Listen to the J.O.'s: Why Retention Is a Problem

By Rear Admiral John T. Natter, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired), Lieutenant Alan Lopez and Lieutenant Doyle K. Hodges, U.S. Navy

Instead, he had put in his letter, along with five other lieutenants in the wardroom. The skipper shook his head. He had a feeling of trying and failing, but not really knowing what he was doing wrong. Regretfully, he signed the endorsement and moved on to the next item in his inbox: a plan of action for next week's HAZMIN Implementation Assessment Visit.

The frustration felt by each of these fictional officers is real. The lieutenant and the skipper both are professional naval officers acting in good faith, yet each feels stymied and frustrated by the inability of the organization to respond to his needs. The lieutenant would love to regain the motivation and sense of mission that inspired him to join the Navy six years ago and that made the prospect of deployments and family separation seem bearable, even exciting. The skipper desperately wants to retain his best JOs, but can't understand why the same factors he faced as a junior officer now are leading so many to seek other opportunities.

The skipper is not alone in worrying about this problem. Recent press and congressional attention on retention in all the services, particularly among pilots, has raised talk of increased bonuses or other monetary incentives to improve retention. In fact, the problem is deeper and more pervasive than the skipper would like to believe: Between March and June of this year, we traveled through three theaters, visiting 15 ships and eight shore stations and staffs. We listened to the thoughts and feelings of 688 professional naval officers, lieutenant and below, representing every major warfare and staff community, from SEALs to social workers. Our findings surprised us: Only one officer in ten of those we met with aspires to command—and that number does not even address the issue of quality.

That figure—coupled with the abolition of department head boards for some aviation communities, the "all qualified" approach to surface department head screening that arose from the shortage of surface junior officers, and an increase in resignations in the SEAL community—has focused attention Navy-wide on "the JO retention problem." The surface warfare community has revived talk of "Surface Continuation Pay" as a means of increasing department head compensation. The bonus for nuclear-trained officers has been raised yet again. The Air Force has lobbied Congress for permission to raise the maximum amount payable under pilot bonuses, a move that could affect the bonuses of Navy fliers as well. Each of these initiatives seeks to treat the symptom of declining retention. That is not necessarily a bad thing; the symptom is acute, and we need to start treatment quickly. But listening to JOs, if we ever hope to achieve more than a Band-Aid fix—raising bonuses here, increasing accessions there, tweaking obligated service agreements to meet the next manpower flowpoint—we need to look beyond the symptoms and address root causes.

The reason that 88% of the junior officers we listened to do not aspire to command is that command doesn't look satisfying anymore. In other words, J.O.’s do not see their commanding officers having fun. The sacrifices, the separation, and the hard work no longer seem to promise the same reward. Why not?

The skipper's question about what makes today's JOs different is a common one among senior officers. Unfortunately, the natural tendency to view things through the lens of their own experience makes it difficult for these officers to realize that, although some of the issues are the same, the experience of today's junior officer is fundamentally different.

Twenty-plus years ago, about 30% of the officer corps was married. Today, that number is closer to 70%, and of those, roughly 85% have a spouse who works. It is not uncommon for a junior officer to earn less than his or her spouse. Against this background, issues of time away from home and family separation, always a part of naval service, take on greater significance.

More important, the Navy of twenty years ago was a combat-focused organization conducting daily operations on the frontiers of the Cold War. Although today's program of peacetime engagement and contingency operations is important, instability is an amorphous enemy and its defeat a delayed gratification at best. It is much more difficult to justify missing the birth of a child or eight out of ten wedding anniversaries to help "shape the international environment" than to fight the Russian bear.

That context makes it all the more important that we focus on ways to bring back the satisfaction of being a naval officer. Among the top issues identified by the J.O.’s we listened to were: loss of job satisfaction, self-inflicted pain, micromanagement and the zero-defect mentality, erosion of benefits, and lack of confidence in leadership.

Loss of Job Satisfaction

"The Navy does a great job of taking care of its enlisted sailors, but a terrible job of taking care of J.O.’s." How does this relate to job satisfaction? Here's how: 100% of the junior officers we saw agreed that they started the day intending to do a good job. At the end of the day, however, only 10% felt they had accomplished anything. In addition, most of them spend a great deal of time on board ship while tied up in their home port. "Rope Yarn is not for officers. We get the troops out of there, but I'm on board until 2000."

On top of that, only 40% of the JOs we listened to had received a verbal "attaboy" in the previous 30 days. In contrast, 90% had given their leading petty officer or chief a pat on the back during the same 30-day period. What is wrong with this picture?

The combined effect of these factors is a first-tour division officer who barely sees his family, gets little satisfaction from her daily efforts as a naval officer, and feels cut off and underappreciated. Some junior officers noted, "Morale of the crew may be the CO's first responsibility, but the wardroom is not part of the crew," and, "We're admin fools, but to hell with quality. I feel like a manager, not a warrior." These comments are not surprising. Will it get better as a career progresses? Most don't think so. Only 15% perceive that their commanding officers are satisfied with their command tours and having fun. Where is the gleam in their eyes and the hop in their step?

