by Sam Ser
October 15, 2009
In their down time, the unemployed play charades. They laugh, they mingle, they pour each other coffee. But they also dress in formal office attire and carry copious notes from their latest meetings. After all, just because they don't have professions doesn't mean they can't be professional.
Their coffee break over, a group of participants in the latest STRIVE employment program file into a classroom to simulate a confrontation with an employer. Miri, a tall and plump woman in her late 20s, plays a nurse who has administered the wrong medication to a child in her care.
"How could you have made such a grievous error?!" barks an instructor, playing the role of the supervisor in a scolding via telephone. Miri refuses to admit her mistake and demands a face-to-face meeting to review the evidence, as her "boss" becomes increasingly agitated. A two-week suspension had been in the cards - and, the boss hints, avoidable had Miri handled this correctly - but now she is a whisker away from an outright dismissal.
After a heated exchange, the instructor steps out of character and turns to the class, asking, "How could Miri have done that better?"
Miri and her classmates have been in this kind of situation before - and usually come out of it badly. The goal of today's class is to learn how to communicate in a manner that reflects responsibility and character, and to learn as well how to defuse an explosive workplace situation or prevent one altogether. Some of the students need to learn how to defend themselves without becoming defensive. Others need to learn how to stand up for themselves. And others are still working on not simply giving up and walking away from a job that will feed their families.
"What we're trying to do is to get people to stop saying, 'The system screwed me,' and start taking control of their lives," explains Naomi Krieger, STRIVE's general manager.
That ethos couldn't come at a better time, as the country is in the midst of an alarming rise in unemployment. Now hovering around 8 percent, with more than a quarter-million Israelis already out of work, joblessness is at its highest point in three years.
"Unemployment will continue to rise… there are still difficult times ahead of us," Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer said in late July.
"I am optimistic about the Israeli economy," Fischer continued, "but we shouldn't exaggerate. We will need to cope with the problem of unemployment."
The big question, of course, is how to do that. And with it comes the question of whether the government can complete the mission on its own. Most of the government's efforts thus far - mainly in derivations of the so-called Wisconsin Plan - have met with only meager success. So meager, in fact, that an 18% job placement rate has been considered cause for celebration. To put that in perspective, STRIVE claims a job placement rate of roughly 75%.
"The government has never had a holistic view of employment," Yossi Tamir cautions.
He ought to know. A professor of social work at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and former director-general of the National Insurance Institute, Tamir headed the government committee upon whose recommendations the Wisconsin-based Mehalev program was founded. He is also currently the executive director of TEVET, the Joint Distribution Committee's array of employment initiatives, of which STRIVE is a part.
"The establishment of [Mehalev] sprung from a need to address an alarming increase in the number of people who were receiving guaranteed income payments," Tamir says from the JDC's Jerusalem office. "It was clear that doling out money wasn't solving the poverty problem."
The issue that Mehalev was supposed to fix, Tamir explains, was not unemployment per se, but unemployment by choice. Israel, Tamir notes, has the lowest rate of participation in the workforce in the Western world.
Cultural norms account for much of that, as many haredi men choose advanced Torah study over work, and many Arab women continue to serve in their traditional role in the home. A minimum wage that is too low in comparison to the benefits handed out to the jobless by the government is another cause. Indeed, Mehalev brought a significant reduction in those numbers, as thousands of people who had been receiving support checks while simultaneously working for pay "under the table" were forced to give up the dole.
On the score of getting more people to work, though, Mehalev has been a disappointment. For STRIVE to succeed, it would have to be different from Mehalev. And it is - very much so.
To begin with, there are nuts-and-bolts differences in the programs. For example, Mehalev aims to place people in jobs as soon as possible and clear their files from the government's welfare caseload. By contrast, STRIVE's work is still in its early stages by the time subjects are placed in jobs; at that point, there's still more than two years of personal and professional development to go.
At least as important, though, is the psychological element that permeates the STRIVE concept and makes it unique. Beyond preparation for work, STRIVE officials say, the unemployed need motivation for work. The cases they are dealing with are people who have been out of work for long periods - some for years, and some even as third-generation recipients of welfare payments.
"One of the exercises we do with our participants is to ask, 'If you could receive NIS 8,000 per month for the rest of your life, on the condition that you never work a single day, would you?' At first, some say, 'Of course!' But then, when we ask what they would suggest their kids respond to the same question, they become very insistent that their children work to support themselves. The idea is to instill the sense that there is a value to working," says Krieger.
In addition to the value of work, STRIVE students are given something most people take for granted: the hope and belief that they can accomplish their goals through hard work. It may seem simple, but for these people, it is absolutely transformative.
At the STRIVE offices in Jerusalem, Michal talks of her own transformation.
Before, says the slender 20-year-old, "I had a dream." Then, after a pause, she adds, "but that's all it was." The dream, she explains, was to start her own cosmetics line. What was holding her back was a stifling insecurity.
"I married young, had children and stayed at home, on the couch," she says. "I allowed myself to be bullied and made to feel inferior. STRIVE gave me a direction. And it really got my head together."
STRIVE's introductory month of classes and workshops follows a rigid 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule, with no excuses for being late or absent and no child-care option. The discipline and resourcefulness required to make it through the course, Michal says, were exactly what she needed.
Now working regularly at the cosmetics desk in a branch of the Super-Pharm chain, Michal is back to dreaming of starting her own cosmetics line - but now she views her work shifts as time spent learning the business from the inside. She's not merely working, she's investing in herself. The empowerment is immense.
"I don't give in so easily anymore," she says, beaming. "I even got divorced and took control of myself. It's like I got an extra dose of smarts!"
Even more enthusiastic is Avi, a thin, bearded 30-year-old who bounced around in yeshivot and kollelim until starting a STRIVE course a few months ago. Lacking drive and a sense of self-worth, Avi saw himself foundering.
It was his sister, though, who gave Avi the impetus to apply to STRIVE. She had just completed the initial course and "couldn't stop talking about it," he says. "The whole family saw how dramatically she changed. I thought it would be good for me, too."
Even before STRIVE helped Avi find a job, he says, it helped him become a better father.
"In class I learned how to be an attentive listener, and how to develop confidence. I applied the lessons at home, listening to my children more and encouraging them to have more confidence in themselves," he says with pride.
Avi is actually so enthusiastic that he is practically leaping out of his chair.
"The idea that I can do things, that I can try something new and maybe even succeed at it, is such a revelation," he says. "Before, I was afraid to do anything, to try anything. Now my only fear is that this [positive] feeling will fade."
Avi works at a travel agency that specializes in trips to Uman, Ukraine, where Rabbi Nahman of Breslov is buried. He, too, treats his job as a starting point rather than an end, and has already set his sights on opening a business of his own. He eagerly soaks up the "Ofek" ("horizon") continuing education classes that STRIVE offers participants fortnightly, and hopes to come back to STRIVE one day to teach others how to succeed.
"Why not?" he asks. For Avi, anything is possible.
Dudu remembers the way he was just a few short months ago - sitting at home, dejected, without the desire to work anymore, having lost faith in his ability to hold down a job that would support himself, his wife and his two little girls.
At 36, he says grimly, and with no sense of hyperbole, "all was lost." Then he saw an ad in the newspaper for a STRIVE course and decided to give working one last shot.
"Now," he says, beaming, "I'm happy to say that I've been working in the customer service department of Office Depot for the past three months. My smile says it all."
For years, Dudu says, he struggled to figure out where he wanted to go in life. Now he hopes to study for a bachelor's degree.
The power of the lessons he has learned in the STRIVE program, Dudu says, is so great that "soon, this will be like the psychometric exam. It'll be an obligatory course."
Clearly, STRIVE participants are benefiting. But what about their employers?
Meir Shalim, the deputy CEO for human resources at customer service company Kishurit, is always happy to hire STRIVE graduates.
"Every month we take on new graduates, and we already have four or five cases of people who have come in from STRIVE who are now in senior positions with us. More than once, our employee of the month has been a STRIVE graduate," Shalim says. "They come in and hit the ground running with a lot of motivation."
