Quality of life issues are the current push in saving the Navy’s enlisted rules—but quality of purpose and clarity of mission will save its young officers.
The U.S. submarine force’s history of poor officer retention will probably not improve any time soon. Every year, submarine wardrooms are briefed on the status of officer retention, opportunities for promotion, and the direction of the force (i.e., the number of submarines in the fleet and long-term “corporate strategy”). Every year, increases in the nuclear accession bonus are mentioned as effective tools in slowing the exodus of officers from the ranks. However, simultaneously mentioned is the fact that future increases are not likely.
Is there a coming crisis in submarine officer manning? Probably. Will the Navy actually face the problem with other means than the mighty dollar? Probably not. Anyone who is genuinely concerned about junior officer retention and the Navy probably has noticed that the world has changed considerably in the past few years; so have the young officers who make up its ranks. “Generation X” submariners, as I will call them, are a new twist to an old breed of officers who will not easily be swayed by temptations of big nuclear paychecks. These JOs will gladly give a few years to serve their country, but to commit their entire lives they need a real purpose, a true calling, and a genuine chance to lead.
Born between 1964 and 1972, Generation X is the first age group to follow the Baby Boomers. We also are called the Baby Busters, the Lost Generation, and the Slackers. The media have stereotyped the generation as being in tune with the environment, comfortable with technology, and aware of the international economy. Generation X also has been labeled as a collection of lazy, apathetic, and underemployed whiners. We are the most educated and soon to be wealthiest generation in the history of the country, the first one to have everything we needed—and even some of the things we wanted—while growing up. We are the first generation in recent history not to have been traumatized or shaped by a major event such as the Great Depression, World War II, or the Vietnam War. Because of that, we are a generation with all the potential, all the talent—but no heart or passion for anything. The Yuppies wanted to get ahead; the Slackers just want to get by. Nearly all Generation X submariners are JOs currently serving on their first sea tours or follow-up shore tours. Do these officers fit the stereotype that characterizes their civilian peers? Yes and no, but more on that later.
I first became interested in junior officer retention about the time my friends and I submitted our own resignations from the service. As I typed my letter, I wondered if the reasons for resignation would get noticed by anyone. Recently, my squadron’s commodore required all of his boats to report the numbers of junior officers who have resigned in the last three calendar years. My first reaction was, “You mean they don’t even know the numbers?” How hard can that be to track at the squadron level? How hard can it be to place a tick mark on a piece of paper whenever a resignation letter comes through the office? What is almost as bad is that we could not have responded | correctly to the request unless there had been someone on board long enough to remember everyone who had left. What that tells me is that if individual commands do not even know the numbers of men who have resigned, then they surely do not know their names, the reasons they left, and what they left to do (if they knew that, they might actually know what the Navy is competing against).
On another occasion, a close ex-submariner friend of mine overheard a conversation between a submarine squadron commander and a submarine commanding officer at the San Diego Submarine Base gym concerning officer retention. They thought officer retention would improve if submarines did more six-month deployments! Believe me: No officer ever resigned from the Navy for lack of enough sea time.
There are further hints of trouble brewing in the submarine community. Junior officers are once again being allowed to pull their letters of resignation if they change their minds and decide to stay in. Department head tours are being extended because of a lack of qualified reliefs. Detailers are having difficulty filling billets that require an officer to commit to a department head tour (ROTC duty, Naval Academy instructor, etc.). Department head screening will probably be a very short-lived phenomenon. Imagine, we can’t find some JO—who probably already has his Porsche paid for—to take an instructor job at UCLA, live in Brentwood or Beverly Hills, and mingle with the beautiful people for three years. Either something is wrong or something has changed—both, actually.
Varied factors influence junior officers’ decisions not to stay in the submarine force for a career, including:
- Why they came into the Navy
- What happened to them while they served
- What kind of people the submarine force attracts
First, serving as an officer in the U.S. Navy has been and always will be an honorable and prestigious pursuit that earns respect. Second, the military’s greatest cheerleaders are not the recruiters—they are Mom and Dad. Most of our fathers and mothers have served in the military, and they all want their children to follow in their footsteps. Finally, the almost prohibitively high cost of a post-secondary education at major national universities attracts a great percentage of would-be officers to the academies, ROTC units, and the Nuclear Propulsion Officer Candidate (NuPOC) program.
Hardly anyone wants to drive a boat as a freshman; most would rather fly an F-14. Basically, the submarine force has to pull its leaders out of the woodwork, and they have not been all that successful at it, either. Otherwise, the NuPOC program would not be needed. One technique is to fly charismatic pitchmen to all the universities to sell the nuclear power program. The speakers stress the challenge, the opportunity, and the prestige—but most of all they stress the money: “If you want a Saab 900 turbo convertible, go nuke!”
Most midshipmen decide on submarines after a positive summer cruise experience and seeing some interesting pictures of what submarines do. Some decide that nuclear power will be very valuable and cognitively stimulating training that will be more than worth the challenge and potential headache. Some fail the flight physical and decide that nuclear power and submarines are the next best use of their talents—and the $4,000 signing bonus sure helps ease the pain of mistaking that “N” for an “H” on the eye chart.
When junior officers get to the fleet, they receive a major culture shock. A three-year sea tour may include one if not two six-month deployments, a two-month special operation, and other various long-underway events (not counting weekly operations) that really affect family and social life. You miss major holidays (like Christmas and the NCAA basketball tournament) and the weddings and funerals of your friends and family. For the first time in your life, you realize the closeness of your own mortality. When you return from a cruise, your best friend has left on his cruise, your neighbors have moved, and the tall beautiful blonde you left on the pier six months ago is not there when you pull back in. A man really learns who his friends are when he goes to sea. In-port upkeeps, shift work, and weekend duty are what you have to look forward to when coming home. Ten weekends a year is about what a junior officer can hope to have off in a busy year—but you soon find out they are all busy years.
