Will an Across-the-Board Pay Raise Stop the Personnel Exodus? (II)
October 1, 1999
Comment #320 contained a press release from Senator Domenici's office announcing the results of a recent study of personnel retention by the General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO concluded that factors other than pay were more important contributors to dissatisfaction and decisions to leave the military. Many of these problems have been discussed at length in earlier messages [see discussion thread]. The GAO analysis raises questions about whether the pay and benefits package but was ignored by Congress as it voted overwhelmingly for a pay increase that will jack up the defense budget by $13.7 billion over the next 5 yrs and $40.2 billion over the next 10 years to stem the exodus of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines. The GAO report can be downloaded from the following web site <http://www.gao.gov/new.items/ns99197b.pdf>
The GAO's analysis has been criticized in some quarters because it surveyed intentions (reflecting decisions not yet made) rather than actual decisions (people who already left the service). Some believe this is bad social science. Being an engineer by training, I think all social science is bad science, so I am not qualified to say whether this is bad or good social science, but it seems to me that this critique misses the point, even if it is true. Where there is smoke, it is prudent to see if there is a fire, regardless of how bad the smoke detector is. Our responsibilities to taxpayers and soldiers suggest we ought to examine the possibility that other factors, like lousy leadership and misplaced priorities, are contributing more to the retention problem than insufficient pay. Congress chose instead to throw money at the retention problem ... an intellectually lazy solution that smacks of bribing people to serve their country but is, nevertheless, consistent with the value system in the Pentagon that has produced four years of posters commemorating Armed Forces Day by celebrating weapons while ignoring the people Armed Forces Day is supposed to commemorate.
[New readers can find the most recent version of this outrage at the following web link <http://www.defenselink.mil/afd/images/afd.gif>]
Marine Lt Colonel ZZZ, a mud-stained veteran of Iraq and Somalia, sent me the following email after reviewing the GAO report. His comments are anecdotal, and therefore qualify as lousy social science, but he has been there and his is the voice of experience ... a voice usually not needed or wanted in Versailles on the Potomac. Listen to what he has to say .....
-----[Begin email from LTC ZZZ]-------
I just read the GAO report you linked us to. Its right on target with what I've been seeing in the Corps over the last 4 years. It seems as though everyone wants to jump on the "touchy feely bandwagon" to improve retention. Yet the report reinforces what I've heard in several corners of the Corps.
Marines (and sailors, airmen, and soldiers, too) what the resources to do the jobs they came into the Corps to do. If they are a plane captain, they want a an aircraft with an engine in it...not a bare firewall. Pilots want to fly, not sit through another safety stand down because their aircraft is too unreliable (parts, etc) to fly. Combat arms folks want to shoot real rounds, not simulators, and they want to drive their vehicles, not look at "hanger queens."
The issue struck home recently when I was sitting on a review of our AV-8 Harrier force [the AV-8 is a Marine attack jet]. A chart was thrown up that showed aircraft MC [mission capable] rates over the last few years. A couple of us noticed that every downward spike in MC rates was followed, 8-9 months later, by an upward spike in harrier pilot attrition [an increased resignation rate]. Given that resignations require a minimum of 4 months notice, it seems logical to assume that there is a direct correlation between an airframe's failure to perform and an aircrew's decision to leave the service. Quality of Life (QOL) for these pilots wasn't defined as a new food court at the post exchange, but rather an aircraft that can fly with enough spare parts to keep it mission capable. Add to that the appropriate mix of personnel, along with quality leadership and you have a winning combination that keeps people in.
I don't believe anyone will turn their nose up at the benefits package being offered. However, I do believe that the root problem of retention lies elsewhere. Fix the problems of personnel and parts, get a handle on optempo (deployments away from home—this is a by-product of having enough "up" gear and personnel), and allow soldiers, sailors, and Marines to do the kinds of jobs they came in to do, and I believe you'll have to chase them out the door with a stick at the end of their obligated service.
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