Retaining the JOs: Looking Up or Going Down?

By Lieutenant Silas Ray Kennedy, U.S. Navy

Who is right? What are the real reasons junior officers leave the submarine force? More important, what is the solution for improving junior submarine officer retention? While working on the staff of Commander, Submarine Force Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, I conducted statistical research that may shed some light on the interrelationships between submarine officer retention, the nuclear power bonus, and other variables.

Retention Rate

"Retention" is the ratio of junior officers for a given year group remaining in the submarine force after three years of commissioned service to officers remaining after seven years. Using the method that the Bureau of Naval Personnel (BuPers) currently uses, for example, we can calculate the retention rate for year group 1990. Four hundred junior officers entered the submarine nuclear power program in fiscal year 1990; 370 junior officers remained in the submarine force in fiscal year 1993; and 125 junior officers remained in the submarine force at the end of fiscal year 1997. The retention rate for year group 1990 would be calculated as 125/370, or 34%.

The Retention Study

The study examined resignations in the submarine force—in year groups 1987 through 1992—of officers who had completed at least three, but not more than eight, years of commissioned service. Of the 2,537 submariners in this category, 1,565 were in the submarine force as of 1 January 1996. Of the 972 officers who resigned during that period, 215 of their resignations were identified by year group, fiscal year in which they resigned, commissioning source, type of duty, and reason for resigning. To make sure the analysis was not skewed because particular resignations were examined and others were not, 80% of the 215 resignations were randomly selected using statistical analysis software. For valid statistical conclusions to be drawn, at least 5% of the potential samples must be used; here, 172 of the total of 972 resignations were used, for a total of 17.5%.

Commissioning source, type of duty, year group, and fiscal year of resignation were offered as alternative explanations as drivers of junior officer retention. These alternative explanations were ruled out by conducting a "chi-square" test (a statistical tool that determines if there is a causal relationship between variables). This test showed these variables had no effect on the reasons for resigning.

Data Analysis and Discussion

The first column in Table 1 lists the category from the most- to the least-mentioned reasons for resigning. The second column shows the number of responses or frequencies for each category; the third, the percentage based on the total number of responses for each category.

 

Table 1: Stated Reasons for Resignation

Category Label

Count

% of Cases

Quality of Life

87

51.2

New Career

41

24.1

Graduate Education

26

15.3

Job Dissatisfaction

26

15.3

Downsizing

25

14.7

Lack of Interest

24

14.1

Administrative

8

4.7

Detailing

8

4.7

Leadership

6

3.5

Wife’s Career

6

3.5

Pay and Benefits

5

2.9

Other

5

2.9

Total Responses

267

157.1

Eighty-seven of the 170 respondents (51.2%) listed quality of life (QOL) as a factor for leaving the submarine force. Of the QOL responses, 72 mentioned family issues; therefore, the number one reason junior officers left the submarine force was family related. Responses such as "seeking a more stable family environment," "stress on family life caused by extended at-sea operations," and "extended family separation creates stress in marital relationship" indicate that family stability is a major concern. The constant separations and reunions and long working hours in port (a 1994 Atlantic Submarine Force junior officer survey found that junior officers assigned to submarine duty typically work more than 70 hours per week while in port) make family life unstable. Junior officers also perceived family separation as affecting their ability to be good fathers and husbands. One officer stated that the submarine force "is not a good environment to raise a family [in]," and several stated that "at-sea time is not conducive to raising a family." Yet another concern of junior officers is the inability to lead a normal lifestyle. One noted "lack of personal time, and miss too many significant events"; another cited, "no time for outdoor activities."

"New career" was the second most frequent reason listed by officers who resigned from the submarine force. The desire to pursue other career options appeared in nearly one-fourth of all the resignations. Some wanted to be doctors, international business executives, lawyers, and entrepreneurs. Others wanted to move to careers related to their college majors, such as mechanical or electrical engineering. This contrasts with the CBO belief that nuclear-trained officers leaving the submarine force seek jobs in nuclear-related industry.

