The U.S. Navy is closely examining how it might change personnel policies and work with Congress to adjust legislation in order to give sailors and Navy officers a wider range of career options following the release of a Navy survey that found widespread discontent in the service.
The Navy wants to attract and retain young recruits, who increasingly ask for more career flexibility -- such as the ability to take time off from the Navy, rotate more seamlessly in and out of reserve duty, and balance their years at sea with shore tours.
As the economy improves and sailors increasingly face a growing number of private sector options, the Navy expects it may face challenges as it tries to retain the most promising sailors and officers among its ranks.
"We are seeing more and more that we are going to manage by talent and not some linear career path. The millennial generation wants more options in their careers and they want more opportunities to take a break along a path in or out of the Navy," said Navy Cmdr. Chris Servello, the spokesman for the Chief of Navy Personnel.
The Navy received a wake-up call on how it manages its force with the release of the 2014 Navy Retention Survey. In it sailors say they are increasingly unhappy with lengthy deployments, a high operational tempo, and recent calls from Pentagon leaders to reduce pay and benefits.
Maybe most alarming to Navy brass, fewer numbers of Navy sailors aspire to have the positions held by their superior officers and sailors have a widespread distrust of Navy leadership, the survey found.
Younger recruits and officers have told Navy leaders they do not want their career organized according to a pre-determined set of linear benchmarks determined by set time increments. Such considerations are leading the Navy to emphasize "quality" talent management instead of merely focusing on "quantity" or retaining the right numbers.
"As we work together to figure out the right number of 'defenders' in defense, there's a younger generation urging us to consider something much deeper than mere quantity," Vice Adm. Bill Moran, Chief of Naval Personnel, said in a written statement.
Navy officials said the service is working on a handful of initiatives designed to address many of the issues raised in discussions with sailors and findings in the survey.
"Based on our initial looks, we are encouraged, as there appears to be good intersections between the survey data and initiatives already underway. Returning authorities to commanding officers, compensating our sailors for longer deployments and reducing administrative burdens are all efforts in work that will help further increase trust, balance and stability across the fleet," Servello said.
The retention survey found sailor morale to be a problem, finding only 17 percent of sailors who consider morale to be excellent or good. By contrast, 42 percent of survey respondents said morale is marginal or poor.
The Navy's end strength of 324,000 and 60,000 reserve sailors is expected to remain somewhat stable for the next five years or so, a circumstance which affords the service an occasion to make adjustments in how it attracts, maintains and manages talent, service officials said. Meanwhile, the Navy's sister services are being forced to cut end strength to measure up with the Pentagon's budget cuts.
"If you don't manage by talent and manage by quantity, you leave it to chance that those that stay are going to have the talents that you want. We've always managed talent - I think we're looking at it in a different way and looking at what flexibility can we seek to create. Where do we need to go Congress and ask for some flexibility in the law?" Servello asked.
In particular, the Navy may seek to work with Congress on changing the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, or DOPMA, of 1980, Moran wrote. This law maintains a World War II era "up or out" policy which determines particular promotion guidelines and locks in a specific linear career trajectory for sailors and officers.
"Quantity is what we tend to focus upon in an era of budgetary tough choices, such as this one; but it is precisely the differentiated talents of our people, applied to our national security objectives, which have a quality all their own," Moran wrote.
For instance, the Navy is looking at how it might be able to alter the sea-shore balance for sailors and officers who might wish to break-up pre-determined schedules. A surface warfare officer, for example, regularly comes in as a junior officer and does a three-to-four year tour at sea before spending several years in a shore-based assignment, Navy officials said.
Current career path expectations have a pre-set balance of sea versus shore duty for officers as they ascend from being a junior officer to department head and then ultimately become a commanding officer. Now, the Navy is looking at allowing officers to adjust this schedule differently and, for example, potentially push their sea duty to later years or complete it early, officials explained.
"We want to give sailors, officers and enlisted more flexibility. When possible we want to give them time to 'take a break,' pursue other interests or take some time off to start a family if they wanted to. Sailors have asked us 'what if I want to get my sea duty out of the way so then I have flexibility and now have 10 years to start a family? The current system does not allow that," Servello said.
The idea of a pre-set linear path to promotion as part of a long-term career with the Navy is increasingly seen as a somewhat dated Cold War approach to personnel.
"We no longer wish for the idea of a Cold War linear path where you come in at day one and leave at year 20 -- and you can plot exactly where anyone is going to be at any given point in time. If we go along that path we will not be able to keep the right people in the Navy and we are not going to be able to evolve," Servello said.
The Navy is also looking at improving educational opportunities for sailors and, in some cases, allowing them to take a year or two off from the Navy while keeping a spot in the service for their return. Navy officials describe this as "on-ramps and off-ramps" allowing sailors to take a sabbatical or career intermission. In some cases, sailors might be able to spend several years in the private sector before returning to active naval service.
It makes sense that the Navy would want to address these concerns. When it comes to the issue of operational tempo, retention survey respondents seemed to indicate that they expect deployment times to increase. Sailors were negative about work-life balance as well, with 62 percent of sailors saying they believe their work-life balance is not ideal, compared to the 21 percent who believe it is. This is something the current Navy strategy plans to address, officials said
The Navy strategy also includes efforts to examine the active-reserve component mixture and make it easier for sailors to switch between the two.
The Navy currently has a career intermission program which allows for a partially-paid sabbatical in return for additional years of service, but the service wishes to expand upon this and allow for a greater number of possibilities.
"We want to make these programs more common and build the case for greater flexibility and talent management," a Navy official said.
According to the retention survey, as many as 62 percent of respondents said they believe it would be easy to get hired if they left the Navy.
Roughly 40 percent of officers and 13 percent of enlisted personnel who enter the Navy wind up finishing 20-years of service. The Navy not only wants to increase retention but also retain the right mixture of talent in the force.
-- Kris Osborn can be reached at Kris.Osborn@mosnter.com