OECD Adult Skills’ test shows the deep social gaps in Israel

A test initiated by the OECD and published at the end of June 2016 revealed the underbelly of Israeli society. This test has uncovered two facts that should cause serious […]

A test initiated by the OECD and published at the end of June 2016 revealed the underbelly of Israeli society. This test has uncovered two facts that should cause serious worry. The first is long-known: Israeli society is extremely polarized with a minority (30%) whose capacities equal those of developed industrialized countries, and a majority that has difficulty orienting itself in the world of computers, mathematics and text-literacy, skills without which one can hardly fit in the modern employment market. This majority, encompassing about70% of adults in Israel, includes residents of the periphery, Arabs, Haredi (ultra-orthodox religious) Jews, and anyone else born in impoverished, uneducated families. Furthermore, the study shows a direct link between socio-economic and cultural background and one’s chances to move up the social scale – namely, anyone born of uneducated parents is highly likely to belong to this group as well.

The international Survey of Adult Skills PIAAC* held simultaneously in about 30 states in 2014-2015 took place in Israel conjointly with the country’s Central Bureau of Statistics and the National Authority for Education Evaluation. Heading the Israeli steering committee of the program was Dr. Ido Gal of the Human Services Department at Haifa University. The survey included interviews for a representative sample of 5530 Israeli citizens (they were tested in their mother-tongues – Hebrew, Arabic and Russian – at home). The interviewees were asked to solve basic math problems, read texts and do things that would show general knowhow of the internet.

The survey revealed a relatively small group whose results were far better than average, and on the other hand a large group lowering the averages. This group was defined as having inferior ability – namely people with minimal computer familiarity and a lack of basic knowledge in reading information and communicating by computer. Results showed that 36.7% of the participants in Israel were placed in this category – in addition to another 33% belonging to category B: with a basic level of computer usage, and only simple data analysis and problem solving. The combination of these two groups shows that 70% of adults in Israel are on a lower level of function than is necessary for successful integration in the modern employment market.

Strong forces on the market prevent change

Many tongues have clicked over the need to close the gaps and seek more equality in Israel. One cannot however ignore the fact that very strong forces in Israel with influential ties with government – all Israeli governments past and present – have an obvious interest in maintaining an army of uneducated, cheap and weakened workers. The lack of awareness and access to knowledge among laborers in the fields of construction, industry, caregiving with the elderly, transport, security, agriculture and many others, enables their employers to hold these sectors at minimal wage rates. Thus, for example, whenever the government faces the issue of permitting the import of agricultural workers, its members forget all the recommendations and resolutions to lower the quota of migrant workers in order to employ local workers, and the agricultural lobby pressures the ministers to approve another deal and employ another 25,000 workers from Thailand.

In construction, too, a powerful lobby of contractors and manpower firms prevent effective regulation, enable continued recklessness in issues of safety and constantly exert pressure to increase the quota of migrant workers. Israel is still a generation behind industrialized nations in all that concerns advanced construction technologies, and the number of casualties in construction accidents in Israel is twice as large as the average in the OECD states. No wonder that workforce productivity in Israel is low and the gap between it and industrialized nations has only been growing.

Until a decade ago, believers in global economy claimed that the reason for the backwardness of the failing majority lies with the low rate of participation of these classes in the labor market. Under pressure of the OECD the government then adopted an ambitious plan to promote employment among Arab women and Haredi men (these two groups show very low rate of  participation in the labour market) . Consequently, between 2002 and 2013 we saw a leap forward in the rate of their employment, so that in 2015 the rate of employment reached 64.1%, higher than the OECD average. This includes a rise among Haredi men from 40% in 2002 to 56% in 2013, and among Arab women a rise from 16% in 2002 to 33% in 2013.

Unfortunately, These changes have not brought about a change in the poverty rate. The theory claiming that whoever is integrated in the employment market would automatically be out of the poverty cycle proved to be wrong. A study published in 2010 established that most of the people integrated in the labor market during the previous decade – a total of 885,000 persons – were employed in low-wage work. Namely – more people are working, but they are poor and uneducated workers. These poor workers are the same 70% whom the survey mentioned above had shown their difficulties with computer orientation. Naturally they would find it difficult to give their children the same background offered to children of the better-off middle classes. The lack of crucial levels of education needed in the modern world recycles the gaps and perpetuates the inferiority of these families.

Troubling reality in Arab society

As far as the Arab population is concerned, the picture revealed here is an alarming one. According to the survey, Arab adults are behind in necessary skills of all parameters. Thus for example, the results of Arab examinees in text literacy (they were examined in their own language in an in-depth interview at home) averged 225 points, compared to the Israeli average of 266 and OECD average of 268. In mathematical literacy the result was even weaker – 212 for Arabs compared to 251 for the general Israeli public and 264 for the OECD average. Computer literacy results indicated 238 for Arabs, 274 for the Israeli average and 279 for the OECD average.

With poor infrastructure and lack of job opportunities in Arab Towns and villages, Arab citizens and even academics face extreme difficulties in trying to enter the Israeli market. This is closely connected to the institutionalized discrimination common in Israel and accompanied by the prejudices of employers who refuse to give the Arab candidate an equal chance. Israeli governments past and present established a system of national discrimination in all aspects of the social educational and economic life of Arabs. This affects negatively Arab youngsters’ standard of living and level of education. The present survey reveals an in-depth view that must change.

Too little too late

Undoubtedly, the government and leading economic factors are now aware of the long-term ramifications of the reality revealed in this survey. In this context one should heed the warning of the OECD director-general, Mr. Angel Gurria, who called upon Israel to change the present situation. He stated that according to the survey forecast, the weakened groups in Israel – Haredi and Arab – who now make up 25% of the population, are expected to constitute 50% in 2050. His warning is well understood – if the Government did not make the necessary changes in policy the result on the long run would push Israel even further down in the scale of labour productivity and social and scientific development.

In order to change this reality, an active government policy supporting employment is needed. The policy in this respect, however, is quite the opposite: Israel’s expenditure on active policy of employment is one third (0.2% of the GNP) of that spent by the European Union states (0.62%). The government refuses to budget high-quality professional training in technological professions, systematically reduces unemployment wages and sustenance allowances, lowers budges targeting research and development in traditional industry, enables the import of migrant workers in the fields of agriculture, construction and nursing, and leaves these fields technologically far behind. All this before even mentioning institutionalized discrimination of Arabs. Without dramatic change in government policy, there is no chance to produce a significant dynamic that would shift course and create equality instead of gaps.

For the result sheet of the survey: http://meyda.education.gov.il/files/Rama/PIAAC_Report.pdf

Translation: Tal Haran


אודות Assaf Adiv