A Question of Retention

By Ensign Christopher Hein, U.S. Navy

In the last eight months alone, I have gained three stellar surface warfare mentors (two company officers and one battalion officer), all of whom have a wealth of knowledge that they are more than willing to share. The most exciting part of all this? All three of them are continuing in the surface warfare community after their time in Annapolis. This is encouraging for two reasons, the first of which is that these three officers, whom I certainly believe to be of sound mind and judgment, have decided that the surface community is a good option. The second reason is that they will have the opportunity to continue to serve in a mentorship role to all of those subordinate to them, thereby touching even more hearts and minds.

So with all of this seemingly positive change, why is it that there is still the perceived problem of JO retention? Is it because the recent changes have not had time to take effect? This is an important consideration, because the improvements of the last few years have not necessarily been seen by those who can exercise their option to retire. Maybe the retention problem has been blown out of the water, and all of this talk is simply fueled by the new publishing mediums for discussion and criticism on the issue. Ultimately, I think my class has commissioned in a year that is very positively transformational for the SWO community, as well as its perception. Nonetheless, there will always be criticisms of every community.

The SWO community used to get a bad name. There are a number of reasons that I believe this to be the case. First of all, it has a short commitment and no additional prerequisites to be commissioned beyond basic graduation requirements. This led to the second problem, that those who were deemed ineligible for other communities were often placed into surface warfare. All of that can lead to a community that often attracts those who want to put forth minimal effort or receives those who were rejected from their primary choice and are therefore disenfranchised or disinterested in their newfound home. While these characterizations do not directly answer why SWO junior officers are getting out of the Navy, it does show from where some of the initial resentment toward the community might have begun.

Different Communities, Different Entryways

The lack of additional requirements to commission as a SWO stands in contrast to the other communities. Aviation requires a separate order of merit, passing the Aviation Selection Test Battery, and being medically qualified (with stricter requirements than surface warfare). Submarines include two to three technical interviews (half-hour oral examinations with an engineer from Navy Reactors about any STEM topic), and a final interview with the four-star Director of Navy Nuclear Propulsion. The Marine Corps requires a good recommendation from the summer-program Leatherneck as well as the requisite physical-fitness testing, E-Course, O-Course, and combat-fitness test scores. Surface warfare requirements such as the completion of a summer cruise and basic courses in seamanship and navigation are already built-in requirements for Academy graduation. Ultimately, there must exist a community that can absorb all those who may not get their primary choice of service selection. For the time being, this role belongs to surface warfare.

This, however, does not completely explain why so many junior officers are deciding to get out. To answer this question, one must understand what motivates people. This leads us to the first group, those who have a transactional relationship with the Navy. While it would be nice if everyone served according to lofty ideals of duty and service to country, many people simply do not. The Navy offers plenty of benefits (a guaranteed job on graduation, a good paycheck, job satisfaction, healthcare, job experience and leadership at a very young age, etc.). For some people, it is simply a matter of weighing their opportunities in the Navy against those out of the Navy. Once the personal and professional opportunities become attractive enough, those people will pursue them. This is not a denunciation of those who go that route. It is simply a statement that they do the time that they agreed to do and then decide they want to pursue something else.

It is difficult to compel this group to stay in past their commitment. This is largely a function of two things: the primary goal of the new generation and the Navy’s inability to fulfill that goal. The primary focus of the average millennial is to “get rich.” In a poll performed by the Pew Research Center, 81 percent of 20-year-olds stated that their primary goal in life was to become wealthy. This was followed by the next answer of “being famous,” which garnered 51 percent. Furthermore, the number-one concern of this age group was finance. While the Navy is capable of providing a stable income and great benefits, it does not offer the possibility of extreme wealth and fame while within its ranks. Speaking as a millennial, I can avow that the Navy is a terrific vehicle for being gainfully employed straight out of college. It is also a fantastic place to gain useful experience for a future career. That being said, it does not capture the imagination of the highly aspirational JOs who see themselves wildly successful as a hedge-fund manager or the CEO of a major corporation making millions of dollars.

So what is the answer? Simply to offer junior officers more money? This is neither feasible nor terribly effective. Retention bonuses such as the SWOCP and the Critical Skills Retention bonus have proven to be largely ineffective. More to the point, a bonus does not address the most frequently cited reason: family-related factors.

