Should the Corps Be Concerned About Retention?

By Major David A. Anderson, U.S. Marine Corps

But what about retention? Should the Marine Corps rest easy, assured by statistics compiled by manpower planners that it has no retention problem? Or is there something that the numbers are not reflecting? Maybe the Marine Corps is just the last of the services to feel the effects of mid-career attrition. An "in the trenches" perspective reveals a fragile retention balance that is vulnerable to very dynamic economic, political, and social forces-some of the same forces that have adversely affected mid-career retention in its sister services.

Political Forces

The so-called peace dividend (and the subsequent force reductions and diversion of tax dollars into other domestic programs) is taking a heavy toll on active-duty forces. With fewer defense dollars and increasing operational tempo, the Marine Corps is being challenged to maintain the readiness of exhausted equipment and Marines.

Compounding the situation is the lack of concrete guidance from Congress on the future role of the Marine Corps. In the absence of such direction, the Marine Corps continues to be tasked with missions ranging from Peace Corps-like functions to more conventional roles, while it tries to modernize, equip, and train for the battles of the 21st century. The Corps' willingness to accept these tasks, labeling them as training opportunities, and performing them with great success, makes it vulnerable to even more frequent and diverse commitments. And to make matters worse, the costs associated with these missions routinely are borne by the Marine Corps.

Arguably, the Marine Corps has become a victim of its own success. Marines are known for getting the job done, but this reputation comes at a considerable expense to the morale and welfare of these hardworking men and women. They are an overworked and increasingly frustrated operational force in dire need of rest and a more firm sense of direction.

Social Forces

Society expects the military to exemplify its highest values and standards. The Marine Corps always has held the high ground in this regard, and there is a lot of pressure on each Marine to maintain these elevated standards—especially when one considers that today's Marines are products of a society that has allowed the erosion of many traditional values.

Many recruits enter the Marine Corps with idealistic thoughts about service to country. Probably one of the last thing they are contemplating is marriage, yet one of the first things many do after joining the Corps is to get married—and the American public expects them to be allowed to, regardless of age, rank, or the consent of Corps commanders. In fact, a substantial number of young Marines are marrying and starting families—55 1/2% of enlisted personnel are married, a historic high—and they are doing it earlier than in the past. Many are convinced that under the current pay structure, they will be better off if they are married, and that their quality of life will be better outside the barracks. Unfortunately, the falsehood of this financial calculation quickly becomes apparent, especially among the most junior enlisted ranks.

In addition to the increasing number of Marines raising families, there is the societal emphasis on quality family life. Active parenting, involvement in one's church, and community volunteerism all have been supported by the Marine Corps; however, they often conflict with a Marine's professional roles and responsibilities. These competing roles have a tendency to pull our Marines in different directions and spread them too thin. Further taxing these families is the ever-increasing need and/or desire for Marine spouses to work outside the home—65% are now in the work force, again, a historic high.

Economic Forces

As Marines move through the first few years of active service, they begin to think about whether to stay or to make the transition to civilian life. Many find the rigors of military life more taxing than they expected. Some are urged by their spouses to find another line of work—perhaps one that requires less time away from home, or includes better pay and benefits. Good job prospects and the lure of a better quality of life in the private sector, especially as military pay and benefits erode and workloads increase, weigh heavily in one's decision to remain on active duty.

The well-documented pay disparity between the military and comparable civilian positions has another consequence: one of every five military personnel is deeply in debt, and financial worries affect job performance. It is estimated that financial problems of Navy personnel cost the Department of Defense as much as $258 million a year in lost productivity. In addition, a Navy Safety Center study concluded that one of the factors contributing to military pilot error was distractions associated with financial concerns. Fair pay is a concern for many reasons.

Finding a job outside of the Marine Corps can be as easy as going on line. The internet is making pay and benefits discrepancies more apparent, and is dispelling the fear that service personnel are unemployable in the private sector. I know of a number of Marines who have done job searches or posted resumes via the internet, resulting in numerous interviews and subsequent job offers. In addition, numerous headhunting agencies actively pursue Marines to fill employment needs.

