While high school seniors in other countries are preoccupied with university-related decisions, Israeli seniors are preparing for mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) – approximately three years for men, two for women – and competing for elite units. In a way, their military service is a culmination of their childhood and youth experiences.

For some youth, the IDF serves as a restart, providing an opportunity to look within and unveil hidden abilities and qualities that haven’t had a chance to surface. This is especially true for those who continue into officer training, adding at least another year of service.

The IDF facilitates an environment of thinking and discovering one’s potential and inner self. It’s an opportunity for those with shakier beginnings to start again from a different point.

I joined the IDF, like most of my Israeli friends, at the age of 18. I was recruited at 17 to one of its elite intelligence units, and within a year was already commanding a team of 15 soldiers, some older and more experienced than I was.

The challenges we faced as a team in a highly advanced technological environment, and those I faced as a young commander; the responsibility we had; and our drive to solve any problem, still surprise me 20 years later.

In 2015, the IDF had 176,500 conscripts and 445,000 reserves. For every four to 20 soldiers there is one non-commissioned officer, for every 20-40 soldiers one platoon leader and a company commander usually commands over anywhere between 40 and 100 soldiers. The screening and classification process is profoundly interesting and has proven highly successful, accurate and efficient, playing a significant role in directing youth toward their future career and life paths.

Skills and potential

How does the IDF select the right teenagers and place them in the most fitting roles when candidates have no CVs and no relevant background or accomplishments? Out of necessity, the IDF focuses on skills and potential, rather than knowledge and experience.

The recruitment process begins formally before the age of 17, with an official notification. The tzav rishon, “first order,” focuses on the basics; enlistees are interviewed and assessed based on their ability to read and write Hebrew, personal details, and a summary of their recent school reports.

The second notification arrives soon after and is devoted to a thorough medical examination followed by a psycho-technical interview. The interviewer is a soldier, specially trained after a four-month course in evaluation techniques, psychology, interpersonal relationships and the recognition of mental problems or stress.

The primary purpose of this interview is to chart the personality traits of the recruit: motivation, ability to withstand stress or social/anti-social behavior patterns, and assess suitability for specific roles in the IDF.

The scoring system was developed by Nobel Laureate Prof. Daniel Kahneman, a founding father of behavioral economics, who at age 21 was tasked with finding a way to evaluate candidates for combat duty in the Israeli military.

Equipped with medical profiles and detailed interview ratings, the IDF is ready to evaluate candidates for some volunteer units based on the assumption that the psycho-technical evaluation determines suitability. These roles include aircrew, seagoing naval duties and some elite forces functions.

Those found suitable are sent written material about the roles, and are invited for more complex psycho-technical tests, special medical checks and interviews with psychologists and officers from the units concerned. Each IDF unit in this category has its own criteria for acceptance.

Ground crew for airborne reconnaissance and surveillance missions. Photo by Tsahi Ben-Ami/FLASH90

The gibush

Candidates with the right medical, fitness and intelligence scores receive an invitation for the Israeli equivalent of the American Special Forces Selection and Assessment, referred to as “gibush” in the IDF and best translated into “formation.”

Twice yearly, hundreds of qualified hopefuls undergo rigorous testing for a spot in some of the IDF’s most exclusive units. They’re examined on strength, physical and mental endurance, and collaborative and cooperative skills. Their assessment is based on an array of physical and emotional missions from sprints to mind exercises, and they are monitored by commanders to ensure they can handle these units’ demanding activities.

Most units are interested in what the candidates can do, the challenges they can and can’t deal with, and how quickly they can be taught different skills. While there are specific roles that require an extensive background in science or technical skills, most elite combat, combat-support, non-combat and intelligence units do not require prior technical or academic qualifications.

In this regard every youth, regardless of background, has a chance to be selected for the most prestigious and elite units; moreover, you can also become the highest ranking officer in the IDF without having completed high school before joining the military (as soldiers move up the ranks they are sent to further academic training). This selection system almost completely disregards a person’s past or lack of practical knowledge and instead seeks skills, capabilities and potential.

