Vice Adm. Bill Moran has been studying the numbers, and they're troubling.
The deputy chief of Naval Operations and chief of Naval Personnel told an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Wednesday that current national employment trends might signal, among other things, a coming drop-off in Navy recruiting and retention. But, he said, planners are working hard to adapt to the new environment and keep the Navy competitive.
Moran displayed a chart showing fluctuations in national unemployment and changes in Navy retention. When unemployment increased, as it did in the recession era, more people stayed in the Navy. But with unemployment now dropping, Navy recruiting and retention has remained high, he said. The trends were forcing planners to challenge their assumptions about the relation of the two curves, Moran said, but it also hinted at a worrying possibility.
"Could we be looking over a cliff?" he asked.
While the Navy could recover from a slight downturn in manning, Moran said, it would take a long time to recover from a steep drop.
With this concern as a backdrop, Moran said he and other Navy leaders have been working hard to solve sailors' common frustrations and appeal to a new generation of naval personnel. On a recent tour of the fleet he heard sailors complain about lengthy deployments with little time between turnarounds and unpredictable or ineffective maintenance cycles.
Sailors are also frustrated about obstacles to career advancement, he said.
"There are some rates with 100 percent opportunity to advance multiple times ... and some rates where you had zero opportunity to advance, depending on the pay grade," he said. "That was another thing you log in the back of your head as you talk to the sailors."
In light of these concerns, Moran said, the Navy was "on a new approach" with initiatives designed to modernize weapons systems, and develop better, more customized training paths that track individual skill sets and match the right sailor to the right rating, rather than staying with a "conveyor belt" approach.
Promotions and career advancement will also get an overhaul. Moran has said he wants to take another look at the "up or out" promotion system to ensure the Navy was keeping good sailors. On Wednesday, he said he wanted to find a way to give individual service secretaries the discretionary authority on how to implement up-or-out promotions.
"At the 0-4 level in all the services you basically get two looks and then you're out," he said. "It culls the herd, thins the herd very early and you may be missing people who couldn't hit milestones. We are working several of those legislative changes to allow the service secretaries to allow the service to implement changes to how we monitor that."
Though Moran acknowledged he couldn't control all of the factors that affect retention, like upcoming Defense Department-wide changes to military retirement, he said he was working to make smaller adjustments that would lead to more fulfilling and balanced Navy careers.
If we start losing people because they're frustrated and don't have a sense of balance and stability in their lives," he said, "we're going to run into problems."