In Bid to Stop Brain Drain, IDF Declares War on Startup Nation

Over 30 percent of young officers in technological roles quit the army in the first half of 2015, causing alarm among defense chiefs.

Inbal Orpaz
Inbal Orpaz
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An employee works at a laptop computer at the Jerusalem Venture Partners JVP Media Labs, situated in the JVP Media Quarter in Jerusalem, Israel, on Wednesday, Oct. 21 , 2015.
A high-tech worker in Jerusalem.Credit: Bloomberg
Inbal Orpaz
Inbal Orpaz

Islamic State, Hezbollah and the Iranian nuclear program were joined a few weeks ago by another strategic threat against Israel, albeit one that doesn’t involve any extremist or fundamentalist group. “Just today, we saw figures in the press on the worrying trend of a brain drain from the Israel Defense Forces,” said Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon recently, after signing an agreement with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon on the defense budget for the next five years.

Kahlon was referring to that morning’s headline in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, which warned about a rise in the number of technological professional officers leaving the military, calling it a “strategic bomb ticking within the IDF.”

In other words, the new threat comes from high-tech employers, who are causing IDF officers to “desert” to high-paying gigs instead of remaining in the army. “I am sure the Defense Ministry and military will preserve this excellence and understand the significance of the technology we have. It is no secret that one of the reasons for our superiority is the technological level of the IDF,” added Kahlon.

It is no coincidence that the IDF has pushed its best technologists to the front lines in its battle over the defense budget. In the next few years, it seems, the quality of manpower and salaries paid to the career army will be a major part of the campaign over the defense allocation.

It is perfectly natural for the Defense Ministry to enlist the IDF’s technological professionals – those same people who have historically joined the high-tech industry, filled the development centers of the most important multinational corporations, and established startups that go on to be sold for billions. And let’s not forget the high taxes paid by those who make large salaries in high-tech, which are an important component in funding the defense budget.

No one is disputing the contribution of these soldiers and officers to the state – both during their military service and later in civilian life. But the message is clear: Woe to us if the prestige of the elite 8200 signal intelligence unit is in any way harmed.

Challenging and meaningful work

Let’s face a simple fact: The IDF is waging a fierce battle with the goal of retaining its high-quality workforce, and is forced to compete with the high salaries offered by civilian high-tech firms. But in this, the IDF is no different to any other employer in the high-tech sector. The difficulty in keeping quality employees is the main issue concerning every single Israeli high-tech executive in recent years, whether in small or large companies.

As opposed to the dot-com bubble days some 15 years ago, HR managers today are focusing not so much on high salaries and fringe benefits, but on their ability to offer, on top of all these, a challenging and meaningful job. And here the IDF has a real advantage: It can guarantee its employees that their work will contribute directly to national security, and provide them with valuable experience that will pay off later on in civilian life.

The figure that particularly concerns the IDF is the rise in the percentage of officers and other career soldiers leaving the IDF on their own initiative to pursue other roles. These are predominantly young officers in technological roles, who opt to leave despite the IDF wanting them to stay. In 2011, 13% of these officers chose to leave the military, but by the first half of 2015 the figure had soared to 34%.

The IDF notes that, previously, the percentage of those leaving of their own accord after the expiration of their first army contract (at least two years beyond their compulsory draft period) averaged between 8% to 12%. But in order to be able to evaluate whether there is actually a shortage of these technological officers, we need to know two other figures that the IDF refuses to divulge: How many of these professional officers the IDF really needs; and the numbers of those continuing in the professional army – and the actual numbers, not just percentages. Without revealing such data, the entire debate is meaningless.

High-tech companies, the ones to which the best brains in the IDF are supposedly flocking, have problems keeping hold of their employees, too. In a competitive market, workers switch employers every few years.

In recent years, there has been no major change in the high-tech sector that could explain the supposed increase in numbers of technological officers leaving the IDF. The question is whether the IDF is using these officers to promote a completely different set of interests.

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