Israeli employment nonprofit itworks looks to even playing field, make high-tech jobs accessible to all

Organization, which operates under the idea that 'employment is a vessel for social change,' recently launched an initiative aimed at bringing Bedouin Israelis from the Negev city of Hura into the tech sector

Ifat Baron’s mantra, if she had one, would possibly be “employment is a vessel for social change.” It is a phrase she uses often to explain the how and why of itworks, the nonprofit social startup she founded in 2006.

After working for seven years in the social responsibility department at Cisco Systems Inc.,  Baron got tired of seeing the huge gap in job placement in high-tech positions between the “established” Jewish sector who belonged to “the right club” and the marginalized sectors of Israel society including women, Arabs and new immigrants. In 2006, she decided to do something about it and established itworks, which promotes diversity in the workplace and works to narrow employment gaps in Israel’s high-tech industry by helping promising high-tech workers from marginalized communities maximize their professional potential and connecting them to prospective employers.

“There were hundreds and thousands of open positions, but people from marginalized communities couldn’t get into the high-tech sector. This market failure made me understand that something should be done,” said Baron. “I have always volunteered and the shared-society issue is close to my heart. Employment is a vessel for social change and other issues, because we all want to work, support our families, our children. I believe that in Israel everybody should have the same opportunities.”

Today itworks is an all-woman-staffed organization with 25 women from the different sectors they serve working with those communities including Arabs, single mothers and new immigrants from Russia and Ukraine.

“Now I am here, working for a long time in economic development with the marginalized communities nobody sees,” Baron, 46, said. “We are helping them integrate into the high-tech sector,” she said. With 5,000 job placements in the past 10 years as a result of their efforts, she also sees herself on a personal level creating a more equal Israel for her three teenage children. “I really believe we are making an equal Israel for everybody.”

The nonprofit has had 250 job placements every year within the Arab sector via its Excel HT-Arab STEM Graduates program, which helps Arab university engineering students transition from the classroom to a career with industry-relevant training including soft skills enhancement and mentorship. Its Single Mothers and Women Economic Development program, which provides vocational training and soft skills coaching for women under the poverty line, has had about 120 job placements per year. The newest program instated two years ago in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine supports Russian- and Ukrainian-speaking immigrants with vocational skill training, seminars on adjusting to the Israeli work culture, language classes in Hebrew and sometimes English, as well as job placement assistance. It has placed about 120 immigrants in high-tech jobs.

Conversely, Baron said, itworks offers a diversity and inclusion course every year to some 20 companies to help them prepare to recruit in the Arab sector and integrate Arab employees.

“We have 500 job placements every year for people who without us nobody would even call to give them an interview,” she said.

Even if Arab students graduate as engineers with top grades from the same universities as Jewish Israeli students, they are typically at a disadvantage from the get-go because many of the Jewish students have spent three years in elite army intelligence units such as the 8200 Unit, Israel’s equivalent of the NSA. By serving in that unit and similar ones, those applicants will have already gained connections and access — there are a host of “veterans of” WhatsApp and Facebook groups, as well as a culture of “one friend brings another” — as well as practical coding and technical skills experience, and often already have better Hebrew and English skills, noted Baron.

itworks’ “vocational boot camp” is structured to help the Arab students overcome those hurdles and is run in coordination with an employer to align the skills taught with the employers’ needs. If all goes to plan, at the end of the course the majority of the students are prepared to start work, she said.

“I never talk with a company about ‘corporate social responsibility.’ I don’t want them to take my engineers because of social responsibility,” said Baron. “I want them to take my engineers because they are talented.”

After graduating last year from Sami Shamoon College of Engineering in Beersheva, Bahjat Nsasra, 24, from the Bedouin village of Ksfieh, took part in several programs and internships at itworks. He already knew he was lacking some of the requirements high-tech companies were looking for. At the end of next month he will start his new job at the asset intelligence cybersecurity company Armis.

“It is a good feeling after almost one year looking for the right job,” he said. “itworks helped me improve my presentation at interviews, and how to work better on teams. It increased my connections and gives more job options.”

Funding for itworks courses have come from the Ministry of Labor’s Innovation Authority, numerous Jewish federations including the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and groups in the U.S., Canada and Israel, as well as the Edmond de Rothschild Foundation and other private family foundations. As with other nonprofit initiatives, the Oct. 7 Hamas attack and ensuing war in Gaza, now in its eighth month, has made fundraising more difficult as donor have been focusing more on those emergency issues.

“I understand that need,” she said. “But I think we are more relevant than ever because [Israeli Arab and Jews] have a shared destiny, and I believe it is critical that everyone here have the same opportunities. It cannot be that an Arab student from Tel Aviv University will have less options only because he is an Arab.”

Baron noted that while the immigrant project has received overall support from the Jewish federations, the Arab student project is still struggling due to government cuts and delays that are putting it at risk of having to freeze some of its activities. Qudra, a new Israeli Arab Philanthropy group established in 2019, has started to support itwork’s Arab project, but the nonprofit needs to raise $150,000 to continue the project.

itworks recently opened a course for 20 participants from the predominantly Bedouin city of Hura in the Negev, in cooperation with Qualitest, a quality assurance engineering company that provides technology solutions from software to cyber and AI.

Qualitest’s senior vice president, Avigdor Brachya, said that following the COVID-19 pandemic the company began its outreach program to communities in Israel’s geographic and socioeconomic periphery, such as Sderot and Carmiel. He noted that itworks has the connections within the Bedouin community to help them reach out to qualified candidates for the course in Hura, he said.

One hundred people attended a joint orientation session,and 80 of those applied for the course. After an interviewing process, 20 of the candidates were accepted to the training program. So far, Brachya said, he was impressed with the applicants.

If the company believes a recruit has the potential to be a future employee, he said, “the sky is the limit.”

“itworks has a good resume with this kind of population and they really made a good connection between us and candidates in the city of Hura,” said Brachya. “Without this collaboration it is difficult to get to the right people who will fit the course. We want success. We are not a high-tech university. I don’t want to train just for the fun of it. We don’t just want to train 20 people; we want at the end of the course to hire all those 20 people. The end of the course is only the beginning of their progress at Qualitest, it is just to help them put their foot in the door.” 

itworks has worked with other companies in two other courses for the Bedouin community, and today there are about 100 Bedouin engineers working in the Negev, Baron said.

“You can imagine how many job placements we have done and how many there would have been if we had not been there,” said Baron. “It is a game changer. Companies want talent; if we bring them the right talent they will start the job process. Our job is to find them the relevant candidates.”

In a sign of progress in the high-tech sector, in the past 10 years Arab engineers have begun to enter into senior management positions, changing the DNA of the companies, she said, because they are now part of the decision-makers.

But Israeli high-tech has been facing a downturn, first because of the government’s controversial judicial overhaul, which threatened foreign investment, and now with the effects of the Gaza war. All of it has made itworks’  job even harder, Baron said. 

“But we must continue what we are doing in Arab society now more than ever. I believe integrating Arab engineers into the high-tech sector should be a national goal, not only because it is good for society but because in Israel we must have the same opportunities for everybody,” she said. “It is in these times that we are needed more than ever.” Here, Baron tweaked her mantra. “Employment is a vessel for shared society and our shared destiny. We are [both] here.”

Her dream, she said, is that in 10 years there will no longer be a need for a nonprofit like itworks.

“I hope I can retire and nobody will need me,” said Baron. “I hope that in 10 years lone immigrants from Russia, Arab engineers from Tayibe, single mothers will be able to find their jobs on their own because they will have the skills they need.”