From rags to riches - and back? Overcoming the jobs crisis

How Jewish community networking got us jobs - and could do same again


The way we were: immigrant Jewish workers flocked to jobs in trades such as tailoring often working for other Jews.

The way we were: immigrant Jewish workers flocked to jobs in trades such as tailoring often working for other Jews.

If ever there was a time for the Jewish community to learn from its history, it is now, as many face economic difficulties and poor job prospects.

"The situation is dire for graduates," said Shraga Zaltzman, managing director of Jewish careers company, TrainE-TraidE, which worked with around 1,700 people last year. "The market is not good, and companies are looking to cut costs. Five years ago, if you sent out 10 applications, you would get a job. Not now."

But a dire situation - of a different nature - is what faced 300,000 immigrant Jews at the turn of the 20th century, who, according to research by academic David Phillips, arrived in the late 1880s, "virtually penniless".

At the turn of the last century, 71 per cent of Jews were working-class wage-earners, said Professor David Feldman, author of Jewish Workers in the Modern Diaspora. A hundred years later, the size of the "working class" is unclear but, at the 2001 census, a mere 17 per cent worked in "wholesale and retail trade" or as car mechanics.

How Britain's Jews went, after the Second World War, from a ragged collection of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to the new stereotypes of the Jewish doctor, lawyer, or accountant is an intriguing question, but what is certain is that the community played a significant role.

Contrary to popular belief, not all Jews in late-19th-century Britain were impoverished - or, at the other extreme, wealthy members of "the Cousinhood".

"There was always a Jewish middle class, living in Maida Vale and places like that" said Professor Feldman. This existed decades before the arrival of the Russian Jews. In fact, Jewish men "were disproportionately represented in the Stock Exchange even then - in the 1870s, something like five per cent of it was Jewish."

Facts

1. Between 1880 and 1905
The Jewish Board of Guardians made an average £5 loan to every immigrant family
2. What we used to do
Jews worked as furriers, tailors, barbers, cabbies, or in the raincoat trade
3. What we went on to do
Teaching, medicine, accountancy, and even politics
4. What we do now
Creative arts, technology, marketing

By the eve of the First World War, there was "a small but growing middle class of Jewish entrepreneurs - jewellers and pawnbrokers, watchmakers, or people in the entertainment industry," added Professor Geoffrey Alderman. "There was also a small, affluent, middle class who were in the professions, as barristers and solicitors, architects or builders."

So, when the penniless Jews arrived, many were able to find work with fellow Jews. Others started working as independent boot- shoe- and cap-makers, cabinet builders, or in the rag or fur trades, with the help of loans from the Jewish Board of Guardians (the precursor of Jewish Care).

According to Mr Phillips, "in the 25 years after 1880 [the Board of Guardians] made… an average of nearly one £5 loan for every immigrant family."

"What Anglo-Jewry did was provide a supply of capital, so there was less potential for a Jewish under-class to emerge," said Prof Feldman. "They helped prevent some people from sinking deep into poverty".

Although no specific moment at which the shift occurred has been pinpointed, a number of factors led to the rise of the Jewish middle class.

"Poor though immigrants were, they didn't suffer from poverty of aspiration," said Professor Alderman. "They knew the way out for their sons and daughters was through education."

Universities and medical schools began opening their doors to Jews and, as more Jews began working in the professions, opportunities came up for others. Meanwhile, new generations of immigrants arrived to fill the gaps in the trades that other Jews had once dominated.

Some stayed in their old trades - for example, the fur business or tailoring, but occupied managerial roles or built family businesses. Others set up shops and pubs, or worked as taxi drivers or barbers. Still others went into professions that, as Professor Alderman said, were "routes to legitimise themselves" in the eyes of the elite, including teaching, medicine and politics.

"The community created opportunities for other members. It happened by accident," said Professor Alderman.

Fields like accountancy "had relatively low barriers to entry - a young man could get articles with a family with whom his parents had connections, and then he was on his way," said Professor Feldman. He said the importance of these "networks" could go towards explaining why a Jewish boy in the 1950s would be "more likely to go into a Jewish law firm than into the National Coal Board".

Professor Feldman said that a key factor was the "massive expansion of higher education in Britain in the post-war period, in particular the 1960s, and the ways in which Jews were positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that that brought".

By 2001, most Jews were working in "white collar" jobs. A quarter were "managers and senior officials", a figure that was just 15.1 per cent for the wider population.

In recent boom years, the importance of these community networks may have waned but many believe the Jewish community should use the current vacuum - for graduates and for anyone looking to get back into work - as an opportunity to revive what it was once famed for.

As a measure against the recession, the Union of Jewish Students has developed several career programmes, including networking events and master classes where students can meet experts in particular fields.

As recent graduates, UJS's officers are well aware of the difficult situation but they have found the community very willing to help.

"We are fortunate that we have a lot of talented people and I don't think they've been made use of enough," said UJS's Emma Stone. She explained that, with graduates so fearful for their futures, people really value "practical and tangible advice".

