By Capt. Herb Carmen,
Best Defense guest
this month, Cmdr. Guy "Bus" Snodgrass wrote a 24-page white paper titled "Keep a Weather Eye on the
Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study." He describes current trends
in naval officer retention with historical context of earlier cycles of retention
challenges. He also provides recommendations to address what he observed as a
"tipping point" in officer retention. He explains that high operational tempo,
plummeting morale, and an improving economy outside defense are factors leading
to historically low retention numbers in the junior officer ranks and a
dramatic increase of squadron commanders who retire after their command tours
rather than continue to serve as captains.
Snodgrass's recommendations include improving communications from senior
leadership to commanding officers, reinstating additional payments for high op-tempo
sailors and commanding officers, changes in promotion and selection processes,
and other ideas worth considering. Snodgrass's white paper is well-written, and
thoughtful. Most importantly, it has sparked a much-needed conversation on
Cmdr. Snodgrass probably never intended his paper to go all viral in the Navy,
it has. After making its way across the fleet via email -- passed down by type
commanders to strike groups and air wings -- it was posted on the Naval
Institute Blog, multiple informal military-related email groups external to the
Navy, and the online discussion forum Sailor Bob, an informal website for
active-duty and retired Naval officers. On Sailor Bob alone, it has received
over 7,100 views and more than 257 comments as of this writing. It has spread
across service boundaries on Facebook. As I was drafting this post, Vice
Admiral Bill Moran, chief of naval personnel, wrote about Cmdr. Snodgrass's
paper and encouraged others to share their own ideas.
the reasons that the white paper has enjoyed such reach among senior leadership
is that he explains issues, historical context, and recommendations without
snark, bitterness, or complaint. He also uses data. In fact, his numbers are so
current and relevant that I felt compelled to reach out to "Bus." I asked him
directly, "Did you get these numbers from the Bureau?" He had, directly from
the community managers whose job it is to track the numbers and flow of
personnel through specific warfare communities. What Cmdr. Snodgrass has
written is a gem: real numbers, solid research, and a clearly articulated
numbers are striking. Less than 35 percent of surface warfare officers are staying
in the Navy after their minimum service requirement (MSR). Just 36 percent of eligible
aviation officers are taking the department head retention bonus to remain in
service through the O-4 milestone tour. In 2013, a record number of special
warfare lieutenants declined to remain in service for the next promotion. Perhaps
more telling is a chart that shows a dramatic increase in the number of
post-command commanders choosing to retire following their command tours (five
in FY09 and 23 in FY14). While Cmdr. Snodgrass provides some historical context
to retention cycles, Cpt. Michael Junge's Aug. 2012 Proceedings article, "Generational Change and the 'Stay-or-Go' Question," provides historical context on retention challenges and
generational differences dating back to the 1950s.
Admiral Moran notes that naval leaders are aware of several of the issues that Cmdr.
Snodgrass raises, "Many are being studied, budgeted for, or in the early stages
of implementation. Others give us pause." Two observations in Cmdr. Snodgrass's
paper concern Vice Admiral Moran, "The idea that there is a perception that
operational command is not valued and there is an erosion of trust in senior
leadership bothers me ... I want to hear more, learn more from you."
wonder that Vice Admiral Moran is concerned. Command and trust are at the heart
of naval service. Naval officers grow in a culture where the pinnacle of a
naval career is command and trust in senior leadership is critical to success
as a commanding officer. Officers who achieve command as an O-5 often look back
at their command tour as the most rewarding in their careers. Those who achieve
that milestone are chosen from the best and brightest in their warfare
communities. They also represent the seed corn for major command as captains
and, eventually, for flag officer selection. While these officers have earned
the coveted roles as commanding officers, and the Navy sees these officers as
most fit to serve in command, those who retire following command take a great
deal of irreplaceable experience with them when they leave. As Snodgrass notes,
"The Navy, unlike its private sector
counterparts, cannot hire department heads, commanding officers, or senior officers
from outside the service -- we promote from within. We need high retention
rates to ensure the health of the service."
summary, Cmdr. Snodgrass captures the current state of retention and the
effects that falling officer retention will have on enlisted sailors:
...officer retention is at a
tipping point where events from our past, present, and anticipated near-term
future are coalescing to negatively impact retention. In short order, we will
begin losing a large number of officers with more than a decade of operational
wartime experience, and they'll be taking their expertise and lessons learned
with them. While their qualifications can be replaced, their experience cannot.
This trend is also likely to impact our enlisted ranks because of the
significant negative impact plummeting junior-, mid-, and senior-grade officer
retention can have on the enlisted members within their commands.
first recommendation Cmdr. Snodgrass offers is to improve communication from
leadership to commanding officers to provide relevant current information to
the deckplates and to ensure the fleet understands the course the Navy has set.
