Let's Fix Retention Now

By Master Chief Machinist's Mate Mark Butler, U.S. Navy

On the other end of the SRB scale is the money we pay to keep a boatswain's mate in for a few extra years. Following the reenlistment of a boatswain's mate we process the paperwork to make sure that his or her paycheck keeps going to the designated financial institution. The young BM3 or BM2 receives no SRB or extra schooling, yet these sailors stay in the Navy. Other sailors stay as well, some receiving a bonus while others do not. Yet it is our sailors with the highest SRB levels that we have a difficult time retaining.

To understand why we can't keep the sailors we need in our critical ratings with the highest SRB levels, we must understand how we are able to keep an equally critically-skilled boatswain's mate who doesn't receive a bonus. Once this is understood, then we can address how to keep the sailors we need. But policy changes alone won't alter the way things are now. Instead, they will be bandages on a wound that needs stitches to heal properly.

Common explanations for our poor retention rates have been poor rates of advancement and the increasing tempo of operations. Another reason is the pay gap that may or may not exist. Still others include a lack of money for training, spare parts, or simple consumables like paper, sheets, and coveralls. Complaints abound about ships being undermanned and our sailors being overworked. Last is the reduction of retirement benefits for current enlistees. Although these appear to be the main reasons for poor retention, they are only symptoms. Only one, the lack of money for spare parts, relates to the real problem.

Fortunately, we don't have to go far to find the cause. We teach it in our leadership schools, and it is a part of petty officer indoctrination and the Senior Enlisted Academy. Our failure to retain our best sailors is a failure on our part to provide for their needs. Specifically, they are the needs identified by Abraham H. Maslow in A Theory of Human Motivation , first published more than 50 years ago. Maslow's hierarchy of needs identifies five areas: esteem, self-actualization, physical, safety, and social. Our Navy easily meets the last three, but the first two needs we have failed to fulfill. Esteem and self-actualization are by far the most important in ensuring high morale among sailors.

Among esteem needs are responsibility, self-respect, recognition, and a sense of accomplishment. Self-actualization needs include self-expression, creativity, independence, and reaching one's full potential. Until these "brain" needs are addressed, the time, effort, and money we spend on the "belly" needs (physical, safety, and social) will not correct our retention problem.

So how do we keep boatswain's mates in the Navy? Their "brain" needs are met by the system the Navy has created for them. After spending up to two years as a deck seaman, young BM3s have a real sense of accomplishment. Recognized as experts in deck seamanship by everyone up to the captain and the command master chief. BM3s accept the responsibility thrust upon their chevrons and know that the job must get done. The seamen under their guidance are looking to the sailors with the crossed anchors to push, motivate, and take care of them. If the job isn't done right the blame can't be put on the seamen; the boatswain's mate was "in charge." For 20 year-old youths, this is a clear case of reaching their potential.

Why are we unable to keep the highly paid, rapidly advanced, and well-schooled sailors like nuclear power school graduates or advanced electronics field graduates in the same way? They can have neither recognition nor responsibility, because even as second-class petty officers they are one of many—especially in large commands. They do not have the same sense of accomplishment because their third-class chevron was given to them for getting through a school or signing a longer contract. Being so new to their jobs, they are not given a chance to be independent, and are too young and inexperienced to have the slightest idea of how to be creative in their new jobs. Even the names the fleet gives these administratively advanced petty officers—"push buttons" or "instant petty officers"—serves to show how their self-respect needs are not met. If no one else respects them, how can they respect themselves?

In Maslow's terms, we have not paid any attention to the "brain" needs of our highly technically trained sailors. Instead, we have spent thousands of dollars on each sailor to satisfy "belly" needs, and have ignored the attainment of his or her higher needs. With millions upon millions spent each year, the "belly" needs do manage to keep a certain percentage of sailors in the Navy. They see the bonus money as a means to an end, home ownership or some other investment. Once these goals are met, these needs become less important. One key point of Maslow's hierarchy of needs is that when a need is not satisfied, the individual will he frustrated and seek a way to satisfy that need. For many, that means finding satisfaction outside the Navy.

