On November 18, 2015, Defense Secretary spoke at George Washington University and laid out a series of initiatives focused on talent management within the services. Talent management has developed into a major concern of the Army as junior officers are leaving the Army at an alarming rate. A 2012 Rand study found that only 44% of West Point commissioned officers and 51% of Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) commissioned officers stay past their required eight years of service. Historically, junior officer retention has never been high, but the numbers from the Rand study show retention has reached all-time lows.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter understands that this is not a problem that the Pentagon can solve on its own; they need to open a dialogue with junior officers. Private organizations enjoy the luxury of being able to hire leadership from outside of their organization at the executive level. The Army is unable to do that because the military does not allow lateral transitions from private sectors into armed service and therefore is forced to develop all of its own leadership. The Army excels at leadership development; West Point and ROTC graduates are well prepared to meet the expectations set for them by the Army. Because the Army does such a great job in developing leaders, I believe the Army has become reliant on this strength to overcome the deficit created in the uptick of junior officers leaving the service. This reliance stems from the Army proving that it has been able to continually replenish its officer corps with great officers for the last 200 years. However, the last decade plus of war proved how invaluable junior officers are and the rate at which they are leaving the service is concerning to say the least. I think the Army needs to start asking itself hard questions to figure out how to prevent the officer corps from bleeding itself out. What is driving our junior officers away? Is there actually a brain drain? Are we losing our best junior officers due to a solvable problem?
How do we start to solve this complex problem? In my opinion, Defense Secretary Carter’s initiative of implementing exit interviews for service members leaving the military is the best place to start. He understands that this is not a problem that the Pentagon can solve on its own; they need to open a dialogue with junior officers. The Army has been doing research on junior officer retention for years, but is anyone asking these officers why they are leaving? The answer is no, we are not conducting exit interviews for officers leaving service. When Harvard surveyed nearly 250 former junior military officers who had left the armed forces from 2001-2010, 75% of them said the survey was their first opportunity to provide feedback since leaving the service. In order to get a more complete picture and to gain a better understanding, the root of the problem needs to be identified. If the Army is concerned about retaining junior officers, it needs to start talking to junior officers and getting to the root.
A simple exit survey is necessary for a few reasons. First, it is extremely manageable. All it takes is for Army top brass to prioritize what they want to learn from retiring junior officers, write a survey that fits into those priorities, and make it regulation to conduct exit surveys of all officers leaving the Army with eight or fewer years of service. Second, the results from these exit surveys will be able to guide senior leadership to a solution. Instead of wasting time and resources on research that lacks direction, why not compile the surveys to help facilitate the research and give the research direction?
I make the leap that there is a brain drain in the Army and within the U.S. armed forces in general. The military is downsizing and the Army may have decided they only need a certain number of officers after 8 years of service. There are a variety of other reasons that could also explain the drop off in officer retention: DUIs, poor performance, or general misconduct. However, this strengthens the argument for exit surveys. Simply put, exit surveys would help identify the percentage of officers leaving relative to their strength of file and their future potential. If the majority of the officers that are leaving after their service obligation come from the bottom third in their year group, then there’s no issue and no brain drain.
It would be reckless to ignore the exodus occurring in the junior officer corps and doing so will create unforeseen second and third order complications. The Army needs to address this issue now and should start by communicating with officers who are leaving and conducting exit surveys. I do not have a solution to a possible brain drain, but I realize that the first step to solve any problem is to correctly identify that one exists.
I was recently talking to a good friend who had just retired as an O-6. Just prior to his decision to retire the Army had offered him a one year Harvard program and there was no doubt he was on his way to at least a star on his shoulder.
He said he had just had enough of the PC priorities of the Army. In his opinion the Army was more concerned with social priorities than war fighting.
A USMC LtCol’s perspective:
I don’t see a massive exodus of company grade officers in the Army or in DoD writ large. in fact, didn’t the Army in the last few years hand out pink slips in the thousands including to those captains and majors serving in the forward area at the time? Retention is not an issue during an era of down-sizing. But for the sake of argument let us suppose there is a Retention issue particularly relative to brain drain. How might DoD look at it?
