How Israel’s Economy Can Stay Strong Despite Omicron’s Uncertainty

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Before the intensification of the Omicron variant, the Israeli economy had received several forecasts for strong growth in 2022. The Jewish state’s own treasury forecast 4.7 percent growth for the economy this year (after 7.1 percent growth in 2021), while the OECD predicted 4.9 percent growth in Israel’s GDP for 2022 and 4 percent for 2022 2023

Both internal and external assessments have attributed Israel’s economy’s resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic to the country’s world-leading vaccine rollout. But what else can Israel do to further strengthen its economic position in these ongoing uncertain times?

The unemployment rate is a typical measure of a country’s economic strength, but the pandemic has added a new layer to the dynamics surrounding the labor force. Today’s environment challenges us not only to create jobs and get people back to work, but also to convince them to go back to work. In the United States, for example, the so-called “Great Resignation” has resulted in a record number of Americans quitting their jobs (4.5 million in November 2021 alone). Factors driving this trend include increased federal and state unemployment benefits (earlier in the pandemic); a desire to exit retail jobs that do not allow remote work and involve high levels of potential exposure to the coronavirus; and a propensity to use the pandemic to reconsider his personal and professional path.

Israel is no stranger to the challenge of delayed labor market participation. The employment rate for haredi Males are typically around 50 percent, as many choose to study Torah on a full-time basis. If Haredim or Arabs or other underserved populations, expanding employment in largely untapped demographic sectors represents a critical way to ensure Israel’s economic strength.

This is particularly true for the talent-poor high-tech sector. Last year, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman released a report documenting 18,500 job vacancies in Israel’s high-tech industry, due to a shortage of qualified university graduates with training in computer software and hardware. And make no mistake: higher education is an indispensable route to such training. Undergraduate certifications or professional courses in computer programming do not provide students with the high-level, well-rounded skills they need to effectively fill the current gaps for Israel’s technology-focused employers.

The Jerusalem College of Technology (JCT) has long worked to find an academic solution to this employment challenge and strives to strengthen the Israeli labor market by increasing access to technology-related education and employment opportunities for underserved populations. those of the college haredi Graduates achieve an employment rate of 89 percent, which far exceeds the employment rate for haredi men throughout Israel. Over the past year, our preparatory (pre-academic) program in Mechina, which helps religious Jews gain an undergraduate education in the STEM subjects required to enter academia, saw a 20 percent increase in enrollment.

In addition, 53 percent of all computer science students at JCT are women, which is 18 percent more than at any other Israeli academic institution. The new Valley campus for women, due to break ground earlier this year, will expand the college’s impact on women’s empowerment. As a permanent home for up to 3,000 JCT students in nursing, computer science, electro-optics, industrial engineering, accounting and management, the campus offers more opportunities for national religious, haredi and Ethiopian women to pursue higher education and gain quality employment in the science and high-tech industries.

The Omicron variant means many sectors, including higher education, could again face severe restrictions and disruption.

Distance learning was a necessity at the start of the pandemic and it appears academic institutions may now be regressing back to March 2020 conditions. While JCT was doing its best to adapt to this unprecedented environment two years ago, students at our college and across the board have reported that distance learning is far from ideal. For example many haredi Students have large families, inadequate home workspaces, and weak internet connections—obstacles that make online learning extraordinarily difficult.

Meanwhile, the lack of socialization in conducting distance learning poses moral and psychological challenges for all students that should not be ignored.

Bar-Ilan University, Israel’s second largest higher education institution, has already switched to distance learning amid the Omicron crisis. However, other major Israeli universities have not yet followed suit, and the Israeli government should be commended for its continued commitment to ensure that students of all ages continue to learn in person.

“There is no reason for entire classes to automatically switch to distance learning if they have no confirmed cases of COVID-19,” Israeli Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton said recently.

The threat of school closures, in turn, is also related to Israel’s economic prospects. A college campus is a microcosm of a city, and when we essentially shut down an entire city, we halt all economic growth and contributions that come with day-to-day operations. Therefore, Israel must do everything in its power to keep our campuses open.

By expanding educational and employment opportunities for underserved populations, which happens to be an extremely difficult endeavor when colleges are closed, Israel can take at least one important step toward weathering the Omicron storm.

Stuart Hershkowitz is Vice President of the Jerusalem College of Technology.

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