Junior officers also have shown a desire for graduate education, typically in conjunction with pursuing another career. Appearing in more than one-seventh of all the resignations, the desire to pursue "additional education" was the third-most-listed reason. These officers also often stated that they did not want to incur additional service obligation by earning a degree through one of several Navy graduate-degree programs.

Job dissatisfaction, tied with graduate education, was the third-most-significant reason. Junior officers who listed job dissatisfaction as a reason for resigning believe that their "creativity is being stifled," that there had been "too much paperwork" (or too-cumbersome work practices), and that there had been "no tangible product for the long hours put in." Some junior officers believed that awards, recognition, and promotion had little to do with merit and that the best performers were given most of the collateral duties.

The fifth significant factor was submarine force downsizing. The junior officers' perception is that the end of the Cold War and subsequent downsizing have left the submarine force in an unsteady state. Junior officers have found themselves at sea without understanding their mission—or believing that there no longer is a mission. The "submarine force is murky," one officer stated. "Now is a good time to leave." Junior officers also say that the submarine force is not as attractive a career as it was in the past. They feel that there is less opportunity for promotion to the next pay grade and beyond, and ask themselves, "Why stay in a negative-growth industry . . . when the economy is expanding?" Further, junior officers believe that they have been spending an inordinate amount of time at sea and long hours working in port when the United States has already won the Cold War. "Where are the peace dividends?" they wonder.

Lack of interest, which appeared in more than one-eighth of all resignations and was the final major reason listed, shows that some junior officers simply do not want to be submariners. Some officers who listed lack of interest as a reason noted that they had no intentions of staying in the submarine force when they joined. They joined the submarine force to increase their managerial, technical, and leadership skills. Others stated that to be successful in the submarine force, one must put "career over family." Similarly, others were unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to be a department head, executive officer, or commanding officer.

Table 1 shows that administrative problems, detailing, leadership, wife's career, pay and benefits, and "other" reasons were represented about equally in officer resignations. Although the nuclear bonus has been the major tool for controlling junior officer retention, pay and benefits were mentioned in only one of every 25 resignations in this study. So why does retention improve when the nuclear bonus and/or submarine pay increase? The answer simply lies in the fact that money has been considered by junior officers as an "equalizer." 2 In other words, the nuclear bonus is an underlying consideration.

Interrelated Factors

Although the 12 categories are considered independent in this study, they actually are interrelated. Pay and benefits is one driving factor that relates with some of the other major reasons for officers leaving the submarine force. For example, junior officers are willing to be a little more dissatisfied if we recognize and compensate for this dissatisfaction. Officers are also willing to put up with a lower quality of life if we recognize and adequately compensate for that. Similarly, as job satisfaction increases, junior officers are more likely to put up with a lower quality of life. Also, an increase in nuclear bonus signifies that downsizing is over and that the submarine force again presents a feasible career path. Junior officers view the nuclear bonus as a measure of the health of the submarine force.

A significant statistic from Table 1 is that leadership was listed in only 3.5% of all junior officer resignations, which suggests that leadership has not been a significant factor in submarine officer retention. Some experts, however, believe that leadership plays a critical role in officer retention. This study assumed that officers would be truthful in stating their reasons for resigning, but because "leadership" itself must review and endorse a departing officer's resignation, junior officers may have been reluctant to point out leadership problems. Thus, leadership may be a hidden reason for resigning. In fact, it is plausible that leadership could be a major reason junior officers leave the submarine force. To substantiate this hypothesis, however, additional formal research in leadership is necessary. Instinctively, I readily accept the notion that leadership is a plausible and major factor in the retention equation.

Recommendations

As the submarine force completes downsizing, junior officer retention needs to level out at 38% to ensure adequate staffing. Present retention rates are 32% for year group 1989. In a downsized Navy with limited resources, leaders need to concentrate on the appropriate variables to ensure that they are solving problems in the most efficient and effective way. Spending time and money on inappropriate variables could prove disastrous for the submarine force. To increase junior officer retention, the Navy needs to pay close attention to those top six variables identified in Table 1 as well as leadership and funding.

