Amin - Returning to the Workforce

Amin is one of four companies that won a tender for a government project called Lights of Employment, better known as the Wisconsin Plan. The goal: returning unemployed Guaranteed Income recipients to the workforce.  
Amin, jointly owned by British company A4E and Israeli company Amin, is in charge of carrying out the project in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Today it has 70 employees and is run by Dr. Eli Ben Eliezer, who has served as vice president of Bezeq, deputy director of the Jewish Agency and director of the academic track at the College of Management. We spoke with him about Amin's work and its approach to employee management.


What are the working principals of the Lights of Employment program and why was it launched?

The number of Guaranteed Income recipients in Israel rose at an enormous rate at the beginning of the decade. While during the 1990s 15,000 received Guaranteed Income, in the year 2003 that number had reached 150,000 as a result of the government's welfare policy. When the Finance, Employment and Welfare Ministers saw the sums being transferred to cover Guaranteed Income reached a level of NIS 2.5 billion ($660 million) per year they realized that something had to be done.

These Guaranteed Income recipients were classified by the National Insurance Institute as people with low economic ability, but capable of working. If they don't work they're eligible to receive a monthly sum ranging from NIS 1,200 to NIS 2,700 ($320-$715) for varying periods of time. In other words these are not people with significant disabilities or fulltime Torah scholars, but people who are capable of working. The government decision-makers realized action had to be taken to get them back into the job market.

Then it was decided that the task would be executed by commercial companies, and it was also decided that they would be a product of international cooperation, right?
In Israel there wasn't much knowledge of "welfare-to-employment" placement. So they wanted the project to be carried out by international companies that had experience in this field. Four companies were selected: two from Holland, one from the US and one from Britain, A4E. Another condition was that the companies work in collaboration with local companies so that the accumulated knowledge remain in Israel. Four companies were selected because the initial stage was a pilot project and they wanted to evaluate the various working methods and see which of them was best suited for conditions here in Israel.

The Ministry of Industry, Trade and Employment oversaw the program and did control and assessment of the processes and their results.

What has been done so far?
So far, since the project began, 30,000 participants have been handled, about 20 percent of Guaranteed Income recipients. We in Jerusalem have handled about 8,500 people.

What's your success rate and how do you define success?
The success rate is 40 percent. Placement is defined as success because it means the person stops receiving Guaranteed Income and begins receiving a salary.

And what if he leaves the job after a month?
Until recently the very placement was defined as success, but now, with the renewal of our contract with the State, the length of employment is also weighted. Now we're compensated for every month he's employed. That means if a person leaves the job after a short time he comes back to us and then of course we stop receiving a bonus for his placement.
The participant himself also receives a "Diligence Bonus" from the State during his first year of employment, a sort of 13th salary (paid at four points in time) in addition to the pay he receives from the employer.
Therefore it's important to find a place suited to the participant's abilities in order that he stay over time.

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Now we come to the people who actually carry out the work, the Amin employees who are asked to execute success placements. What is the occupational profile of Amin employees?
The majority of employees, 50 out of 70, are occupational counselors, sometimes referred to formally as "goal planners." Because they handle a special segment of the population, great importance is attached to their personality, no less than to their formal education. They have to love working with other people, have a spark in their eyes and most of all, have a very high inclusion capacity [i.e. an ability to handle the needs, crises and frustrations of the people they are helping].
Our staff also includes those who we once assisted as unemployed people who were brought back into the workforce.

How do you recruit occupational counselors?
Recently we actually cut back on our staff because operations were curtailed. Lawsuits and requests within the government and the Knesset resulted in the program not applying to Guaranteed Income recipients over the age of 45. This substantially reduced the size of our target group, requiring the companies executing the program, including Amin, to cut back operations and the number of occupational counselors they employ. Still, there is employee turnover – though not much. Our primary recruitment source at present is employee referrals.

A substantial portion of the population you handle is Arabs from East Jerusalem. I assume the background of Amin occupational counselors is influenced by the population you deal with.
Approximately 80 percent of program participants do in fact come from East Jerusalem. Therefore a number of counselors are Arabs and also many of the Jewish occupational counselors are Arabic-speakers. We have counselors from every segment of the population: Jews from Ethiopia and Russia as well as charedi, and Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. The counselors handle the kind of people they know best.

I imagine you have more women than men.
Correct. And there are not many young staff members. The counselors have to be mature and have life experience. You won't find 25-year-old counselors here.

