Where Does the Army Get Its Brains? Tel Aviv, Mostly

Army may be the great equalizer, in principle, but the theory isn't panning out in its elite tech units, which seem not to be offering opportunity to all.

Israeli high-tech, like other tech sectors, has always been linked closely to the Israel Defense Forces. In recent years the army has become the primary vocational training center for the local tech industry.

Soldiers who served in the IDF's elite Intelligence Corps Unit 8200 and in the Center of Computers and Information Systems, known by its Hebrew acronym Mamram, are scooped up by leading tech firms as soon as they put on their civvies. This puts them on a course for lifetime career and economic success.

The IDF famously plays an outsized role in Israeli society and its economy. It is crucial that army recruits from throughout the country have an opportunity to serve in these units. But according to figures provided by the army in response to requests from TheMarker, the Tel Aviv area is drastically over-represented in these units.

Perpetuating gaps

This suggests that by failing to provide sufficient opportunities the IDF is perpetuating the recognized socioeconomic gaps between Israel's geographic center and outlying areas.

While the Tel Aviv area accounts for 43% of male army recruits, 54% of programmers and soldiers in the Academic Reserves (who are often directed to technology units when they enlist, only after earning academic degrees ) come from this area. Conscripts from Jerusalem are also under-represented, although to a lesser extent.

The survey included programmers in Mamram, Unit 8200 and other units, as well as Academic Reserve soldiers with engineering or science degrees. As veterans these soldiers are the primary source of workers for international and Israeli-based tech firms as well as high-tech entrepreneurs.

The disparity between greater Tel Aviv and the periphery is smaller with regards to female conscripts, who are less likely to serve in combat units. the Tel Aviv metropolitan area accounts for 49% of all female conscripts and 55% of those serving as programmers or after academic deferral. J

erusalem is home to 6% of female draftees but just 2% of female soldiers serving in the elite tech units.

The situation is more balanced when positions such as electronic, electrical and mechanical technicians are included in the calculations. These soldiers usually go into manufacturing rather than research and development after the army. Interestingly, female soldiers from central Israel are significantly under-represented in technical positions, compared to their counterparts from the north or the south.

Agent of affirmative action

These figures raise the question of whether the IDF should play a corrective role, admitting even less-qualified candidates to its elite technology units in a bid to close the socieconomic gaps. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 88% of high schools in affluent areas teach physics, compared to just 59% of schools whose students are less wealthy. Soldiers who did not study physics in high school are generally less likely to meet the qualifications of the elite tech units.

"The disparity issue has been of concern to the IDF for many years", said Lt. Col. Karen Ben Natan-Kruger, head of the Technological Personnel Administration in the IDF Human Resources Division. Her unit assesses the army's needs and handles Academic Reserve soldiers studying technological subjects.

"Had we been aware of these numbers a decade ago the periphery would be doing better by now," she stressed, but added, "The screening process [for the elite technology units] gives everyone an opportunity," without regard for which high schools they went to.

"We have personnel shortages in all areas, including science, engineering and computing," Ben Natan-Kruger said. "There is a nationwide shortage of technicians and low-level engineers, and the army is cooperating with the ministries of education and of trade, industry and labor in opening classes, assisting in strengthening computer science studies in high schools, as the shortage is becoming critical. We give advice regarding curriculum in order to augment the focus on computer skills."

The army operates a number of programs aimed at closing gaps between various populations groups. They include identifying gifted children in middle school, giving after-school enrichment classes and augmenting teaching staff, all in an effort to increase the number of graduating seniors who are interested in and qualified for enlisting in tech units.

"The lack of engineers from the periphery led to the establishment of the Atidim program in 1999", said Ben-Natan Kruger, referring to a program aimed at encouraging high-school graduates in disadvantaged areas to join the Academic Reserve.

Atidim "built the infrastructure, and we are beginning to see improvements. We now have to reach out to more children," Ben-Natan Kruger said, adding, "We are looking for more ways to expand these programs. She said the planned move of a number of IDF facilities to the Negev "will create more local demand for technological expertise. The term 'people's army' should also reflect the army's social role," she said.

Not the only route to a high-tech career

A pre-Mamram program that trains high school students in the periphery in technology subjects was launched this year. While the IDF is not the only route to a career in technology it offers distinct advantages over other paths, such as built-in training and experience that a university degree cannot offer.

Path to a career

After completing their military service, veterans of elite tech units take what is often vast experience in programming and data security and take jobs at the start of the tech industry's pay and career ladders. Many end up founding their own companies, becoming employers.

It is possible that Israeli tech success stories such as Gil Shwed of Check Point Software Technologies and Moti Gutman of Matrix would have happened even if these companies' developers had not been veterans of the army's elite units. They clearly provide an invaluable opportunity, one that everyone should have.

Alon Ron
Hagi Fried
Moti Milrod