Some of the feedback to the paper suggests that this communication must go well
beyond personnel and career issues. There is a widely held perception that the
Navy does not have a coherent strategy of where it is going in 2014 or where it
wants to be in 2030. A clear understanding of the Navy's mission is essential. As
Cmdr. Snodgrass points out, "...a belief in the importance of their unit's
mission is critically important to those surveyed for this white paper and is a
significant factor positively impacting retention."
retain officers through and beyond their command tours, Cmdr. Snodgrass
recommends permanently reinstating the critical skills bonus for commanding
officers. There is some debate whether this should be offered, suggesting that
others would be willing to serve in command without the bonus. Another point of
view is that those who chose to retire after command were chosen based on their
performance and should be allowed to retired after command if they so choose. The
differences in opinions highlight the reality that each individual has a unique
set of factors that go into the decision of whether to stay in or leave
recommendation Cmdr. Snodgrass offers is to move milestone-screened officers up
the lineal list to the top of their respective year groups. I offered a similar idea on the blog Information
Dissemination in 2011, suggesting that the lineal list be restacked after each
promotion board based on the board's confidence rating. We need to be willing
to modify the lineal list and give officers who consistently perform better
than their peers an opportunity to promote faster, based on recent performance
rather than how they compared to their peers on the day they joined.
differences are also at play. Cmdr. Snodgrass points to studies that find
differences in what motivates Millennials and non-millennials in the job
market: feeling supported and appreciated and having development opportunities.
He hits the nail on the head when he discusses the importance of development
through education, "The Navy must find a way to provide greater educational
opportunities to its warfighters. The CNO's Diversity Vision puts it best, stating
the Navy needs sailors 'diverse in background, experience, and ideas' to reach
our full potential as a warfighting force." Today's officer career paths have become overly scripted.
Those who stray from the prescribed path -- even for one tour -- risk not
screening for the next career milestone. We need to reward those who perform
well in important jobs and seek out advanced degrees, even if a particular job
or degree does not appear on the recommended path. When we consider an officer
for the next milestone, screen boards should also look at the officer's
potential contribution well beyond the milestone at hand.
to Cmdr. Snodgrass, "Millennials place a high premium on advanced education,
especially an in-residence degree from a civilian institution." He recommends
incentivizing education opportunities within career paths to support professional
development. He also mentions that the post-9/11 GI Bill inadvertently creates
an incentive to leave naval service to pursue advanced education.
incentive was created in 2012 when the post-9/11 GI Bill was modified by law. Prior
to 2012, active-duty members received 100 percent of tuition and fees. The
change placed active-duty personnel under the same tuition caps as other veterans
without providing active-duty eligibility for the Yellow Ribbon Program that other veterans enjoy. Today,
a veteran receives significantly more support than an active-duty servicemember
when using the post-9/11 GI Bill, thus creating an incentive to separate to
obtain an advanced education. I recommend making active-duty personnel eligible
for the Yellow Ribbon Program. Additionally, I recommend that the services
consider paying the balance of tuition, books, and fees after all other
eligible benefits (including Yellow Ribbon participation) are applied in return
for a reasonable service obligation. This could offer a retention incentive and
provide an economical way for the department to educate its officers at some of
the nation's best civilian universities.
factor, which deserves at least equal consideration, is how family
considerations, including employment trends for spouses, play a crucial role in
the retention calculus. Cpt. Junge's article provides a worthy
recommendation: Bring back the annual Junior Officer Survey, which was
discontinued after 2008. We should not stop there. We should publicize the
aggregated results of this survey (and other Navy-funded surveys of personnel)
to add transparency and allow commanding officers to see and understand the
most relevant factors that motivate officers and drive retention.
shouldn't rely on internal, DOD-funded studies alone to help guide the way. Data
and findings from Blue Star Families's annual Military Lifestyle Survey, which includes thousands of
respondents each year, provides a broad picture of the issues affecting the
satisfaction of military families and the motivations for service.
Navy wants to take a proactive approach to understanding the motivations for
officer retention, it should look closely at spouse
Navy has a higher percentage of officer spouses
in civilian employment than any other service and a spouse's career is a major factor in
retention. Data in the 2012 American Community Survey show that military spouses
make 38 percent less than their civilian counterparts. Meanwhile, the Pew
Research Center shows that Millennial women are more likely to have a
bachelor's degree than their male counterparts and now begin their careers at
near parity with men. If military service is seen as having a negative impact
on a spouse's earnings, it may have a greater bearing on an officer's decision
to remain in service.
Snodgrass describes many of the factors affecting retention, he could not
possibly cover them all in a single white paper. Nor was that his intent. Instead,
he wanted these issues to be known, discussed, and addressed. He's accomplished
that goal, but the discussion needs to continue. I recommend reading Cmdr.
Snodgrass's paper and adding to the discussion. Vice Admiral Moran's "green
light" to bring ideas forward is an encouraging endorsement to continue the dialogue
in light of the risks officers who write
often face. It is
also an important signal of trust.
Captain Herb Carmen is an
E-2C Hawkeye and C-2A Greyhound pilot who previously commanded the VAW-116
"Sun Kings." He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and
Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, and also a former senior
military fellow at the Center for a New American Security. The opinions and views expressed in this post are Cpt. Carmen's
alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily
represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy, or any other