How do they carry out their task?
The company's core activity is the meeting between the goal-planning counselor and the program participant. This meeting is held at workstations situated in a large hall.
The counselor's chair is placed beside the participant's, with no barrier in between, and both of them sit opposite a computer screen. Their conversation yields the placement. This type of conversation also builds the participant's confidence in his ability to return to the workforce. Keep in mind that in many cases the participant arrives at the center with a lack of confidence and belief in his abilities. There are also additional barriers such as cultural gaps and disparities in mentality and environment. The counselor must assess all these factors and form a plan suited to the participant that will lead to his successful placement.
Each counselor handles 50 participants. This is a key policy set by the State.

Who speaks with the potential employers?
Amin has several employment promoters in charge of forging ties with employers.
Surrounding the occupational counselor is a three-way support system: his manager, who is also an occupational counselor, the employment promoter, who creates ties with the employer, and a training coordinator. A substantial portion of participants receive training through the center before they are even referred to any employer.

But success does not always depend on the counselor's abilities. There are external factors as well.
Correct. But over time the statistics show a pattern and over the course of a month, or several months, you see who was more successful and who was less successful.
Every day I receive an SMS from the head of the counselors department, who reports to me on the daily placement results and the monthly placement tally. I also receive a regular report on the results of each and every counselor.

What kind of training do counselors receive?
At first, two years ago, the counselors would receive about two months of training at Hebrew University, where a special course had been put together for them. At the course there were lectures by company personnel from England, of course, who gave over some of their knowledge to the course participants. This created a serious professional core. Since then new counselors enter the job primarily through training and mentors in the field. They join a veteran counselor and watch him work.

Doesn't that affect the mentor counselor's performance? He'll wind up making fewer placements.
Not necessarily. At a certain stage the new employee starts to help him carry out the work as part of the learning process. Later, generally after a month of intensive mentoring, when we feel the new employee can enter the system, he has to pass an exam at the Lights of Employment headquarters. Only after passing it is he authorized to operate as a counselor certified to sign the participant's individual plan.
The State did good preparatory work by defining the required traits for this position and required him to pass a certification exam. And not only that, but the certification is not on a one-time basis; the counselor must pass another exam every year.
A new profession has been created here, certainly for Israel, and in my opinion it will develop beyond the bounds of Guaranteed Income recipients.

What if somebody doesn't pass the annual exam?
Then he has to study and take it again, and if he fails more than once he cannot continue serving as an occupational counselor. I'm glad to say that has not happened yet.

In recent months you went through a process of drastic reductions because of a change in the government decision that the program would not apply to recipients over the age of 45. How has this affected the organization?
It's been a very difficult process. Within less than eight months the Amin staff was cut in half. About 50 employees had to leave. The reductions had to be properly managed to avoid a blow that could not be overcome.
We decided to do the curtailment gradually in keeping with the reductions in operations. It was important to do everything with full transparency to avoid anxiety stemming from uncertainty. We also decided that middle management would be a full partner in the process. That meant staff heads were the ones who decided which of their employees would remain. Of course executive approval was needed before any decisions were made final.

Did the process include a change in the organizational structure?
Yes. The process started at the top. We decided to merge two managerial functions that were subordinate to me and therefore one of the two managers did not remain with us. He decided to leave first [i.e. before he was dismissed]. That way the other employees saw that not just low-ranking employees were affected, but managers as well.
In the next phase we decided there would be a rank of middle managers, which hadn't existed previously. We decided they would be selected through an internal tender that all employees could vie for. This way the number of staff managers was also reduced. Those who were not selected left. The managers who were selected chose the employees who would stay at the company.

Who notified the employees who would not be continuing at Amin that it had been decided they would have to leave?
The senior manager in charge of their operations, not the immediate supervisor. The manager called in each of these employees for a talk in which they were notified of the decision.

You did this gradually. Didn't that cause ongoing panic among those who remained? How is it possible to continue functioning when there's a chance you, too, will soon be notified to pack up your things?
That's where the importance of transparency came into play. The gradual layoffs stemmed from the fact the government had not decided what the policy would be regarding the project in general. At a certain stage there were concerns the entire project would be halted and everyone who have to pack up and leave. So the general threat of closure hovered over everybody in any case. The employees knew there would be a reduction no matter what.
This situation made people try harder, because if there was a reduction rather than total closure they would be the ones who stayed.

Does Amin have a way of honoring outstanding employees?
A proposal was raised to select an outstanding employee of the month and award a bonus. The proposal was not accepted by a majority of employees. People claimed the success of an occupational counselor depended on his colleagues as well, therefore they preferred group compensation as a staff or company-wide. Instead of giving out bonuses to outstanding employees we organize a company fun day (planned by the Culture Committee, which is made up of company workers) every quarter, if the quarterly results justify it, of course.

How is your performance gauged?
The results the business plan is based on are the number of placements, the salary paid to the participant (above minimum wage) and the number of months he is employed. We're gauged as a company according to these parameters and employee performance is gauged according to them likewise.

 

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