Andrey, 28, from Haifa, exemplifies the brain drain currently emptying the IDF ranks, which has reached new heights in the past two years. He completed his studies in software engineering at the Technion on an IDF scholarship. At the end of the mandatory three years of career service stipulated by his scholarship, he was faced with a dilemma: To continue in the IDF as a career soldier or to go into the private sector.
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"I consulted with everyone: My girlfriend and my parents, with my commanders who had stayed in the army, and also with friends of mine who had left the IDF."
What made you decide to leave the IDF?
"A number of reasons. Let's start with the salary – it's more profitable to work outside (the army). I'm in a long-term relationship and we intend to start a family soon. I don't need to tell you about housing prices. My entrance position wage is already three times what I was making in the army."
But it's not just the money that has pushed Andrey back into civilian life. "The military setting, with its rotation duties and red tape, is much less convenient than it is in work on the outside.
"For example, when there is a lot of work and stress, I can work from home or on the train, unlike in the army were I had to be at the base. Also there are late night phone calls in cases of glitches or time when you're called in because of an emergency. It's tiring and it wears you out, and unlike in the civilian world, nobody pays you overtime."
Andrey is not alone. Over the past three years, a dramatic rise has been noted in the number of high-quality career soldiers leaving the army. These are soldiers considered to be part of the IDF's "core," those that the army hopes to see among its ranks for years to come.
Over the past two years, the number of career soldiers in the IDF's technology branch who have been asked to stay but choose to leave has almost doubled: From 12.2 percent in 2011 to 17.3 percent in 2012 and to 21 percent in 2013. These are soldiers in the IDF's cyber and intelligence units, as well as in the teleprocessing corps that get lucrative job offers from private companies – offers the IDF cannot dream of matching.
But technology-savvy soldiers are not the only ones leaving the IDF. Comabt soldiers have also been leaving – albeit in a less alarming rate: In 2011 some 29.3 percent of combat officers left the army, while in 2012, 32.5 percent left, a percentage that hit 39.7 last year.
The concerning trend was expressed in data presented by the IDF Personnel Directorate commander, Brigadier-General Michal Ben Mubhar, who heads a department within the directorate, in recent closed-door discussions.
According to the data, which pertains to career soldiers in all branches within the IDF, there has been over the years a relatively stable trend in the number of career soldiers choosing to the leave the army of their own accord – usually around 15 percent. But the last three years has seen a drastic rise in the number: In 2012 the percentage was 18 and by 2013 it had hit 23 percent.
"These issues have been keeping me up at nights," says Brigadier-General A. from the IDF's elite intelligence unit 8200. "Why? Because mediocre people cannot get the job done. It's not that we can just bring someone a little less qualified and work a little slower, make do with a little less. No. We won't be able to fulfill our mission, and we can just close shop. The country will not be able to make do."
So how big is the pay difference between the IDF and work outside?
"Low level ranks make some NIS 5,000-6,000 ($1,424-1,708) a month. Outside, in exactly the same position they'll make NIS 13,000 ($3,702), not to mention the chances a startup offers.
"I had an officer who wanted to buy a house come up to me and tell me that despite his motivation and love for the unit, he needs the money. Clean and simple. He has a family and wants to buy a home.
"I had a brilliant major. He told me 'in the army I had the job of my life, but I take a look around and I'm leaving'."
How much would he be making outside versus what he would be making here?
"Outside he'd make NIS 40,000-50,000 ($11,392-14,240) a month. Each one of my soldiers here can run a startup outside. And outside they can't wait to get their hands on our engineers. We train them, bringing them in based only on their potential, and then they learn. I'm afraid they'll look around and leave."
But there will always be a pay gap.
"True, people here do not count the money, they stay because they believe in what they do, they have commanders who believe in them, and they love their work and find it challenging. But the overall package is starting to tip against us. They will always make less, the work will always be hard, you will never be allowed to talk about your work at home."
"The public opinion on career soldiers is also taking its toll. People who work night and day, without seeing their families, go online and read comments calling them parasites. The average talkbacker does not have a clue what we do. All anyone sees is a corrupt career soldier, but it's not like that at all.
"People stay here because of the sense of pride and solidarity, they feel part of a mission. So far, we have been successful in terms of manpower. But how long will that last?"