Self-Inflicted Pain

A lot of the hardships these junior officers are experiencing are things that we do to ourselves. Our interdeployment training cycle, for example, is broken. We have created a program that never gives the ship or the crew a rest, and the burden is falling heavily on J.O.’s. One summed up the common experience: "We get inspectors on board Monday, they finish on Friday; the next set comes on board the following Monday—so we're on board over the weekend fixing discrepancies."

Another frequently heard complaint was, "Our CO never has a chance to train this ship the way he wants to—he's always answering to the Afloat Training Group, the Propulsion Examining Board, or some other organization." Assist visits have evolved into practice inspections that require the same degree of preparation as the inspection itself. The Chief of Naval Operations already has taken action on this problem, and as the Commanders-in-Chief Atlantic and Pacific Fleets look closely at improving the interdeployment training cycle, we must be optimistic that tangible changes will provide relief in the near future.

Junior officers raised other "self-inflicted" problems, as well. There was a strong perception that our focus on war fighting has fallen away. Qualification boards usually are the first to fall off a ship's schedule and are pushed only if the watch bill requires a new body. Vital warfighting skills, which must be developed, fall easy victim to the more immediate pressures of "administrivia." Our officers see the minimum qualification standard driving their training and perceive clearly where our priorities lie. They ask, "If I am not training to be a warrior, what am I training for?"

The surface warfare community has some unique and acute self-inflicted problems. From the outset, we create an atmosphere of dread about the surface warfare community: 99% of JOs we asked had heard "SWOs eat their young" before being commissioned! This undoubtedly poisons the well for new officers beginning careers in surface warfare. One commented shortly after reporting to his ship, "I have no desire to be a SWO. I don't like what I do; SWOs are treated badly, dogged, downgraded in attitude and perception. It's just frustrating to get beat up all the time." This perception is rooted in the reality of life as a surface division officer. The warfare discipline from which all naval tradition springs has become the least desirable career choice—and we have done this to ourselves.

Micromanagement and the Zero-Defect Mentality

A staggering number of junior officers we met with felt micromanagement was pervasive in their organizations and in the Navy overall. Most do not feel trusted to make decisions and are frustrated by constant, invasive, "in the weeds" rudder orders from their bosses. The average division officer today is being robbed of the opportunity to exercise leadership and to learn from his or her mistakes while taking responsibility for decisions. Many junior officers feel this trend will continue, as decision-making authority continues to creep higher and higher up the chain of command. One limited-duty officer said, "I had more power as a chief!"—and 95% of his peers agreed.

The JOs don't see these problems as limited to the junior ranks. Sadly, 90% saw their commanding officers having the same problems. "My CO is constantly scrambling to answer rudder orders from above." Some specific examples of micromanagement we encountered:

  • Officers in a submarine told us that their CO's standing orders had been replaced by a standardized set implemented by the squadron, so that inspectors wouldn't have to learn a new set on each boat.
  • Naval aviators, trusted with multimillion dollar aircraft, are so closely regulated in how many and what type of patches they may wear on their flight jackets that at one point the regulation did not allow for an American flag patch.
  • Commanding officers, entrusted with the command of billion-dollar warships and the lives of their crews, are specifically governed in what liberty policy they may prescribe for their sailors overseas—no exceptions, no questions asked.

What drives this tendency to micromanage? Junior officers believe that the major contributor is a zero-defects mentality. Mistakes on the job no longer are treated as learning tools but are addressed immediately and publicly with punitive corrective actions. The same seems to apply to personal behavior: one mistake can kill years of faithful service. A Navy psychologist in Pensacola, for example, was awarded mast, a punitive letter of reprimand, and a 1.0 in military bearing for mooning friends during a physical readiness test. Poor judgment is pilloried rather than corrected. As a result, many COs are seen to be afraid that a mistake by a subordinate will ruin their personal chances for advancement. Under the microscope 100% of the time, they micromanage to protect themselves—and this is transmitted down the chain of command. It is tough to experience the satisfaction of leadership in such an environment. In the end, because they see the same problems continue up through the CO level, many junior officers decide that the opportunity to command is not worth staying in.

Erosions of Benefits: The Tie Breaker

Much discussion of retention has focused on pay and benefits. What our discussions found is that benefits affect retention in two ways. First, special pay, bonuses, retirement benefits, and good support infrastructure show that the Navy "cares." Almost all junior officers perceived an erosion of support infrastructure, retirement benefits, and dependent medical care, and this fuels their impression that their service in the Navy is less valued and appreciated. Second, when this trend is extrapolated, many JOs become concerned for their financial future. This is amplified by the increasing risk that they will not be allowed to complete a 20-year career as a result of a shrinking fleet and stiff competition for promotion.

Most JOs considered benefits and compensation much less important than other retention drivers, but when taken together with increasing family separations, low job satisfaction, a negative impression of command, and a lack of confidence in leadership, benefits become the "tie breaker"—they tip the balance toward leaving the Navy.