-Minimal to no impact on manpower asset loss because we have already gotten our Return on Investment on these junior officers (otherwise service obligations would extend beyond 8 years). Taking it a step further, we would have done our job in giving back to the society these officers to thrive as better and more productive citizens.
-Though exit surveys are helpful, for the most part we know why these officers leave on their own accord. After all, they are peers, friends and brothers/sisters at arms. And frankly those who stay in probably shared the same concerns as those who departed but decided to stick it out nonetheless (optempo too high, tired of deployments and being away from family, tired of PCS and of moving, would like to make millions in the 1st Civ Div, etc.).
-Incentive programs are already in place for High Demand Low Density MOSs to keep critical manpower numbers balanced and viable.
-Ultimately, in this all-volunteer force it is more ideal to retain those are willing to stay (for greater responsibility and for further development) out of sheer selflessness or borne of an enduring desire to serve a purpose higher than one’s own. As a reminder, the oath of office, reads in part that “[we] take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion…” Nowhere does it say, “you better incentivize me or I won’t stay in, and you’ll be left with a brain-drain dilemma in your hands.”
And a backwards thinking LTC like you is why junior officers leave.
Cadet Baker’s support for exit interviews is well-placed. Although reasons for rejecting an Army career vary widely, especially with national security requirements, knowing why officers resign would allow the Army to balance needs of the Army with personal aspirations. These insights are especially valuable for West Point graduates. The large investment in their education and training should on average return more than a few assignments as junior officers. While the reduced need for field grade officers and a smaller peacetime force structure should reduce the overall requirements, the Army needs great leaders at all levels.
Dear Cadet Baker:
I gather the Army G-1 already does this – to a certain extent – for exiting civilian employees:
Soldiers must complete the Army Transi- on Program Exit Survey On-Line at; h p://www.myarmyonesource.com/ ArmyTransitionProgramExitSurvey
And Soldiers have counseling through ACAP:
Hopefully your calls for revision – coupled with present and future approaches – will help decision makers recruit and retain ever higher numbers of leaders of character.
LtCol Reyes makes very good points. Is 8 years a fair return for a West Point education? As a USAFA Grad with 30-years commissioned service, my initial commitment was for 4-years until one morning Uncle Sam changed it to 5-years. Many of my classmates left after the initial commitment but many did not. Quite a few of us had to be eventually evicted. I think 8-years is more than fair. Realize as Col Reyes alludes to — West Point is training leaders for the Country not just the Army. Many of those that leave will continue service in other areas — the Guard or Reserve, civil service and or various capacities in local, state and federal government. The great majority will continue to serve on and off for their entire lives. West Point trains them well.
The question of an active duty brain drain is a good one. Any form of objective measure would be difficult. If great generals are a valid measure we have as many from the bottom of their respective classes as we do from the top. Many didn’t define themselves until later in their career. Point is how would you know they were the ones to retain? Other than that they continued to serve?
The system already has built in mechanisms to counter midcareer losses. We take accessions from both ROTC, OTS and to a lesser degree inter-service transfers and periodically recalls. While I’m not expert on Army promotions DOPMA enables flexibility in timing for promotions which in turn compensates for small or large year groups. My experience was there was an abundance of qualified candidates for most jobs — many of which could be done easily by someone a few years more or less senior. Point is an exodus can be dealt with. Worst case they simply freeze exits — had that happen at least twice to my year group and specialty in addition to the aforementioned bonus year I got while at the academy.
A record review of those exiting is likely done. If these indicated that only smart folks were leaving and less desirables staying the brass would address it. Evidence targeted retention programs, targeted waivers for early retirement or forgiveness of time in grade or service obligations.
Additionally RIF boards, the change from regular commissions upon graduation etc have broken a covenant with junior officers. Couple this with widespread talk about retirement changes and the very real impact of social experimentation, and OPTEMPO (this cuts both ways) forces people to look at their options. Many choose to continue their service elsewhere.