An aggressive program based on the results of this research would need to:

  • Determine the true mission of the submarine force, create a concise mission statement, and convey it down to the deckplate.
  • Conduct a complete review of operational tempo and adjust it as necessary to pay submarine officers the "peace dividends" earned as victors of the Cold War.
  • Continue to use nuclear officer incentive pay, adjusting periodically for inflation.
  • Develop innovative ways for junior officers to earn graduate degrees without incurring more obligated service.

A concise submarine force mission statement would help junior officers understand why they are at sea. Without a mission statement, there is no sense of direction for the submarine force and no measures of effectiveness. In a time of downsizing, an unclear mission sends a confusing signal. A mission statement would dispel the canard that the submarine force has no sense of direction or purpose.

Junior officers are concerned that there may be a considerable increase in operational tempo because of a reduction in submarine assets without a corresponding reduction in submarine commitments. A complete review of submarine operational tempo needs to be conducted, with the primary purpose of ensuring that assets will not be stretched too far as downsizing continues. In conjunction with this, each commanding officer needs to look at ways to reduce the time junior officers spend at work in port. A tangible reduction in hours spent at sea and on the boat in port would go a long way toward improving the junior officer's quality of life, morale, and productivity.

Nuclear officer incentive pay is critical in the retention of submarine force talent. Nevertheless, the Navy needs to recognize that NOIP is not a panacea for officer retention. Junior officers view NOIP as compensation for the sacrifices that come with being in the submarine force, and junior officers are willing to put up with a little less job satisfaction and a slightly lower quality of life if they receive more money. However, when the jobs get too unsatisfying or conditions too grave, monetary incentives cease to work. Thus, the Navy must look at other options to improve junior officer retention, while recognizing that any cutbacks in the NOIP program will prove detrimental to retention.

The word is out that a graduate degree is increasingly important to the career of a junior officer. Although nuclear bonus continuation pay and obligated service requirements for the Naval Postgraduate School have been relaxed, additional attention to this area is still warranted. Obligated service for junior officers serving at NROTC units also should be waived. The ideal time for junior officers to earn graduate degrees is during their initial shore tours. This is also time for the junior officer to make a decision either to "stay Navy" or to get out. Most Navy graduate degree programs available on shore duty lock junior officers into a commitment to the Navy, and thus close their options. Not all of the rules governing additional obligated service need to be waived, but the Navy needs to seek more innovative ways to help junior officers earn graduate degrees without having to incur additional obligated service.

Leadership is critical in turning these recommendations into action. Leaders in submarine commands at all levels need to get involved in conveying the mission of the submarine force to the junior officers, and must assess our present and future mission requirements to ensure that we have the resources to do our jobs efficiently and effectively. If they decide that the submarine force has been cut too deeply, thus leading to an excessive increase in operational tempo, then they need to take on this problem and find a solution. The quality of life of our submarine junior officers—the essence of the submarine force—remains at stake.

So who is right—the Navy or the Congressional Budget Office? We can see that retention is affected by the nuclear bonus. But we also know that maintaining the nuclear officer incentive pay is not the only way to keep junior officers in the submarine force. Other factors—quality of life chief among them—come into play. To continue to attract the talented individuals the submarine force demands, however, our leadership also must be sensitive to these other variables as well.

1 Jack Weible, "Nuclear Bonus Money Is Target for Cuts," Navy Times, 21 October 1996, p. 4.

2 S. B. Dietz, "Submarine Junior Officer Retention Point Paper," 20 March 1996, p. 7.

Lieutenant Kennedy is currently the combat systems officer on the Oklahoma City (SSN-723). He recently completed the Submarine Officer Advanced Course at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, Connecticut. In 1994, he reported to the staff of Commander Submarine Force Pacific Fleet as a command center watch officer and career development officer. 

 

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