DoD Working on Retention Challenges
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 9, 2001 Visit the DoD "Recruiting and Retention" web site at http://www.defenselink.mil/specials/recruiting/ for an in-depth look at recruiting and retention in the new millennium.
The military retention picture in DoD is good, but the services must make efforts to enThe military retention picture in DoD is good, but the services must make efforts to ensure personnel with the right mix of skills stay in uniform.
"There will always be a focus on retention, because the volunteer force of the kind we have relies very heavily on experienced personnel to serve as leaders and trainers and mentors," said Vice Adm. Patricia Tracey, deputy assistant secretary of defense for military personnel policy.
Right now, getting the correct mix is particularly challenging because the military is coming out of a downsizing period. "There were several years when we didn't bring in as many people as we needed to man the force in the normal course of events," she said. People in these year groups are meeting their minimum service requirement windows or the end of their re-enlistments, she noted.
"They are coming to a decision point between now and the next five years, and we will need a higher-than-normal retention rate out of those cohorts. It'll take a lot of extra effort to make that happen," she said. The services will need "virtually a 100 percent continuation rate" to sustain normal manning in some small, specialized skill areas, she noted.
Further complicating the retention situation are some changes in behavior over and above the effects of downsizing. "Some groups of people are leaving at a higher rate at the decision points than they have in the past," Tracey said. "Some people are leaving at points in their careers that we've not seen before."
For example, she said, officers and enlisted personnel who have 15 to 20 years of service are forgoing retirement and leaving the Air Force at a higher rate than in the past. Tracey said this is a particular concern with pilots.
The slowdown in the economy will help retain some people. They're a bit less confident that that they can walk out and have a job drop in their laps, she said. "Nevertheless, we need to pay attention, because these loss rates point to a change in the behavior of the force."
DoD must examine incentives and other tools to retain people. Congress has done a fair amount of legislative work, she said, and DoD has done policy work to help the services retain the people they need. "It's been helpful in some cases and not as effective as we would wish in others," Tracey said.
DoD already offers pilots a large incentive bonus. She said this is having some effect, but not as much as DoD would like.
"We need to be a lot more creative about how to solve this problem," Tracey said. "We need an approach that probably involves more than the department in trying to address a nationwide shortage of pilots over the next 10 years. The solutions will be harder to orchestrate and more difficult to work."
Bonus authorities are the best tools. They can be precisely targeted and have a great track record, the admiral said. Legislation has raised the amount that can be paid to enlisted personnel and the services have more flexibility in applying the bonuses. Also, DoD can now pay bonuses at points in careers it has never offered them before.
Other personnel management processes must be changed to meet the challenges posed by the small year groups. "You have to be able to tailor force management policies to those year groups and account for the fact that they will have very different experiences than year groups that are large enough to accommodate a traditional career path," Tracey said.
For example, every service with a large number of pilots has year groups that are smaller than needed. "All the pilots in those years will spend their early developmental years only in the cockpit," she said. This is a problem because those pilots won't have the career-broadening jobs the services like them to have.
"We will have to account for that as those officers compete for promotion," she said. "Those officers will have to plan their development path a little bit individually compared to what they'd normally do." That's the kind of special attention needed when dealing with small year groups.
Pay increases have helped retention, but DoD must do more to improve basic compensation, she said. Other quality of life initiatives are important in retention.
"Services have done a lot in the past 10 years to try to manage people's time away from home and at least make it more predictable and of a predictable duration," Tracey said. "That has helped, but separations are still a major factor that people consider when deciding whether to stay or go."
She said the force is not just a very married one, but one of dual professional married couples or at least dual- income couples.
"There is a substantial challenge to manage family issues for the force. It is made harder, obviously, by the high deployment rate of the force over the past 10 years," she said. Helping people to have quality time with their families and a measure of family stability needs to be a part of whatever DoD does, Tracey added.
Job satisfaction is also an important part of people's retention decision. "Their satisfaction depends as much on whether they have the spare parts they need as whether our infrastructure is attuned to the tasks we expect them to accomplish," she said.
"You need a balanced approach to personnel and readiness," Tracey remarked. With all the challenges, DoD still retains about half the people who serve. Evidence is that DoD is retaining the right people.
"Retention is not just the business of personnel people or recruiters," she said. "It is really the business of the leadership of the entire institution to be sure we recruit the caliber of people that we need and then develop and retain them."