So You Want to Be a Geek, or a Tycoon?

What people say they want to do for a living says a lot about the state of Israel's economy.

Illustration by Yael Bogan

What career would you like your son or daughter to aspire to? Not that they are likely to pay much attention to your sage advice, but the debate itself will certainly say a lot about the state of the underlying economy

We're not talking about little boys aspiring to be fireman or pre-teens fantasying about being a pop singer, but adults or near-adults who are aware of the prestige, job and income opportunities different professions offer. Thus, career choices can tell us a lot about the economy's underlying strengths and weaknesses.

A hundred years ago, not many would look forward to a career in blacksmithing, even if the age of the automobile was just dawning; now fewer students aspire to degrees in literature, assuming -based on their own lifestyles – that the age of reading more than 140 characters at a time is coming to a close.

But while ordinary people's readings on the economy may accurately assess the opportunities at hand, they may also demonstrate how out of kilter the economy is to begin with. Today, the best American students head into the bloated financial sector while Silicon Valley – a driver of real economic growth – relies on immigrants from India and China to fill out its ranks of engineers and entrepreneurs.

If so, what kind of country does Israel look like? Based on career aspirations, it's a mixed bag. Israelis understand their future and the country's is with high-tech. Many see opportunities in business, but not in an obsessive way as in America. In terms of social utility, more prefer education to banking and medicine to law. But not all the trends are positive. Here's a rundown of the main job categories:

Geek: A survey taken of 500 Israelis by Geocartography Knowledge Group in late 2013 found that 44.5% saw being a citizen of Startup Nation as the most desirable career among (an admittedly very limited number of) other choices. But the percentage of undergraduates studying engineering and science this year (26.2% of the total) is actually lower than it was in the 1999/2000 school year (27.9%). The swelling ranks of the 8200 unit and other technology-oriented parts of the Israel Defense Forces is supplementing that number, but Israel should be very careful about ensuring the tech sector is getting the manpower (and womanpower) it needs.

It's one thing to have a culture but innovation and entrepreneurism; it's another to make sure there are enough trained engineers doing the grunt work to make it happen. Not enough Israelis want to take that path.

Doctor and Lawyer: The traditional paths to income greatness, the Geocartography survey found that medicine is regarded by Israelis at the second most desirable career path (26.1%), far more than law (11%). That's good because the number of Israeli doctors is not keeping up with population growth and the increased health demands of the aging.

In 2010, there were 3.36 doctors for every 1,000 people, but the ratio is expected to fall to 2.69 per 1,000 people by 2025, unless urgent steps are taken.

Law may be less popular than medicine but unfortunately the number of undergraduates studying it has risen since 1999/2000 to 8.2% this year.

We don't need them. A 2010 survey by the business research firm BDI-Coface found that Israel had one lawyer for every 170 people, compared to one for every 295 people in the famously litigious United States, and a one for every 580 people in Germany.

Teacher: Teachers are poorly paid compared with their peers in other developed countries. They work in crowded classrooms and are answerable to a suffocating bureaucracy.

On an index where100 was the top score for teacher respect, The Global Teachers Status report of last year found Israel had a 2, the lowest of all the countries surveyed. More than half of Israelis said they would never recommend their children enter the profession and fewer said they trusted teachers less than any other country surveyed to deliver quality education.

Yet, some 8.4% of those polled by Geocartography said they see education as a more desirable career than the more lucrative career of banking. Maybe there is some reserve of idealism about the importance of education that inclines people toward the profession. Or perhaps Israel's Orthodox population, who give a pride of place to (religious) education, is distorting the results. Still we need more teachers than bankers.

Banker: Geocartography found 5.8% see banking as their top career choice. Not that banking doesn't have an important role to play in ensuring the business sector can function and grow, but looking at what has happened in the U.S. we should be wary about too many bankers and be grateful the procession here isn't too much in demand.

In America, the profits, wages, salary and bonuses paid to people working in banking and financial services as a fraction of gross domestic product reached an all-time high of 9% of GDP in 2010, according to New York University economist Thomas Philippon. What Americans have gotten is not better financial services, but more costly ones.

In some ways we are lucky: Israel's banks are overstaffed bureaucracies, which on the one hand saddle business and consumer with needless costs but on the other don't venture off into the excesses America's industry has at far greater cost to the economy because regulators wouldn't let them.

Tycoon: That kind of job doesn't usually appear in career surveys and no university offers a degree-granting program in plutocracy. But with downfall of so many tycoons, like Motti Zisser and Yossi Maiman and the big corporate pyramids under legislative pressure to divest, one would like to think that the era is over. But then again Eduardo Elsztain and Moti Ben-Moshe paid hundreds of millions to become one when they took over IDB group this year. Do they know something we don't? Let's hope not.

CEO: No doubt more than a few of 12% studying business now aspire to be top dog. No wonder, a survey by the financial daily Globes found that average compensation for a CEO of a company in the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange's TA-100 index was 3.5 million shekels last year, 41 times higher than the average salary in the company. Being a CEO is hard work, but is it 41 times harder than being a branch manager? There are only 24 hours in a day.

Israel's ratio is pretty steep by international standards (although in the U.S. the figure is 10 times that). The government is acting to rein in pay for top executives in the financial services sector, and other sectors may follow. This is one profession where the rewards deserve to be clipped. Even at an average, say, of 1.75 million shekels a year, there will be plenty of talented people who will want the job.

Politician: There is not exactly growing demand in the field and surveys repeatedly show the country's chief political institutions are held in low esteem. The Knesset is stuck at 120 members, the cabinet has been shrunk to just 20 ministers and local authorities are under pressure to merge. Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's conviction in the Holyland affair may signal a new era when earning income on the side becomes more difficult. It's a pity that the profession doesn't attract better and brighter people. At 38,000 shekels per month, the average MK gets far less than a CEO but do not do badly at all.