Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Transforming the "Retention Sector"

Magazine article Joint Force Quarterly

Transforming the "Retention Sector"

Article excerpt

The U.S. Armed Forces will likely face a retention problem in 2005. Not only will this impede America's ability to execute foreign policy, but also the Pentagon will require massive budget outlays to recruit and train replacements at a time when some argue that it should be doubling personnel strength.

The wars against terrorism and in Iraq are not the specific causes of the retention problem. Rather, it stems from the military's shortcomings in transitioning to an all-volunteer force and the continuing treatment of wartime personnel as draftees. The key to keeping troops is recognizing that they are professionals with personal commitments who are concerned with the care their families receive.

What Does Not Affect Retention

Many argued that the Department of Defense (DOD) was facing a junior officer retention problem before September 11. In attempting to address key retention factors, policymakers debated whether to increase military pay, which 28 percent of separating servicemembers indicated as the primary reason for leaving. (1)

Research by the RAND Corporation confirms that "if a wide pay gap is allowed to develop, recruiting and retention problems will follow." (2) The 2004 Defense Authorization Bill brought military pay much closer to civilian pay. Because RAND found that pay growth over a career decreases for military professionals compared to civilians, policymakers increased senior enlisted pay at higher rates. These efforts alone are not likely to solve the problem, however, because current servicemembers also cited pay and benefits as the top reasons for staying. Clearly, pay is a factor in retention, but perhaps in a different way than commonly assumed.

A sense of purpose, credit for accomplishments, promotion opportunities, and respect are ranked as equally or more important than pay. On quality of life surveys, a majority of service personnel consistently indicate high satisfaction with these factors but moderate dissatisfaction with the pace of promotions, unit morale, and a perception of zero tolerance for mistakes. (3) Overall, however, these factors do not appear to harm retention.

Current level of deployments, live combat, training, and relocation are also frequently cited for poor retention. However, servicemembers indicate that deployments are part of the job; only 6 percent of separating members said deployments were their primary reason for leaving. (4) Eighty percent of active-duty personnel felt very satisfied, satisfied, or neutral toward deployments and other duties that took them away from home. (5) RAND studies found that "rather than decreasing reenlistment, deployment generally served to increase it or leave it unchanged." (6) Servicemembers look forward to using their skills, and informal surveys indicate that spouses understand and generally support their partners' passion for their jobs and have incorporated deployments into their lives.

Similarly, fear of live combat may not be a substantial factor in retention. Servicemembers appreciate receiving the associated honors and awards and perceive opportunities for faster promotions. Perhaps more important, combat in Afghanistan and Iraq has created a sense of purpose among service personnel and their spouses, given their strong support for the mission to fight terrorism.

Finally, relocation is probably not a significant factor in retention; service personnel report 51 percent satisfaction, with 32 percent "neither satisfied nor dissatisfied" with the frequency of relocation. (7)

Real Factors in Retention

While pay, deployments, and combat alone are not major retention factors, they are linked to the real reason for separating. Analysis of quantitative data and anecdotal evidence show a strong connection between spouses and retention. Although the majority of servicemembers indicated a willingness to stay in the military as long as 20 years, most of them do not. …

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