In spite of this, most mid-grade officers and noncommissioned officers are remaining on active duty—though torn between their love of the Corps and private sector prospects. They stay because of the intrinsic rewards associated with being a Marine, and they are hopeful that all the political rhetoric eventually will lead to more equitable pay and benefits. If some progress is not made in these areas, however, more Marines will think more frequently about getting out. This is especially true of those whose spouses are pursuing promising careers and are receiving pay, benefits, and retirement plans rivaling or exceeding those provided by the military.

Forces within the Marine Corps

In spite of the anticipated post-Cold War lower-threat security environment, the Marine Corps remains as busy as ever, and at 176,000 Marines, is significantly undermanned to sustain its current operational tempo much longer. The operational fleet is stretched to its limits, and fewer Marines are available to meet expanding fleet support requirements. This has spilled over to most all non-fleet jobs as well.

It used to be that, aside from recruiting duty and the drill field, Marines could anticipate that a non-fleet tour would be less demanding, allowing them to make up for lost family time or to pursue other personal interests. Not anymore. These billets now are every bit as demanding—and many, even more so. This exhausting environment is leaving little time for meeting the requirements for annual training, physical fitness, nonresident professional military education, family time, and personal fulfillment.

Many Marines are losing their sense of control—of both themselves and their careers. In this environment they continually are forced to react to the crisis du jour, the latest most important in a long list of most important things to be accomplished. The conscientious Marine with a family will find his loyalties challenged as he strives to do everything well. The morale of the Marine and her family suffers. The continuous high level of intensity required to perform successfully, coupled with ever-increasing standards and expectations of performance required of Marines by Marines, is causing many mid-level career Marines to think more often about leaving. They are physically and emotionally drained—burned out.

Also influencing the decision whether to remain on active duty is the perceived toll many Marines pay for a successful career. What other Marines often see is the personal anxiety and family turmoil associated with such things as promotion opportunities and frequent moves: selling homes, finding good schools, and securing adequate housing. In addition, the absence of the military spouse can exacerbate dysfunctional situations in a family. Divorce is on the rise, as is domestic violence among Marine families.

What to Do?

The Marine Corps' first priority is making Marines and winning our nation's battles. Toward this end, it may be asking too much from its people. Many Marines are looking for the service to be more responsive to their personal and family needs, but what they see is a Marine Corps more consumed with training and operational requirements than with the welfare of its people.

The Marine Corps must plan for the battles of tomorrow, but it also must be mindful of the individual Marines and their family needs, and the struggles and sacrifices they make in serving as members of the Marine Corps family. Its most precious resource must not be taken for granted.

A significant positive attribute of the Marine Corps always has been its active nature. It must get out front in addressing the changing personnel and family needs of its Marines, or it will fall victim to the retention shortfalls faced by its sister services. If the Marine Corps does not respond adequately, the private sector will.

Bonuses and reenlistment multiples are not the answer. They only more firmly commit those already leaning toward remaining on active duty or those who are too financially strapped to leave. The Marine Corps should focus on those things it can influence directly: internal operational tempo and training, duty assignments and geographical location moves, working hours, professional development activities that impose on family time, and career and family counseling. At the same time, it should campaign for fewer nontraditional operational commitments and increased funding for pay, benefits, and quality of life issues.

The Marine Corps' report card should consist of more than just grades for training warriors and winning battles. It has to reflect such things as how the Marine Corps experience affects each Marine as a person and as a citizen, how it affects the Marine families, and society in general. Finally, it must include the Marines' desire to be a career Marine.

Major Anderson is on the faculty of the Economics Department at the U.S. Naval Academy. His previous assignments include numerous Fleet Marine Force command and staff positions. He holds a doctorate in business administration from the United States International University.



Conferences and Events

Maritime Security Dialogue

Mon, 2016-10-03

You are cordially invited to: Maintaining Maritime Superiority A discussion with Admiral John M. Richardson, USNChief of Naval...

2016 Coast Guard Academy Conference

US Coast Guard Academy

WEST 2017

San Diego Convention Center, San Diego, CA

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership