Feature Story

Cisco Initiatives Help to Confront Poverty, Divisions and Skills Shortages in Israel

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March 31, 2008

By Mike Stone, News@Cisco

The Women's Empowerment Program in Israel

Think of Israel and often what comes to mind is a prosperous country with a highly-skilled workforce.

But, like any country, there are also people who are disadvantaged, in both the Jewish and Arab communities, and significant skills shortages-and Cisco Systems, Inc, is working hard to help the former by remedying the latter.

Cisco is among a variety of government, enterprise and non-government organizations addressing poverty and skills through initiatives which have the express mission of fostering reconciliation and cooperation between communities.

One such effort is Neta, a project linked to the Cisco® Networking Academy® which is dedicated to easing inter-communal strife between Israelis and Arabs in Israel and Palestine.

This initiative is currently aiding 5000 students in 15 different locations across the West Bank, Israel and the Gaza Strip and has been running successfully since 2005.

As well as encouraging inter-community relations, Neta is helping to address a growing IT skills gap in Israel which is estimated will be equivalent to 35,700 people by 2009.

A more recent development is a Women Empowerment Program (WEP), which offers Arab and Jewish women exactly the same high level of training in IT, job seeking and, in turn, self-confidence.

The WEP was created by Ifat Baron, Networking Academy area manager in Israel, to address the under-representation of both Jewish and Arab women in the IT workplace and to provide a potential route out of poverty for those experiencing economic hardship.

At the end of 2007, 40 women had benefited from the initiative's successful pilot program, with 80 percent of the women from the Jewish community finding work.

So far the outcomes for the Arabs involved in the project are more modest, with 40 percent of graduates finding a job, although this largely reflects cultural differences since the employment options for Arab women are limited outside of their immediate communities.

What is more, some Arab graduates of WEP have started their own, independent, community-based organizations. These are mainly dedicated to encouraging increased female education, both inside and outside the field of IT.

Neither the women who now have well-paid jobs or those who are serving their community would have been able to do so a mere 12 months before.

Although the technical and soft-skills training offered by the program would seem to be the most important elements, Baron identifies increased confidence as the key.

"Some women were so unfamiliar with the workplace that they saw employers as otherworldly, frightening characters. Certainly not someone you would wish to approach for a job, much less work for," she explains.

"We had to convince them that the office environment was not the terrifying place they had come to fear, and that their potential new colleagues were human too."

The course runs five days a week, for five hours a day.

'Soft' skills, taught one day a week out of five, include curriculum vitae writing, interview techniques and job seeking. Additionally, the participants spend one day a week volunteering at local businesses in their respective communities, in order to get used to an office environment.

Other skills, taught three days a week, start with technical English and familiarity with everyday Microsoft® software packages. A basic IT course follows, instructing the participants on the fundamentals of computer hardware and software.

Once completed, this module gives students the knowledge to assemble a computer system, install an operating system, troubleshoot using system tools and diagnostic software, as well as connect to the Internet and share resources in a network environment.

Next, a networking course provides the necessary skills to install, operate and troubleshoot a small enterprise branch network, including basic network security.

After six months concentrating on IT instruction, soft skills and work experience, the remainder of the year is spent on intensive mentoring, empowering the women to take charge of their own careers and advising them on how to approach job seeking.

Baron and her colleagues were so encouraged by the positive results of the 12-month program that they are now planning to enroll eight new groups of 20 unemployed women.

Appropriately enough, this new phase of the initiative that seeks to address the problems of both communities in Israel will receive additional support from the Peres Center for Peace, an independent non-governmental organization founded by Nobel Peace Laureate Shimon Peres.

This internationally-recognized organization is to open its own WEP centre in Jaffa, where it is currently building a Peres Peace House which will serve as a hub for Arab-Israeli endeavors and initiatives.

Meanwhile, Baron is planning to open WEPs in Greece and Portugal, and to provide more support for current students and alumni via a dedicated, community-based Website. "It is the most significant thing I've ever been part of," she says.

And it is only the beginning. In January this year, Cisco announced a $2 million investment to support The Digital Cities project, which includes more than 20 different projects aimed at improving relations between Israeli Jews and Arabs in the cities of Nazareth and Nazareth Illit.

Mike Stone is a freelance journalist located in Barcelona, Spain.