Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Defense: From Brain Drain to Internal Bleeding: Retention Problems in the US Military

Source: ISN

The US military has a problem retaining its best and brightest officers due to poor internal management of its human capital - and talk of budget cuts could make the matter worse.

By Peter A Buxbaum for ISN Insights

As the United States government tackles cutting a record budget deficit, it has begun to dawn, even on perennial hawks, that one of their sacred cows, the defense budget, cannot be granted immunity from the budget ax. Even as this realization begins to sink in, it is becoming increasingly clear that not only weapons systems, platforms and technology programs need to be cut, but that personnel numbers will have to be reduced as well.

This recognition has led to a discussion about whether a reduction in the US military's officer corps will compromise the quality of a group that is already the subject of some concern.

Egalitarianism over merit

A 2010 report from the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College noted that retention of junior and mid-level US Army officers has been problematic since the mid-1980s. The army's retention incentives, in the form of cash payments, may have succeeded in retaining greater numbers of officers, said the report, but it has reduced the quality of the corps.

"The objective should not be merely to retain all officers, but to retain talented officers while simultaneously culling out those lacking the distributions of skills, knowledge and behaviors in demand across the force," the report said. "Retaining sufficient rather than optimally performing officers may have dire consequences for the Army's future. New officer cohorts of high potential talent may be driven away by the prospects of serving under lackluster leadership."

The Army's problem is not limited to an external brain drain but the bleeding of talent internally, according to Timothy Kane, a senior fellow at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an organization devoted to promoting entrepreneurship based in Kansas City, Missouri.

"The problem gets cast as one of retention," he told ISN Insights. "But the real problem is that the Army is not properly managing its human capital. People leave because of poor internal management."

The retention efforts described by the Strategic Studies Institute report identify one symptom of the disease that Kane has diagnosed. "The merit system is ignored for the sake of egalitarianism and fairness," said Kane. "The Army human resources system treats everyone the same instead of recognizing people with unique sets of talents and commanders with specific needs."

A survey conducted by Kane among West Point graduates from the late 1980s through 2004 and published in the Atlantic Monthly indicated that 93 percent believed that more than half of the best officers leave the military prematurely. Only 30 percent of survey respondents agreed that the military personnel system does a good job elevating superior officers to senior positions. Sixty-five percent of the graduates agreed that the officer exit rate leads to a less competent general-officer corps.

Rewarding the straight and narrow

Part of the problem may stem from mixed messages the Army sends to its officers, beginning with their initial military educations, according to Leonard Wong, a professor at the Army War College and a retired Army lieutenant colonel. "The Army says from one side of its mouth that it wants officers who are critical thinkers, who speak foreign languages, who have backgrounds on world cultures and international relations, who have broad appeal and can work with others who are not like them," Wong old ISN Insights. "But from the other side they say, 'We want you to major in push-ups and guns.'"

In the Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC), a university-based program that trains military officers, forty percent of a cadet's evaluation is based on general academic performance, with no differentiation made on the course of study the cadet is pursuing, according to Wong.

"The most common major among Army ROTC students is criminal justice," said Wong, "because it is easy, interesting and it has something to do with guns."

Sixty percent of the cadet's evaluation is based on physical fitness, leadership skills and military science studies. All this leads to a preference toward "muddy-boots," or combat command assignments, said Wong, and a disdain for experiences that could broaden the officer's perspective and perhaps make the Army a better managed organization.

"Most of those who make general walk a straight and narrow path up from company commander through other combat positions," said Wong. "They would never consider taking a stint at the State Department." Many officers leave rather than take an unappealing assignment.

The same narrowness is reflected in the advanced education pursued by the officer corps. According to a study conducted by Wong, 98 percent of the 36 officers promoted to Brigadier General in 1995 had Master degrees and most studied in civilian universities. "That is considered a broadening experience because you have to encounter and work with people who don't think like you," said Wong.

But in 2005, when 100 percent of the 38 new Brigadier Generals held Master degrees, over two-thirds received them from military institutions like the Army War College. The officers were encouraged to pursue advanced degrees, said Wong, but to "get it from our guys."

A case for radical reform

Kane proposes a radical reform of the US military personnel system that he said, "is nearly blind to merit." The military is capable of radical transformation, he argued, as when it switched from conscription to an all-volunteer force in the 1970s and when it shifted from its Cold War focus toward new threats in recent years.

The all-volunteer force might be considered a half-way measure toward the changes that Kane advocates. With the volunteer force, the military moved from central planning to a market mechanism for recruiting talent. But once in, the volunteers face centrally managed personnel processes.

Kane wants a free market to match supply with demand. "Each commander would have hiring authority over the people in his unit," he said. "Officers could apply for any job opening. The central personnel organization would be broken up."

The Strategic Studies Institute report agreed that "giving officers greater voice in their assignments increases both employment longevity and productivity. The Army's failure to do so, however, in large part accounts for declining retention among officers commissioned since 1983."

As for the current talk of reducing military personnel, Kane frets that "when you provide incentives, the best and most entrepreneurial officers will leave and the force will take a morale hit when they are replaced by lesser leaders."

Peter A Buxbaum, a Washington, DC-based independent journalist, has been writing about defense, security, business and technology for 15 years. His work has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Chief Executive, Information Week, Defense Technology International, Homeland Security and Computerworld. He holds a Juris doctorate from Temple University and a Bachelor's in political science and economics from Columbia University. His website is