KIBBUTZ SHFAIM, Israel (JTA) — Asaf Negat, 29, made his way to Israel from Ethiopia as an 11-year-old boy, and worked hard to find his way in a new land and speaking a new language. Eventually Negat graduated with a business degree from one of the country’s top universities.
But since completing his studies in the summer of 2006, he has not found work in his field. Unemployed, Negat spends his days trolling the Web sites of banks and investment houses seeking job openings and sending out resumes.
"It’s not exactly a hopeful situation,” said Negat, whose only job since graduation has been as a counselor at an absorption center for newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants. “It makes people like me feel pessimistic, especially when we look at our younger brothers and sisters who see what we are going through.”
Negat is not alone.
Of the approximately 4,500 Ethiopian Israelis who have earned university degrees, fewer than 15 percent have found work in their professions, according to a recent study. Instead, most end up working temporary public-sector jobs serving the Ethiopian Israeli community, remaining disconnected from the larger professional Israeli workforce.
Working in such jobs, which often are project-based and subject to elimination once funding runs out, these Ethiopian Israelis earn less than other college-educated Israelis. Ethiopian Israeli graduates earn an average of $1,375 a month, compared with $1,925 monthly for their Jewish Israeli peers, according to a joint study of the Israeli government and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
"On the one hand, one wants Ethiopians with academic degrees to help make changes in the community by working within it, but on the other hand these jobs are not highly paid, often not very stable and don’t have much potential for promotion,” said Sigal Shelach, the director of programs for immigrants and minorities at Tevet, a joint government-JDC-Israel employment initiative. “So there is a kind of vicious circle going on.”
Negat’s easy smile vanishes when he speaks of the challenges of breaking into the ranks of the educated Israeli middle class.
"We are the role model for the younger generation," he said. "But how are they supposed to react when they go from being encouraged by our studies to watching us finish university only to return back at home, stuck, with no work?"
It’s hardly the fairy-tale landing into the white-collar Israeli workforce many young Ethiopian Israelis imagine for themselves once they make it beyond a host of obstacles to start their university careers.
But in Israel, where personal connections and unwritten cultural codes are especially strong, Ethiopian Israeli graduates face a significant disadvantage in finding jobs compared with their native-born peers. For one thing, they are less likely to have the professional network of connections a typical Israeli might have to land a job.
"They think they graduate and that will be it, but most of them don’t have help of where to go and what to look for,” said Danny Admesu, who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia as a child and now is the director of the Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews. “Usually in Israeli families relatives work in different fields, they have connections and can give advice. You learn not just in university but by meeting people and parents’ contacts. But these people graduate and then don’t know what to do.”
Furthermore, many Israeli employers rely on assessment centers to screen potential job candidates before granting interviews. Some experts say the centers have unintentional cultural biases — for example, asking questions about aggressive decision-making styles and leadership that Ethiopian Israeli job candidates answer much differently than native-born Israelis.
To address that problem, the JDC is piloting a program for more culturally sensitive screening tests.
Compounding matters, many Ethiopian Israelis come from Israel’s periphery — outside the heavily populated center of the country — where jobs are scarce.
There is also the problem of racism, some say.
"We cannot shut our eyes to it and need to talk about,” said Ranan Hartman, the founder and chair of the Ono Academic College, one of a handful of Israeli institutions trying to address the problems facing Ethiopian Israeli graduates. “If we hide from it, it won’t be solved.”
Ono provides nearly full scholarships to Ethiopian students studying business and law. So far, 140 have graduated and another 150 are matriculating.
Hartman said the school’s outreach to Ethiopian Israelis, which is supported in part by the Jewish Agency for Israel, aims to achieve nothing less than a revolution in the Ethiopians’ status in Israeli society.
"How do you inform society to respect the Ethiopian community? You do it by creating islands of excellence, and the success stories can then go and break stigmas," Hartman said.
The college boasts among its Ethiopian graduates the first Ethiopian diplomat and accountant in Israel.
Olim Beyahad, a nonprofit group, also is working to create a highly visible pool of Ethiopian Israelis in the professional Israeli workforce.
Now in its second year, the program has provided 200 students and graduates with intensive workshops in job searching, management and leadership skills, connected them with mentors, and made high-level connections and introductions to help pave their way to interviews and, hopefully, jobs.
Supported by the Jewish Agency and the UJA-Federation of New York, the program coordinates its efforts with the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya and Bank Hapoalim. Yifat Ovadiah, the general director of the organization, says its goal is to help place 1,000 Ethiopian graduates in highly sought-after jobs in their fields in the next five to seven years.
"The idea is that 1,000 people can help change perceptions,” Ovadiah said. “By having visibility in places like the country’s largest accounting and law firms, these people will be able to advance and become influential themselves.”
The group taps top Israeli executives — the CEO of Bank Hapoalim is among the group’s volunteers — to spread the word about the program’s high-quality graduates.
Negat is one of this year’s participants. He says the program is his lifeline to finding work.
At a meeting center at Kibbutz Shfaim, Negat joined several others for a workshop where he had a one-on-one counseling session with an experienced businessman. Under the shadow of an oak tree, Danny Heller helped Negat troubleshoot how best to approach employers as he tries to embark on a career in finance.
Heller, also addressed a larger group of business and economics students during the workshop, reminding them of how extraordinary their journeys have been — and to play that up during their next job interview.
“You have incredible life stories,” the businessman told the group. “You went through things most people never had to, and your abilities, the walls you had to break down, are what will bring you to your next job.”