telegram app to manage communication with the refugees.

Eisenberg-Abramson, the only 'Sabra' in the initiative, talks about the numerous checks the Ukrainian refugees must undergo before arriving in Israel. The approach, she says, should be the opposite. First accept the refugees to provide them asylum, and then evaluate them. "Let's have faith in the high-tech people who come here," she tells "Globes". "We're calling for fast-tracking background checks to allow as many refugees as possible to make aliya under the Law of Return, not just highly paid experts, but also juniors who can contribute just as much. Israel needs to market itself; it's not considered a preferred destination."

An act of humanity and force multiplier for Israeli high-tech

"The Employment Service claims that most of the refugees are women and children," adds IHTA's Marian Cohen. "If we handle them properly, the men will follow them, after the war ends. This will be an act of humanity, and a force multiplier for Israeli high-tech."

In the meantime, other initiatives are emerging - such as that of the Israel Advanced Technology Industries (IATI), which has enlisted 150 companies, including Intel, Google, Cisco, Payoneer, and eToro, and recruited Finance Committee chairman MK Alex Kushnir, to aid in locating high-tech workers. Verbit Software, AppsFlyer, WalkMe, Imperva and about twenty other companies have signed a petition calling for the state to open its gates to non-Jewish refugee high-tech workers.

"Israel is not the default choice for these refugees," Cohen explains. "The EU has promised to bring Ukrainian workers into the industry through three-year residence and work visas, and income tax rates for high-tech workers in several countries - such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria - do not exceed 9%. Israel, which is four times more expensive than Ukraine, and with a tax rate that is five times higher, will not be a preferred destination.

"So, the government must do everything it can to attract these people to work here - including working remotely," Tupolev-Luz says.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on March 27, 2022.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2022.

Sophia Tupolev-Luz, founder, The Reboot Startup Nation initiative  credit: Cadya Levy
Sophia Tupolev-Luz, founder, The Reboot Startup Nation initiative credit: Cadya Levy
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