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Recruiting, Retention Take More Art Than Science, Official Says

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

SAN DIEGO, Jan. 11, 2006 – Recruiting and retaining servicemembers is not rocket science, but it is hard work, a former defense official told a group gathered here yesterday for the first CinCHouse convention.

"It is mostly art; not so much science," Charles Abell, staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said. "It is, above all, influencing human behavior." Abell served until recently as principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

CinCHouse is a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping military spouses understand and thrive in military life. The convention will continue through tomorrow. About 350 spouses are attending the event.

Many theories exist on how to improve military recruiting and retention, Abell said. Some claim that higher pay and better health benefits for retirees are the keys. Others say anything from more and better commissaries to tough training will do the trick.

Those people are right and wrong, he said, adding that there is one important question to ask before any solution to recruiting and retaining servicemembers is formulated.

"Who is the military recruiting today?" Abell asked.

The military is recruiting from a group that doesn't look or act alike, he said. They come from all walks of life. They're educated, display above-average aptitude, and are patriotic, though they won't admit it.

What they are not is the stereotypical perception of a recruit that the public holds, Abell said. Military recruits are not disproportionately poor or minority, nor are they youthful offenders.

"As a class, they're better than we were at their age," he said, comparing today's recruits to those who served in the draft era. "(That) tells us we need to listen to them and respond, and not to try to ... impose our values on them. That's transformational thinking."

Recruiting is harder than retention, Abell said. "Once they're in, we have more who want to stay in than we need," he said.

While there is no one right solution to attracting someone to the armed service and making him or her want to stay, there are guidelines. Sufficient pay, good benefits, stability and predictability, as well as educational and family programs are a good start, Abell said. But the military also has to earn trust.

"We need to be smart ... enough to recognize that I might be comfortable with a program or benefit, but you are not," he said. "I think we need a menu of programs; a menu of benefits from which a servicemember and their family can choose what they're looking for."

Another approach to maintaining quality servicemembers is taking an interest in them personally. This is perhaps the most important factor in recruiting and retaining the best and the brightest, Abell said.

"I hope, that in the end, we acknowledge that we should be advisers, mentors, teachers (and) coaches. And when it comes to family and individual decisions, not be the all-knowing father figure of the past," Abell said. "We must care about them; care about them passionately. We must care about them, not for them."

CinCHouse's convention is being held in conjunction with Western Convention and Exhibition, or WEST, 2006, a technology, communication and national security conference. Co-sponsors are the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association and the U.S. Naval Institute.

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Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association
U.S. Naval Institute

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