Improving Economy Could Affect Navy Retention

Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Bill Moran speaks to sailors in Naples, Italy, on July 16, 2014, as Fleet Master Chief April Beldo looks on (Steven Beardsley/Stars and Stripes)

NAPLES, Italy — An improving economy and a high pace of operations marked by lengthy deployments could lower Navy retention rates, the service's chief of personnel said in an interview Wednesday.

Vice Adm. Bill Moran, chief of naval personnel, said servicemembers in highly skilled fields like aviation, cyberwarfare and submarine warfare are especially tempting to civilian employers.

"It is an issue, and it is the one issue that has my full attention in both the enlisted and the officer corps," Moran said. "Because we are seeing an improving economy, and we are seeing that the operational demands continue. That combination has me concerned."

Moran was in Naples to meet with various commands and hold meetings with enlisted sailors, officers and spouses. The base is home to the Navy commands for Europe and Africa, and NATO's Joint Forces Command Naples is located nearby.

Navy retention rates have been strong in recent years, with the service often exceeding its own annual goals. Current numbers continue to look good, Moran said, but he believes the environment is changing. The national unemployment rate fell last quarter to 6.3 percent; four years ago it was closer to 10 percent.

Demand for Navy deployments has only increased, meanwhile. New flash points in Europe, where the U.S. has promised more ship visits to a region concerned by Russian actions in Ukraine, join trouble areas in the Mideast and Pacific, where China is growing more assertive on boundary issues. Budget cuts delaying ship maintenance have also thrown off deployment schedules, forcing some tours to be extended.

Carrier groups are now making nine- and 10-month cruises, compared to the six-month tours common in the past. The Navy wants to standardize deployment length to eight months as part of a 36-month cycle, but it could be thrown off by circumstances like a failure to refuel the USS George Washington, one of the Navy's 11 carriers.

The Navy has improved and maintained benefits to make sea duty and longer tours more palatable. It increased pay for sea duty for the first time in 13 years, raising it 25 percent. It continued to fund its tuition assistance program at 100 percent. And the service is close to establishing a high deployment allowance, Moran said, which would add about $500 a month to the paychecks of sailors deployed for longer than 220 days.

But benefits only go so far if sailors face other frustrations. Constant complaints about the volume of administrative tasks, such as frequent training modules with little bearing on a command's operational duties, spurred the Navy to create a program last year aimed at reducing the clutter. Its effect has been slow, Moran said.

"The administrative distractions, as we call them, are real," Moran said. "We've made some headway in reducing that load on commands. It'll take time for that to show positive effects, I think. And we've got a long way to go."

Moran says his office is monitoring retention rates monthly and compiling quarterly reports, as well as scouring information on the economy. He believes he has the flexibility to respond, if necessary.

"I have the tools," he said. "What I don't have is the forecast."

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