There are other external non-Navy factors that affect us deeply: our civilian friends. We grew up with or went to college with them. They are our equals on the outside. Most do not make as much money as we do now, but they are catching up fast—with 52 weekends a year. They get to build companies or their own businesses while we watch ours being slowly drawn down, rightsized, and dismantled. You hear about their jobs, the parties missed, or about one buddy who is going to make six digits next year, and you then realize, as you suck rubber during your 100th fire drill, that $40,000 per year is not all that much for the time you put in and the best years of your life.
Submarine life—excluding the social aspects that are common to all Navy people—is a difficult existence, and many junior officers do well just to persist; most, however, excel. After a brutally busy and somewhat humbling experience at Navy Nuclear Power School and prototype training, highly motivated and idealistic young ensigns arrive at their boats. They are given, at the time, the seemingly impossible task of qualifying for Officer of the Deck in less than a year and running a division. The uninitiated cannot comprehend or appreciate the amount of knowledge, training, and work it takes to accomplish this. A junior officer’s primary responsibility is to support the wardroom watchbill in port and under way. Initially, supervising the operation of a nuclear propulsion plant and driving a one-billion-dollar submarine between submerged sea mounts, around swarming sailboats, and through hordes of Chinese junks is a terrifying experience. However, the resourceful and shrewd figure out how to do it well, and it is not long until young lieutenants realize that standing watch is not too difficult, stimulating, or fun for that matter. Watchstanding, a junior officer primary function, then becomes a continually rotating encumbrance of unsatisfying, monumental responsibility that never goes away.
Generation X submariners learn a lot more besides nuclear power and shiphandling. They learn management by approved procedure, leadership by checklist, and performance appraisal by annual inspection. Instead of becoming warriors, junior officers become the gurus of the latest computer software programs. Understanding PC operations (personal computers or political correctness, take your pick), DOS, and WordPerfect has supplanted tactics and strategy as needed skills of a submariner. They learn that those special operations (“spec ops,” spy missions) they entered the force to go on do not happen much anymore, and when they are undertaken, the operation is more administratively challenging than it is physically, emotionally, or tactically.
Junior officers learn a variety of techniques to help them with their jobs, such as management by objectives and total quality leadership, probably to be followed by the next fad of reengineering. Junior officers on the path to a career in the submarine force learn from their readings of all the required reports on groundings, collisions, and nuclear mishaps that the submarine community is a generally negative organization that—despite its amazing success—reinforces the worst of its past. Success is achieved,
in other words, by not making mistakes. To keep from repeating past oversights, the submarine community has added layers of checks, procedures, and standing orders to make submarining idiot-proof—and in the process alienated who knows how many personnel.
New jingles such as “encourage intelligent risk taking” could not be further from reality, because junior officers know and are constantly reminded to “go only by the book.” This leads to the most disheartening lesson of all: Junior officers are chosen less for their scholarship, cognitive ability, and leadership potential and more for their uncommonly high threshold of pain and their distinct ability to follow directions. That realization—not quality-of- life issues or recreant attitudes prior to entering the submarine force—is at the heart of the retention problem.
Understanding that last statement depends on understanding the kind of individual the submarine force attracts. Are submariners like the rest of their generation—the flannel shirt-wearing, grunge-rock listening, Seattle-loving, laid-back types who don’t really care for anything besides the ozone layer? Hardly. Generation X submariners are the top 1% of their peers in terms of intelligence and ambition. They do want to get ahead, not just get by. When I look at my friends and colleagues who serve with me, I see winners. I see the kind of talented driven men who have excelled in everything they have ever done. They are extremely smart and well rounded, able to discuss atomic physics at work and slam dunk a basketball or shoot scratch golf in their off time. I see incredible ability and potential that, unfortunately, are not being adequately recognized or used—even by themselves, much less by their superiors. I see men who have been hungry their whole lives, but in the past year or so who have lost their appetites. I see natural born leaders who have lost the desire to lead.
Why are these fairly affluent, well-respected, upwardly mobile young officers like this? These men have never worried about putting a roof over their heads or food on the table like most of the twenty-something crowd; their main concerns have been for bigger and better things. The greatest fear they have is going through their entire lives and never having done anything of significance or importance. They look to the past and see little of importance and little that they have made an impact on or accomplished. They look to the future in the submarine force and see the next narrow range of jobs—navigator, weapons officer, or engineer, executive officer, and, then, maybe 15 years later, command of one of only 35-40 submarines. They look to the future and see more deployments, training readiness evaluations, and Operational Reactor Safeguards Examinations. They have no passion or place little importance in those things now, and they will certainly have no interest or passion for them later. Junior officers are bored and unchallenged, because they are not instilled with a sense of purpose—and that major problem will not go away with an extra $ 10,000 a year. A sense of purpose is developed and comes from the top of an organization.
I realize that these problems are not unique to officers in my year groups—or even to officers, period. Self actualization is wanted by all, from admirals to seamen. Today’s junior officers, however, will not wait too long to be fulfilled, productive, and reach their potential. If they do not get to make real decisions, get real responsibility, and get paid to think, junior officers will leave at the first opportunity to the Fortune 500 or top graduate schools that welcome them with open arms.
Poor junior-officer retention and poor retention overall do not have to be facts of life. Spending millions of dollars on quality-of-life issues will not fix the problem. Retention, like quality, is free if top leadership fosters the right environment and cultivates its next generation.
Lieutenant Goetsch has left the Navy for the Harvard Business School and plans a career in investment banking.