These deal with two main problems. The first is lengthy deployments. Having grown up in a Navy family, I know that long deployments are a major source of stress for loved ones at home and must also be for the person deployed. It is hard to say goodbye for such a long period of time. While I was lucky and had a wonderful mother who was able to put up with my brother and me for the 28 years of my father’s active service, not everyone is able to do that. While they are a major source of stress, deployments will most likely not be going away anytime soon. A forward-deployed surface Navy with a global presence must in fact remain so to maintain that presence. While deployments cannot be cut out completely, the Chief of Naval Operations’ fight to have deployment times reduced from “unsustainable lengths” to something more reasonable is a step in the right direction. The second factor is that the needs of the Navy must always come first. Whether it be moving every two years, or being called away on some sort of emergency, the needs of the Navy come first. This is what we sign up for when we take the oath, but the realities can be very taxing, especially when it affects your family.

‘Positive Interactions . . . Are Vital’

Entering the SWO community, there are a few things that are points of interest to me. First of all, I continuously hear that “SWOs eat their young.” I do not know if this is simply a phrase that is uttered over and over because it has always been that way, or if it is something that each generation has found to be true and therefore continued the practice. Either way, it implies a community where the culture is not favorable toward the “young.” Second, a Navy retention study reveals that when asked for comment on the issue of retention, 49 percent of participants cited SWO leadership and culture as a major area for improvement. Specific reasons included “too much worrying about own career at DH level” and “the God complex of COs.” While these complaints are certainly not always founded, as someone who has not been on board a ship yet, they are the things that I hear about the community.

Before I even get out to my first command, a negative portrayal of the community is oftentimes presented whether it is through casual conversation, personal anecdotes of those coming from the fleet, or the number of negative articles about the surface fleet in various publications. Time and time again, I am faced with articles about all the commanding officers who have been relieved, the criticisms of the bureaucratic excess in the fleet, or the newest sexual-assault scandal. While it all comes with a grain of salt and I know that there are good things happening too, they rarely make front-page news. Ultimately, at times the SWO community comes across as a very hostile environment.

Finally, one of the most difficult-to-control aspects of retention must be discussed: the people and the culture. The surface Navy is a people business. I will be interacting with people every day as a division officer, both up and down my chain of command. With two division-officer tours required for SWOs, I will be exposed to only a small amount of command climates. It is not unreasonable to say that there is a chance that one, if not both, of these commands will be subpar or unwelcoming. Should this be the case five years from now, when SWOs can first exercise their right to exit the service, there is the potential that a large amount of my interaction with people in the surface fleet will have been negative. With this personal experience in mind and a world of opportunity outside the Navy, what possible reason is there that could make me stay? Positive interactions with members of the surface community are vital to retaining junior officers.

So is there anything being done to change all of these things? Is the Navy even aware of the problem? Thankfully, yes. If the sheer amount of published writings on the issue is any indication, it is something about which the Navy is very aware. Of all the problems stated, there is at least an attempt to solve many of them. Bonuses are being offered for the fiscally minded. Deployment times are being scaled back, and the year-long sabbatical is being offered for those who are concerned about family-related problems. For newly minted ensigns like me, eager to get to our ships and desperate for any sort of information about the surface fleet, there are many SWO mentors who are willing and able to answer my questions and dispel or explain some of the nastier aspects of the surface fleet. The sad fact, though, is that for all of these efforts, many junior officers will continue to get out of the Navy.

Some allowance has to be made for those people who have a transactional relationship with the Navy and who planned from the outset to put in the minimum time of service. For all of the others, it is a matter of making it worth it to them. Some things are irreconcilable. Ships will deploy and somebody has to be on them when they do, families will be moved around the globe, even at the cost of great personal stress, and there will continue to be leaders who are less than admirable. For the Navy’s part, it continues to come up with incentives and policies to combat these things. For us about-to-be JOs, we can only offer feedback whenever we can and remain optimistic. One bad CO does not reflect the whole surface fleet, just as a bad experience with a fellow JO does not characterize the entire wardroom. At the end of the day, even with some of the negative things that I hear, I am excited to be commissioned and serve on my ship. I do not know what decision I will make when my commitment is complete, but I do know that in the meantime I will be going to my first ship with a healthy amount of optimism and an open mind for my future in the surface Navy.

Ensign Hein is a 2015 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.


Conferences and Events

WEST 2019

Wed, 2019-02-13 - Fri, 2019-02-15

Sharpening the Competitive Edge: Are We Ready to Compete, Deter, and Win Globally? Wednesday, 13 February - Friday, 15 February...

2019 U.S. Naval Institute Member Event

View All

From the Press

18 January - Presentation

Fri, 2019-01-18

Jim Howe

18 January - Presentation

Fri, 2019-01-18

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

As an independent forum for over 140 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