This brings us to the solution phase. The usual answer is that we need to introduce policy changes that enhance the esteem and self-actualization needs of our sailors. That simple statement does not get to the policy changes that need to take place, or identify what we need to do to fix our retention problem. Instead, it provides us with the inspiration to open up our tool box and, like a mechanic, find and correct the real problem.

First we must look at the various factors that make up the esteem and self-actualization needs of our sailors. Automatically advanced third-class petty officer do not have senses of accomplishment—because the third-class chevron was given to them. Perhaps we need to put an end to automatic advancement and send these highly trained sailors to the fleet as seamen apprentices or seamen designated with a rating, then when they do make third- and second-class they get the recognition they deserve. In a small way, the sailors' needs have been met. Easy arguments against this are that recruiting will suffer and that these technicians need to be in the fleet immediately. Yet at the same time, many small ships have these "A" and "C" school graduates doing food service attendant duties.

Being a "C" school graduate only to end up as an food service attendant doesn't meet esteem needs. It would probably be better to send sailors to "C" school only after they have made third- or second-class petty officer in the fleet. Then we can give sailors a "C" school for a modest reenlistment and bonus as an inducement to stay in the Navy. Just knowing they had to compete to get to second class will make sailors feel better about themselves and increase the value of being petty officers.

As mentioned earlier, only the lack of money for repair parts is related to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Without the money to fix damaged equipment in the fleet, sailors do not enjoy job satisfaction or a sense of accomplishment. This represents another area where the sailors' esteem needs are not met, thus leading to frustration and a level of dissatisfaction that causes them to consider employment elsewhere.

Self-actualization needs could get a boost too by the integration of "A" and "C" schools with the program for afloat college education. Building upon services available at the Navy campus office, our sailors could earn associate's or bachelor's degree from a yet-to-be-created "Navy University," an accredited four-year institution similar to other non-resident degree-granting colleges and universities. Not only would it save sailors money, it would be a real source of independence, recognition, and a way for sailors to reach their potential. If the best students who earned their bachelor's degree could move into the officer ranks, it would further their potential attainment and sense of accomplishment.

Esteem and self-actualization needs also have to be addressed by our leadership, from the commanding officer of a ship to the divisional chief. Our basic tenets of following the command's written instructions, doing exactly as they describe, and not varying from them stifles the independence and creativity of senior enlisted, junior officers, and junior sailors alike. Recognition by awards, pats on the back, and even mentioning sailors' names on the IMC all serve to boost self-respect and sense of accomplishment. Handing out excessive Navy Achievement Medals only serves to cheapen the award and lower the value of the medal. A discussion with any group of senior enlisted will show the concern they have over this and without realizing it, they are concerned about the upper levels of Maslow's needs.

Sailors at all levels need to know and to see that independent action and creative solutions will reap rewards instead of belittlement. Supervisors and commanding officers need to accept that there will be some failures and not crucify the offenders. Instead, a little guidance and analysis of the problem and the attempted solution is more in order. As sailors see successes rewarded they will come up with even more creative solutions. Over time, commanding officers could find themselves enjoying their "rides" and not feel they have to drive the commands for their entire tours. Senior enlisted would benefit by being able to spend time on the development of subordinates as well as their own professional development.

Can we make the changes needed or must we continue to make the same mistakes? Do we need a "Navy University," or is there some other mechanism where our sailors can get the recognition and sense of accomplishment they need? Can we change the way we do things at the local level so that we focus on the upper levels of Maslow's hierarchy of needs? If we follow the same old path and believe that solutions of the past are good enough for tomorrow, we will see bonuses of $100,000 before today's recruits retire. More money is not the answer when it comes to retention; the real answer is leadership. Leadership also is the core issue of the primary question: Can we lead our Navy into the 21st century?

Currently serving as Command Master Chief of the Halyburton (FFG-40), Master Chief Butler has served on the Enterprise (CVN-65) and Monongahela (AO-178).

 

 
 

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