This is not the case in other Western armies, specifically apropos traditional routes to becoming a military officer. The British army only allows those with a successful academic background to become officers. The US army is similar; commissioned officers enter the military with a four-year college degree and then join the path of becoming an officer, while warrant officers are promoted from enlisted ranks because of their technical expertise. In the French army, senior positions are more accessible to those with higher education.

As a result, British, American and French teenagers can actually become officers directly following high school or college and they’re therefore screened for skills that are not related to military training, the battlefield, or everyday communication and interaction with peers.

This has two important implications: Firstly, people who weren’t able to get a good education in their youth are unlikely to become officers; and secondly, there is a clear distinction between conscripts who are physically and mentally familiar with army life and officers who spent time in the classroom and are then expected to command those who have actual battlefield experience.

It’s debatable whether or not it’s important for an officer to experience life on the battlefield or even intense training before commanding those who have. But the fact is, there are significant differences between armies whose officers have no practical experience and the IDF, whose officers are first and foremost soldiers.

Photo via Shutterstock.com

Evolutionary process

Only once a soldier has proven his or her skill set and potential to be a good officer will he or she be considered a candidate for officers’ training and moving up the ranks.

So in practice, soldiers are recruited for command roles from within the unit. Those who select them are officers who have observed them from their initial training to their active service, and look for qualities and personality traits relevant to the actual military activity.

Indeed, the success of the screening process, particularly in Unit 8200 – the IDF’s elite intelligence unit — is a result of the process itself. And the process is perpetually reviewed from fresh perspectives by recent graduates or soldiers within the unit, who are highly familiar with its needs and how it functions and are in the optimal position to assess the personalities that may fit within the unit.

And as many examiners are in reserve duty (citizens who periodically return to serve in the military for a few weeks each year), the process integrates military and civilian perspectives and experiences.

Unit 8200’s screening process is an evolutionary process that has taken generations to perfect and will no doubt continue to evolve. It improves each year and accumulates more shades of gray. Three decades ago, for example, a clear divide existed between intelligence and technological units. With time, these lines have blurred and new admission conditions have been applied accordingly.

Positions in 8200, or any role for that matter, require strength in various areas, including teamwork, persistence, endurance, technical skills, a talent for languages and more. As the job becomes more complex and intricate, so do the screening conditions.

For example, the exam itself may focus on teaching a new language to see how the candidate can handle it. Those who show promise will continue on to the language course and within six months the cadets become highly proficient in that language.

But these assessments look at much more than proficiency in specific skills; they test psychological strength, motivation and an ability to work in a team.

Elite units in the IDF are able to access 100 percent of the country’s pool of talent prior to their recruitment. Only 1% of the most talented youth get through the screening process and join those units. That’s cherry-picking at its best.

By the time they begin the actual course, the candidates are seen as part of the unit. The purpose of most of these courses is not to screen but to prepare recruits for service. There are inevitable dropouts, but screening is undertaken during the short period of service before the course to predict who’ll get through. With time, the course instructors will allocate suitable positions based on performance, out of familiarity with the different positions available in their unit. By this stage, there’s no longer a question of if they fit, but where they fit.

Beyond elite units, one’s IDF experience tells prospective employers the kind of selection process they have previously navigated, and the skills and relevant experience they may already possess.

Army veterans possess certain skill sets that may not only be relevant but crucial to their career in the general job market. Three years’ experience in a combat unit, for instance, may not have given you programming skills but it certainly shows an ability to adapt, endure, collaborate and learn fast.

When employers scrutinize an IDF veteran’s CV, they know that the candidate is aware of what an Israeli general calls “the value of five minutes when having to make high-stake decisions in the fog of ambiguity. That’s a skill that’s just as valuable on the corporate battlefield as on the real one.”

Inbal Arieli was a lieutenant in the elite IDF intelligence 8200 unit and later took leading roles in the Israeli high-tech sector. She is a senior advisor to Start-Up Nation Central and is currently co-CEO of Synthesis. Inbal is working on an exploration of how Israeli culture breeds entrepreneurs from a young age. You can follow her on her blog or on Twitter, Facebook and Medium.