This isn’t bad. We need more of the country to come in contact with those that have served. When we need them the leaders will be there. In dire circumstances we’ll fill holes with rapid advancement, direct commissions, and recalls.
Hope more run for Congress.
There is another way to look at this and it is not necessarily a negative thing. First, we could look at how the Army manages to attract bright, young people to serve in the first place. In other words, instead of looking at the fact that some people get out before serving 20 years as a bad thing, focus on the fact that the Army still entices people with many other options to serve their country for up to eight years. The other aspect of this that is overlooked is that the Army does not need, and could not have every officer serve to 20 years. The Army rank structure is a pyramid so there is no room for every Lieutenant to remain on and become a Colonel. We are still passing people over for promotion, showing that we have enough people to be selective in the current downturn.
As a fellow cadet at West Point, I’ve seen this problem since my first day. Upon arriving to West Point I was shocked to hear some of my fellow classmates say that they had no intention of staying past the five year mark. Maybe I was naive and idealistic, but for me, I thought everyone would be vying for the opportunity to stay in the service for 20 or more years. How could people already be disillusioned with the system? I think Brad makes a valid point, we need to better understand the situation before we can begin to approach a solution. Whether junior officers leaving is a problem or not, I have yet to decide. But I think being over informed has never hurt anything. Even if the Army doesn’t need all of these junior officers to stay, having an understanding of why they are leaving could be useful in gaining insight into the system as a whole.
On a final note, GO C-3 Coyotes!
This seems like a very important issue, escpecially within a shrinking army. I do think that some “good officers” probably leave after just 8 years of service due to just getting tired of their job, or the presence of jobs with better rewards. A possible solution would be to provide greater incentives for increased service length for officers who perform well.
If asking us why we are leaving is the plan, I assure you no one is asking and no one seems to care.
That is really sad that our Army doesn't care if they lose good officers. That is just plain stupid.
As a former officer and military engineer who left the service at O-3 I believe this article is pertinent, but misses the mark somewhat. In order for exit interviews to matter, they need to be administered by people that care. Unfortunately, nobody cares because most of the military is overmanned; the military's total compensation package today is on average much better than the civilian world; and the officer corps is dominated by a "jock-ocracy" of officers who seem to care more about professional sports rankings than anything else…sorry, had to be a prick there.
The real issue is that we do not allow officers to come back to active duty or make it extremely difficult for them to do so. I would love to go back to AD, even with the aforementioned "Captain America" types leading the service. Today, I have far more technical, managerial, and life experience that would make me a superb O-3 or O-4 compared to me a few years ago.
West Point cadets, ROTC graduates, you name it…even OCS, are people who have spent the vast majority of their adult lives in the military. It is only natural that these people, like their enlisted brethren, feel claustrophobic and want to get out and breathe the "real world". Good for them. How about we take the common sense approach and give these ex-officers a fairly easy way to go back into the service once they have experienced the real world and can make a truly informed decision on which path in life is better for them?
We don't do that though. To go back in we do not reset ex-officers' date of rank; they usually have to stay in reserve status and compete for a minuscule number of reserve to AD slots; and essentially the officer corps is like the mafia; once you're out, you're out. So Uncle Sam spends vast sums of money to train some pretty good leaders but because the military is controlled by people who have lived their life in the military's bubble, they refuse to allow prior officers to go back in.
It would be easy to do this. Throw some penalties in there and some caveats. For instance, reduction in rank for coming back in, an age limit of 40 and under for deciding to re-enroll, some sort of refresher training…maybe redo the branch school… but it is doable.
Unfortunately, this will likely never happen because the military leadership is full of people like the USMC LTC who first commented. The bosses don't know what they don't know because they've never seen a military where we take people with serious business, technical, and real world experience and plow them back into the military. My firm belief is that we would have a much better military and Army in particular.
Oh…and how about we raise the age for OCS applications. 32…really? It's 2021, people live well past 65, let's bump that up to 40 with an accessions PT test. I'm dreaming…