Admiral, we need to talk! Officer’s white paper on JOs jumping ship warns Navy’s leadership of heavy personnel seas ahead
- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Capt. Herb Carmen, U.S. Navy
Best Defense guest columnist
Earlier 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.
Cmdr. 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 officer retention.
While 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.
One of 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 argument.
The 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.
Vice 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.”
It’s no 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.”
In his 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.
The 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.”
To 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 service.
Another 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.
Generational 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.
According 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.
This 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.
Another 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.
We 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.
If the Navy wants to take a proactive approach to understanding the motivations for officer retention, it should look closely at spouse employment. The 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.
While Cmdr. 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 agency.