For the Israeli Army’s Tech Units, a Few Rich Men

Figures obtained by TheMarker show that soldiers from wealthier families make up a disproportionate percent of those in elite units, ensuring them a future in Startup Nation

An Israeli special combat soldier adjusts a VR headset during a training exercise on April 26, 2017.
Bloomberg

“Someone came to my house to install a door. I was in uniform and he figured out eventually that I was in an army cybersecurity unit,” recalls M., who was recently discharged.

“He began talking to me about his daughter. When he was done and I said, ‘Here’s your 400 shekels [$112],’ he replied, “No, forget it.’ I put the money in his pocket and didn’t answer scores of messages and phone calls that came afterward.”

M.’s experience isn’t unique. In Israel today it seems every parent is dead set on doing everything they can to get their children into one of the Israel Defense Forces’ elite tech units. “Our country’s gone mad,” says M. “When you’re in uniform, people feel comfortable approaching you and telling you their son is being drafted and what do you recommend.”

Parental anxiety should come as no surprise. The IDF’s technology units, first and foremost the now world-famous 8200 unit, have become the MIT, Harvard and Stanford combined of Israel — the institution that will virtually ensure you a place in Israeli high-tech, as a top engineer or entrepreneur. It’s not only a ticket to money but to becoming a social leader.

But data provided by the army to TheMarker shows that not everyone gets an equal crack at admission to the IDF’s high-tech elite.

Rich man's war
IDF recruits overall versus those in tech units, 2016

The figures show that even as male recruits from families in the four highest income deciles account for 29% of all draftees, they make up 41% of those serving as programmers and atudaim, whose enlistment is deferred until they earn a degree so they can serve in tech positions.

By contrast, those from Israel’s geographical periphery and from the four bottom income deciles constitute 22% of all male army recruits but only 15% of those destined for tech units. Those in the middle range make up 49% of all male recruits and 44% of those in tech units. It was the first time the IDF provided a breakdown based on family income.

The figures include soldiers in tech units such as 8200, Mamram — the army computing unit — as well as atuda’im. Among female recruits, who make up a much smaller percentage of soldiers serving in technology units, the socioeconomic balance is better. Women in the first through fourth deciles account for 14% of all recruits and 11% of those in tech units.

At the upper end of the scale, women in the highest four deciles make up 57% of all recruits and 61% of those in technology units. In the middle income groups the ratio was nearly in balance at 52% to 54%.

Getting into an elite technology unit requires an outstanding high-school transcript with studies in appropriate subjects, in addition to high scores on the army’s own tests — starting with the Dapar exam, assessing recruits’ cognitive abilities. Parents can give their children a leg up, among other ways by hiring tutors, as 46% of families with children in high school say they do.

“My daughter wants to go into high-tech. She wants to make money,” said the mother of an 18-year-old from Ramat Hasharon who was recently drafted into a tech unit and who asked not to be named.

“She could have done five units of computer science but she did 10 because she knew that it would improve her chance in the army,” referring to the difficulty level of the matriculation exams. “She and her friends took their first draft notice seriously and their parents were involved from the start,” the mother recounted.

Among other things, her daughter took a Dapar prep course and her school hired a coach to help students with the army interviews.

For its part, the IDF says the education system is to blame for the bias in favor of richer families in tech units.

“The army’s selection and assignment process doesn’t take into account a recruit’s economic situation or place of residence, but the Israeli educational system has a great deal of influence on what happens,” a brigadier general in the personnel directorate told TheMarker.

“The Israeli system is that high schools depend on the local government for their budgets, and wealthier communities can put more cybersecurity courses in their high schools,” he said.

Recruit with fewer than 10 units of computer science have a lower chance of getting into a cybersecurity unit, since they need more training to get up to speed. “The IDF’s job is to take young people for a limited period of time and make the most of them.”

In any case, the army is satisfied with its tech recruitment figures, saying there’s been an improvement from previous years in striking a socioeconomic balance. However, there is no way of confirming that, since the IDF didn’t provide figures for earlier years.

M. said he believed the army had made great strides.

“Fifteen years ago when we would meet a soldier [in our program] from Ashkelon or Dimona, it was so unusual that we would talk about it afterward,” referring to two cities in southern Israel.

“The situation today is the result of people working hard over the years to diversify the unit because they understand the value of that to Israeli society,” he added. “It will take a decade, but we’ll see the results of the changes in the army inside high-tech companies.”