Dan Rickman, who now works for the charity, Langdon, offers proof of how community contacts can help.Three weeks after being made redundant in December 2008, he had a new job in the community. "My parents were far away in Hove and I was frantic. I was incredibly fortunate to have contacts."

As their predecessors had been, Ms Stone said community members were often delighted to help graduates gain vital workplace experience. But the apprenticeships of old have given way to the unpaid internship, particularly in creative fields. This year, UJS hopes to provide 150 students with summer placements at top firms. Graduates are resigned to the fact that two weeks unpaid will often turn into something longer and more rewarding.

"A six-month internship that is basically a junior job, without salary or expenses - that's the prospect many of us are facing," said Charlotte Karp, a UJS officer who is herself job hunting. "That's the route. We're not happy, but what do you do?"

The increasingly competitive job market means students are delaying applications until after graduation, to concentrate on achieving vital top grades. The lucky few might be able to afford a gap year, some might opt for postgraduate study, but most will work for free to gain experience while they fill in endless applications.

Shraga Zaltzman - who shares stories of graduates, for whom he has arranged internships, turning up late, unshaven or inappropriately dressed - has scant sympathy: "People have been mollycoddled. Today's graduates have grown up in years of abundance; they haven't seen tough times.

"As a community, we're privileged and better off socio-economically, and it hasn't pushed people."

He thinks Jewish students need to revise their expectations about the lifestyles they want and the kinds of firms they will work in - even if they have to start their careers making the tea and stuffing envelopes.

Starting from modest means, in the manner of Sir Jack Cohen (whose market-stall business developed into Tesco), Lord Sugar and Vidal Sassoon (whose childhood was spent in a Jewish orphanage), is something the Jewish community used to be good at. Could current economic strife re-ignite that spirit and determination?

"It has definitely spurred people to look in areas that they would normally have never dreamed of," said Tash Kahn, a young professional who, as well as her day job in social media, marketing, runs a cup-cake business. She can point to several friends who have launched companies.

Mr Zaltzman also hopes that the economic situation will prompt young Jews to "think twice about university for the sake of university". But he admits there is still a "stigma" in the community attached to those who forgo or miss out on university education, much of it based on parental pressure and expectations.

The pattern of school/ university/job, established by the children and grandchildren of the 19th century immigrants, still holds sway.

UJS's research shows that most Jewish students don't worry about paying for university - probably because their parents are helping them - and "it's expected that you're going to get a good job," said Ms Karp.

Emma Cohen discovered after graduation that her history degree was "useless" and is now training to be a nurse - something she could have done straight out of school. "My generation has been influenced by the wishes of our parents to be accountants and doctors," she said. "We did law degrees and now cannot find jobs as lawyers."

The research shows that younger community members may at last be diverging from the path. Last year's Institute for Jewish Policy Research's National Jewish Student Survey revealed that more than 20 per cent of Jewish students were studying social sciences, a category that refers to economics and politics but not the previously much more popular subjects of philosophy or history.

Medicine and dentistry still attract high numbers, and UJS still sees demand for careers events catering to law and accountancy but demand is growing for creative industries.

Although following less conservative routes isn't new - Morris Abrahams was a key figure in the entertainment industry of Victorian Britain - Ms Karp said she has seen "a shift away from people following what they "were expected to follow.

"It's the financial situation, but also people are starting to look more broadly at what careers are available." Young Jews, it seems, are going into fields that might not have been available to their parents and grandparents - for example social media, computing, marketing and PR, or graphic design - while others, who might once have gone into law or accountancy, are drawn to investment banking and management consultancy, fields that have grown in scope in recent decades.

Whether this will spur a geographical move in pursuit of jobs is a different matter. Jewish graduates still flock to north London, whether or not they grew up there.

By contrast, in the late 19th century, Jews went in the other direction, moving to places like Grimsby, Cardiff or Liverpool to find work.

With so many low-paid graduate jobs - or, in the case of internships, unpaid - the present situation is not sustainable for many from regional communities who can't stay in the family home while they find work.

Susie Gordon, community development executive for Leeds Jewish Representative Council, believes the jobs crisis could actually counter the exodus from the regional communities.

She is developing programmes to highlight Leeds as an alternative to the London rat race.

"A generation ago, young Jews wouldn't necessarily move to find a job, they could pick their city and get the job they wanted," she said. "I don't think people can be as choosey now."

And for a community that, 100 years ago, had only 10 per cent of women in the workforce - before they were married, of course - few Jewish women are now in a position to choose not to work.

The stereotype of the Jewish girl awaiting a rich husband to support her - still far from unknown a generation ago - no longer rings true for young Jewish women.

"It's not a feminist issue," said Shraga Zaltzman. "Twenty years ago, you could survive on a single salary. It's impossible today, especially with the lifestyles we aspire to and things like kosher food."

The youth of today's Jewish community, like their great-grandparents, face significant challenges. But now, as then, there are opportunities, and most believe things will turn around.

Top firms are still hiring, argued Ms Karp, and given that "Jewish students go to the best universities in the country", they are well-placed to get those jobs.

Last updated: 10:46am, June 7 2012