Kishurit currently employs nearly two dozen STRIVE graduates. Some have progressed from entry-level jobs to become shift managers or even supervisors. For a company that handles as many as 30,000 phone calls per day, that translates to a lot of responsibility.
"We make sure to give them positive feedback, to make sure they have all they need," Shalim says. "You have to make sure to address their fears and concerns in returning to work after so long. We don't pressure them in terms of time and such. We prefer to focus on learning the ropes and developing skills. It works."
"These folks come in with twice as much desire to succeed as all the 'regular' workers. They're just so much more productive," says Shalim. "We couldn't ask for anything more."
Danny Diamant, head of public relations for Mehashvim, which markets information systems to businesses and professionals, says his company has also been pleasantly surprised by the STRIVE graduates it has hired.
"Some have been here for a few years already and are now leaders in sales. That's significant, because it's not easy to make it here. But there's no group that has sent workers who have succeeded more than the STRIVE graduates have. As far as we're concerned, it's great."
STRIVE makes a "win-win" pitch to businesses: Pay no fee for finding workers, as they would have to do when working with manpower agencies, and get workers who are already trained and highly motivated. In return, the organization can sometimes convince employers to waive requirements that an employee hold an academic degree.
THE STRIVE program, which lasts two and a half years, goes way beyond conflict-avoidance classes and job placement. Sure, the standard components of usual employment programs are in place - learning how to write a CV, how to make a good impression in a job interview, how to search for jobs, etc. - but what makes STRIVE unique, officials say, is its overarching focus on cultivating a positive attitude and the motivation to turn any job into a successful career.
Everything at STRIVE is meant to reinforce the lesson of, well, striving. The offices of the downtown Jerusalem branch - bright, colorful, inviting and modern - are the total opposite of the drab and dreary look of government employment offices. In fact, they could be mistaken for a PR firm. All the doors are glass - intentionally, Krieger says, to create the impression of transparency.
STRIVE opened its doors first in Tel Aviv, and then spread to Haifa and Jerusalem. The program was adapted from an initiative of the same name in Harlem, New York, founded 25 years ago by a former convict turned social worker and successful social activist.
The Israeli version focuses on the sectors of the population hit hardest by chronic unemployment - haredim, Arab women, immigrants from Ethiopia and the Caucasus, and the handicapped - and challenges them to turn their lives around.
"These are people who have had it rough for a long, long time. When they get the phone call telling them they've been accepted to the program, sometimes it's the first time they've ever been accepted to anything," Krieger says.
Each group has its own stigmas to overcome, she adds. For example, she tells the story of a young haredi woman at a STRIVE-sponsored barbecue in the capital's Sacher Park. A counselor who noticed the woman standing off to the side, clearly uncomfortable about mingling, reassured her: "Don't worry, I'll personally make sure you get a good shidduch [match]."
Whatever the reason, STRIVE is making great strides. Of some 30,000 participants in the program at the three offices across the country, Tamir says, more than 20,000 have found work.
However, he notes, there is still much that can be done.
"Where we have failed, in my view, is in advancing workers," he says with a sigh.
In Israel, he points out, the number of people working in minimum-wage jobs is twice as high as in Europe and North America. One of the reasons for that, he adds, is that "too many mayors of small towns and local councils want industrial parks, but they don't want to train residents for jobs in them," so the bulk of jobs that could help depressed peripheral areas remain in the metropolises.
To help the most people the fastest, STRIVE has focused on the big cities, but Tamir says he would like to expand the program to Beersheba and the Tiberias-Beit She'an area soon.
Tamir wants to help the people who have been passed over by successive governments. And while the government funds half of the STRIVE program, the outsiders' success may be lighting a fire under the authorities to pick up the pace in their own work.
At the end of the summer, Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer announced an ambitious 10-year, NIS 1.75 billion plan to get 135,000 haredim, Arabs and handicapped to join the workforce.
"We are taking steps to remove obstacles related to education and professional training, transportation difficulties and discrimination," he said.
If he wants suggestions on how to accomplish those grandiose goals, the minister will find a willing adviser in the newly enterprising Avi.
"There are two things everyone should do in life," he says with a sly smile. "Visit Uman, and STRIVE."