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When Maslow constructed his famous hierarchy of needs, many observe nowadays, he forgot that the most basic human need is actually Wi-Fi. But for me, leading the Israeli Employment Service’s embrace of the digital age, it is employment that satisfies our most basic, primitive needs—and technology that will help us secure that means.
When I transferred from the private sector five years ago, I found a National Employment Service still operating under a role defined by statute in 1959. Israel had become a world leader in technological innovation with a booming start-up industry, but the government was acting according to protocols designed for traditional industry. As the new deputy director for Clients and Digital Technologies, I pressed for a total digital revolution, and set out to use big data and digitised services to make the organisation fit for the twenty-first century.
After a private sector career at the Manpower Group, and participation in the Israeli Digital Leaders Programme, I knew that the rapid pace of technological change is forcing the state to think dynamically about how it can best solve problems of unemployment. These digital developments have diversified the employment market, requiring my department to adapt accordingly and dramatically.
Now our strategy is to put the customer at the centre, creating programmes that are suited to the customer’s needs. That means developing lines of communication with employers, employees and jobseekers that include an online portal and chat service, a telephone directory, an app, and SMS services, in order to reduce the barriers to receiving government services.
It also means harnessing the potential of technology to erase frictions in the employment market and unleash the workforce’s full potential—treating jobseekers as customers, not factory hands. Instead of giving everyone identical treatment, in black and white, the Employment Service is segmenting the employment market into three coloured streams, each served by technology in a distinct and pinpointed manner.
The ‘green’ stream covers professionals who know how to find work, and only need the bottom-line information about their rights and options; they are served by a new website and new media. The ‘orange’ stream covers citizens who need targeted support to return to employment; they are served by workshops on digital skills and online courses. And the ‘red’ stream covers populations mired in deep, structural unemployment. Here, Nira says, the state has its most important role, providing basic training for communities, who will be left behind if the market is left to its own devices: “People won’t pave their own roads.”
But the true potential of technology has yet to be tapped, and I can see latent economic benefits in the disruptive power of technology. Take accounting. The digital revolution is placing even experienced professionals out of a job—creating an untapped resource of unused expertise that is just waiting to be harnessed. “Account managers should be taught basic coding so they can take their knowledge and develop the relevant systems.
Instead of allowing technological disruption to end their careers—it can enhance them. Technology developments change the skills required of the workforce—and if the state supports on-the-job training, Israeli workers will keep up with the pace of change instead of finding themselves supplanted by skilled migrant labour.
If the Employment Service harnesses new technologies, it could cause as much disruption to traditional patterns of unemployment as those technologies have caused disruption in the world of employment.