Lack of Confidence in Senior Leaders

At the core of all of these issues is leadership. A belief that the hardships we endure will ease can be sustained only if junior officers have confidence in their leaders. Most don't. And recent events have given them little reason to hope for improvement.

One message from division officers in the fleet was very clear: As we cut manpower and budgets, but keep our level of commitments largely unchanged, the squeeze is felt very painfully at the deck-plate level. Most will agree that our administrative burden has increased steadily over past decades. As a unit's manning slips lower, the remaining crew must work harder to fulfill administrative requirements, which now are scrutinized even more closely in an effort to look better to those up the chain of command.

We saw enormous frustration because of the increased workload caused by gapped or cut billets, drops in repair parts and supply support, and dishonest readiness reporting. Many JOs described increasing difficulty in getting repair parts in a timely manner; parts frequently were removed from non-deployed aircraft and ships so others could sail with all required equipment. Some didn't receive replacements until after training cycle work-ups and were unable to train with certain pieces of vital equipment prior to deployment. Yet readiness was reported as C-1. Instead of seeing their senior leaders standing up to address these problems, they are turning on the news to hear, "Our readiness has never been higher," and "We can support 2.0 carrier presence in Central Command as long as we need to."

These junior officers acknowledge that we must answer the nation's call, but they feel we also must show what missions we can continue to perform with our shrinking resources. We need to see our senior leaders explain to Congress that the costs of "doing more with less" are being paid with checks written on the backs of our people.

Heartbreaking comments were made by JOs on board several forward-deployed ships: "You come out here and talk to us, as many other flag officers have, but we don't see any action. You may care, but nobody in D.C. does." And, "We keep saying we're going to stop doing more with less, but I haven't seen it happen yet." Or, "At home, our squadrons can hardly fly: we don't have the parts, the aircraft, or the flight hours."

The Bad News and the Good News

The scope and depth of emotion we encountered in our talks with these junior officers was overwhelming. Despite the constraints of speaking to a flag officer, often with their department heads in the rooms, they evinced a gut-wrenching conviction, emotion, and intensity. Often, they spoke of feeling betrayed: the ideals for which they had joined—Honor, Courage, Commitment—had not materialized. The problems that they described are real, serious, and require that we address them if we want to have a say in who will man and lead our Navy of tomorrow.

There is, however, some good news associated with the problems we have described here: As a Navy, we have the fixes in hand, and many of them don't require that we appropriate a penny more—just that we swallow some pride. Today's U.S. Navy is, arguably, the most dominant naval force ever assembled. We are a force rich in history, with a tradition of leadership that includes such figures as Stephen Decatur, David Farragut, Oliver Hazard Perry, Chester Nimitz, Arleigh Burke, and James Stockdale. Yet, junior officers look around today and perceive themselves in a Navy of paperwork, mindless regulation, political expediency, and perpetual inspection. Changing this will not be easy, but it is possible.

It will require a conscious effort to buck the system on the part of our leaders, from the Chief of Naval Operations down through the commanding officer. It will require commanders with the courage to correct and mentor mistakes, knowing that the media may hold them accountable publicly for a subordinate's error. It will require commanders more concerned with the development of their wardrooms than their personal chances for promotion. What this change in attitude will not require, however, is additional funding. Yes, we also should look at the area of compensation. A 401K program or something similar would give junior officers a chance to take responsibility for their own financial future and would reduce the impression that the decision to stay or go must be made at the end of their initial obligations. Surface continuation pay—as well as instituting sea pay for surface warfare officers as soon as they report for shipboard duty—would help to alleviate the impression that SWOs are the least valued of our warfare communities.

Policy changes—which do not require monetary offsets—should include:

  • A further reduction in the interdeployment training cycle
  • A 50% reduction in paperwork requirements and reports
  • Changes to the division officer sequencing plan to give the CO some flexibility on rotation dates, thereby giving the JOs time to excel
  • Honesty in reporting readiness; insist that the 30-day post deployment stand down is sacred—without exception
  • A look at personnel tempo in terms of quality as well as the location of the JO's time

We are making progress: The initiatives arising from the Chief of Naval Operations' 6-7 July four-star conference are a good start—e.g., a 25% reduction in the IDTC—but only a start. We must not allow ourselves to think we have fixed JO retention if we fix the IDTC. Yes, this will go a long way in making life as a naval officer more attractive, but our efforts must focus on even more fundamental issues. They have to focus on trusting our JOs; on allowing them to make mistakes under our supervision; on developing warfighting skills; on bringing back the fun, the excitement, and the nobility of our profession. Only then will our junior officers see their commanding officers with a "gleam in their eyes and a hop in their step."

Before his retirement in July, Admiral Nutter served as Deputy for Readiness, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, and Assistant Chief of Naval Personnel, Memphis. Lieutenant Hodges , a surface warfare officer and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and Lieutenant Lopez , a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer, are attached to the staff of Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Naval Forces Europe, in London.


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