Monday, March 29, 2010

A Timely Look at the Problem of Officer Retention in the Army

Last week I wrote a Blog piece that pointed to a recent Fortune magazine article about how attractive junior military officers have become to many Fortune 500 companies - especially if the officer has seen service in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Fortune article

The timing of the publication of the Fortune article is fortuitous, for it buttresses many of the arguments that are made in a recently published report on the issue of officer retention in the Army. My friend, retired U.S. Army Major General Stan Genega, was kind enough to make me aware of this study a few weeks ago.

Towards a U.S. Army Officer Corps strategy for success: retaining talent

The study was presented in January of this year to the Strategic Studies Institute at the U.S. Army War College, and was authored by three West Point professors, Casey Wardynski, David S. Lyle, Michael J. Colarusso.

In this study, the three authors do a very thorough and admirable job of analyzing and offering prescriptions for the troublesome trends that exist in the Army's efforts to retain the services of its best officers. Retention rates have reached crisis proportion. I will offer several excerpts from the study, and finally a link to the full report for those who desire to delve more deeply into this issue that is vital to national security.

In general the Army (and, in my observation, all of our branches of military service) continue to operate with antiquated and inadequate doctrines and policies regarding human capital. One of the many reasons that officers are leaving the Army in droves is that the private sector is beginning to place a greater value than before on the skills and traits that our military officers embody - especially if they have seen combat in a counter-insurgency environment. The Fortune article cited above makes that point abundantly clear, as does this study by Messrs. Wardynski, Lyle and Colarusso.

This issue of the Army having to compete with the private sector job market falls in this study under the broad heading of "An Officer's Opportunity Cost."

"Factors that may affect an officer's opportunity cost include unemployment rates in the civilian sector, educational opportunities, potential civilian compensation, job satisfaction, and spousal employment opportunities. For the most part, the Army can do very little to influence an officer's opportunity cost - each person's is different, governed by the intersection of his or her talent set with current market conditions. Those with the highest opportunity costs are the ones with the most to gain by leaving the Army. Generally speaking, these officers possess the talent needed to perform well at the Army's highest levels because, as we have seen, there is a high correlation between the talents sought by the Army and those sought by the marketplace." (Pages 19-20)

The authors continue their argument by pointing out an issue that I have seen anecdotally as a serious barrier to the Army's ability to retain the best and the brightest of officers beyond their initial Active Duty Service Obligation (ADSO). That issue is the lack of control than an officer has traditionally had over her or his own career development within the Army.

"Most officers desire an assignment that leverages their unique talent set. At the same time, the Army would benefit tremendously if it could successfully match an individual officer talents against requirements. Productivity would soar. Satisfaction would improve, leading to higher retention. Currently, however, there is no talent matching market mechanism, no way for Army strength managers and officers to make efficient talent transactions. As a result, the officer talent market fails to function optimally - in other words, assignment transactions still occur, but there is a significant mismatch in talent supply and demand." (Pages 21-22)

The authors have hit a bulls eye in identifying this sub-optimal market inefficiency. In my experience in dealing with officers who have decided to leave the Army, time and time again I have listened to stories of frustration that all have a similar theme: "I told the Army that if I could be guaranteed some control over getting a graduate degree, or where I would next be assigned, then I would stay in and continue serving, but the Personnel Officer told me, 'No way,' so I left reluctantly. Part of me feels guilty about leaving so many of my buddies behind who are continuing to serve, but the Army is just not wired to be able to deal with me as an individual and to take into account my individual and family needs and desires, so I was forced to leave."

In the officer retention study, the author single out for praise a very effective program first instituted in 2006 - the Officer Career Satisfaction Program (OCSP)

"The OCSP is a retention initiative designed with these principles in mind. . . . OCSP is offering to ROTC and USMA cadets prior to commissioning Cadets can obtain their branch of choice, post of choice, or a guaranteed option to attend graduate school in exchange for extending their commissioning ADSO by an additional 3 years. . . Unlike the CSRB (Critical Skills Retention Bonus), the OCSP is not a reactive policy designed to entice everyone to stay. Instead, it is squarely focused upon a large, poorly retaining population with talents the Army deems critical. . . Over the past 4 years, however, more than 4,000 cadets participated in the OCSP to secure their branch or post of choice, guaranteeing the Army more than 12,000 obligated man-years of service at no cost to the Army. Quite clearly, giving new officers some voice in their assignment process immediately increases their satisfaction and helps meet their expectations of service." (Pages 27-29)

It is my heart-felt hope that the top brass in the Army and in the broader DOD will listen to the kind of forward-thinking analysis offered by the authors of this study. While on a personal and professional level I will continue to trumpet the high value that military veterans offer to the private sector, as a loyal citizen, I want our Army to be led by the most capable officers it can train and retain. So, it is in all of our best interests to encourage the Army - and all of the branches - to jump into the 21st century and to consistently implement human capital policies that will allow our military to compete on even footing with the forces of the marketplace in the private sector.

I encourage you to read the full report linked below.

Here is a link to the entire article as published in

Entire Report on Officer Retention

Thank you, Major General Genega, for making us aware of this timely study.


1 comment:

Matt Bader said...

Great post. I have to take some time to read the report at length. I think that you assessment of the other services suffering a similar problem is a good one. I know in my circle of influence within the AF, the people I consider most capable are all getting out. I love the fact that the report cited a desire for the younger officers to be placed in a specific position that utilizes their unique talents. I think that is the perfect description. Tough challenges ahead but as you and the report acknowledge, many of these challenges are self inflicted and amplified by an inability to adapt.