During my career, I've spent many hours on junior officer retention. Like most senior officers, I've spoken with scores of junior officers in an attempt to better understand the issue and to come up with solutions. The bottom line, however, is that life in the Navy is different from life in corporate America. There are a great many challenges that you won't find in the civilian world, but for those who decide to pursue a naval career, the pluses of our profession outweigh the minuses.
At some point, we all have had to decide whether to continue to serve. Back in my lieutenant days, the economy was strong, companies were hiring, and a large number of my contemporaries were resigning their commissions. I was newly married and faced future separations from my bride. After watching many friends leave the service, I, too, decided it was time to do something else. My resignation papers were submitted, and my wife and I began thinking about the opportunities in the corporate world. I had a job offer or two, and had filled out applications to a couple MBA programs. I had a plan and was looking forward to the future.
Then, one evening, my wife, gave me what I like to call "the Talk."
It centered on what I enjoyed doing and what we wanted out of life—not what our friends enjoyed and wanted. Her point was simple. I enjoyed what I was doing. I liked the challenge, the responsibility, and the camaraderie of Navy life. I was part of a winning team and was making a difference. She also enjoyed the life. Probably not as much as I did, as she knew very well of the upcoming deployments and frequent moves, but nevertheless she was happy. Why should we give up something we enjoyed for something we might not?
We sat down at our kitchen table and talked about the pluses and the minuses. As I look back, I still can see us with a yellow legal pad, making our list (everyone's is different). On the plus side we saw:
- Excitement, fun, camaraderie
- Job satisfaction, making a difference
- Responsibility, leadership
- Great people
- Pay and security
- A chance for two careers
- Quality of Life
Some of these items were minuses as well. For example, we both enjoyed change (moving every couple of years), but the upheaval could be hard. As we had children and they grew older, the degree of difficulty grew. Just when the family had settled into a neighborhood and gotten to know everyone, it was time to move. The excitement of the job was a major plus for me but probably not such a big factor for my wife. As I was out on deployment doing interesting things, she was home doing the hardest job—raising our family (and, as the kids got older, working part time). Hers was an exciting job in its own right, and tougher than mine, but I suspect she'd have been willing to trade places on occasion! The chance to have a second career after the Navy was important to us, too. We saw this as a future opportunity to trade one great career for another. As we discussed each item, we applied our own weighting system. At the top of our list was job satisfaction and fun. We always maintained that job satisfaction was critical, but when we stopped having fun, it would be time to move on. My other two priorities were challenging assignments and the opportunity to work with great people. They might not make you rich, but for me, these two factors are critical for a rewarding and enjoyable career.
Once we had the pluses, it was time to identify the minuses. Again, we made our list and discussed each item's relative importance. Our list looked something like this:
- Family separation
- Quality of life
Family separation is a way of life in our business. Very few civilian professions require you to leave your loved ones for months on end, but there are many for which travel—sometimes several times a month-is a big part of the equation.
Pay and compensation was another big topic of discussion. What it centered on, however, was not how much I made in the military (certainly better as I moved up the ranks), but how much I might make in the civilian sector. I especially enjoyed those who remarked, "If I worked half as hard on the outside as I do in the Navy, I'd be a millionaire!" Talk to your friends who are in the private sector. What you'll find is that success in any field takes hard work. I think you also will discover when you compare benefits that the Navy's overall compensation package is very good.
Moving to a new neighborhood is exciting. Moving away from your old neighborhood is nothing but hard. Two issues that always come up are, first (if you have children), how good the schools are in the new area and, second, how the move will affect a spouse's career. Today, more so than when I was a lieutenant, many Navy families have two careers to consider. These concerns probably become more important as junior officers get older, and might result in "geographic bachelor" tours—another challenge.
Quality of life fell out on both sides of the equation. It was a plus because we both believed our quality of life was—and has been—excellent. But a career in the Navy is demanding. When you're on deployment or working to get the squadron or the ship ready for the next one, it's hard to make every soccer game, recital, and PTA meeting. You can make some, perhaps even quite a few, but chances are you won't be that parent who can show up for everything.
The world is a different place from when I was a young lieutenant, but the challenges are similar. Some of the issues that directly affect junior officer retention today are:
- Working conditions
- Family stability
At least one, if not two or all three, of these issues was on the list of every separating junior officer I've interviewed. Some are easier to solve than others.
Working conditions are getting lots of attention today. I cannot even begin to recall the number of times my wife visited the hangar or my office and commented on its poor condition—damaged furniture, old buildings, leaky ceilings. The good news is we're taking steps to address working conditions. Some examples of the results: new housing in the Norfolk area; a refurbished bachelor's officers quarters and new enlisted housing at NAS Brunswick; a new hangar in Jacksonville. On most bases, some very old buildings remain that need to be refurbished or replaced, but there is also new construction. We are headed in the right direction.
Compensation remains a challenge, but we're working to address this issue. The bonus structure has improved significantly, and there is continuous pressure to fix the basic pay inequity between the military and the civilian sector. Some will say military service cannot be about the money, and that's true, but the bonus structure and pay increases go a long way toward addressing a family's concerns for a child's education or the purchase of a home. Again, we are headed in the right direction.
Family stability is one of the biggest challenges we face and the most difficult one to solve. As I like to tell our sailors, when it is time to leave the Navy and start another career, the one constant you will have will be your family. When you make career decisions, you have to do what is best for you and your family.
So, what do we, as senior naval officers, tell our junior officers?
First, we tell them about our careers and ask them about their plans for a Navy career. Then, we tell them to make their lists. Next we discuss it with them (and their spouses). We draw on our experiences when we were in their shoes and give them our honest appraisals of each item. We tell them what meant the most to us, and why those pluses and minuses, when added up, led us to a Navy career. We also tell them that this should be a career-long endeavor. At each step, they need to review their lists, to evaluate their own situations.
This approach will continue to develop the mentoring and caring for our junior officers that is so important to our institution and our way of life. As someone once said, "You address officer retention one junior officer at a time." The amazing thing is once you get the first few to stay, many often follow.
Admiral Brooks, a 1974 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, was designated a naval aviator in 1975. He has commanded Patrol Squadron 19, Patrol Wing 5, and assumed his current duties as Commander, Patrol and Reconnaissance Force Atlantic in September 2000.