The retention of highly trained Marines is a major problem that the Corps is fighting and losing as personnel leave the ranks for a multitude of reasons, including lack of satisfaction with their service, mistaken expectations, cumulative fatigue, and medical problems.
The Marine Corps has arguably the best recruiters and marketing of all the military services. Its call to duty and service above self attracts many motivated and patriotic young Americans. As Marines serve out their initial enlistments, however, many realize that their initial perceptions of duty and service often are starkly different than the realities they experience. Marines can be caught in the chasm between the ideals of patriotism and service, the brutal realities of combat and death, and budget constraints that limit the ability to train and operate.
The 2015 end-of-active-service enlisted retention survey of over 4,200 Marines indicated that 38 percent were unlikely to sign on for another term, an increase of 7 percent since 2013. Respondents listed civilian job opportunities, a lack of job satisfaction, and inadequate pay as some of the top reasons influencing their decision to leave the Corps. Any organization that loses more than a third of its employees each year has a major disturbance in the ranks. The flight of talent creates significant leadership challenges for senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) and junior officers.
Force preservation is a misconstrued concept in the Marine Corps with much room for improvement. The Marine Corps confuses force preservation with short-term solutions such as online training, classes on safe practices, and other non-essential training instead of long-term solutions focused on preserving skills and talent after Marines complete their initial enlistments. According to the fiscal year (FY) 2016 Enlisted Retention Survey Results, the likelihood for re-enlistment decreased from 55 percent to 45 percent between FY 2014 and 2016. As the ground safety officer in my squadron, I meet with every Marine leaving active service. These Marines are bright, talented men and women with high qualifications such as quality assurance representatives (who are responsible for certifying an aircraft safe to fly post-maintenance). They are leaving the service for other opportunities with top companies such as Boeing and Bell Helicopter. As an aviator who must trust the Marines who repair my aircraft, I am concerned with this loss of talent.The flight of talent was a factor in the 2017 increase in aviation near mishaps and mishaps caused by failure to lubricate parts on inspections, replace panels, and more.
According to Compensation Force, the average turn-over rate for all civilian industries in 2016 was 17.8 percent. The turn-over rate in the Marine Corps is more than twice as high and would bankrupt most civilian companies. The cost to train Marine helicopter pilots to the point of receiving their wings is approximately $1.4 million dollars, and most will leave the service after they reach the end of their service obligations. The economics of this practice would not be sustainable in the civilian sector.
What options does the Marine Corps have to fix its retention deficit. The military—particularly the Air Force—has tried to solve retention problems by throwing bonuses at people in high-demand career fields such as aviators, special forces, and nuclear technicians. This approach largely has proven unsuccessful, especially with pilots who continue to leave military service even though they receive flight pay and aviation career incentive pay. Lump-sum bonuses also have produced lackluster retention results for officers and enlisted personnel with the exception of the option to take them tax-free when deployed in a combat zone. Bonuses can be a viable retention tool, but only when combined with other tools. They are rarely enough to entice people to stay in jobs they do not enjoy or in careers they know will entail long-term work-life imbalances.
The military must cut waste, eliminate unnecessary paperwork and training that do not improve lethality, and provide additional funding for training (such as flight hours) to hone the warfighters’ combat edge. Marine leaders currently are focused on the wrong things. They need to cut back on Marine Net courses, transgender awareness training, mandatory safety stand downs, sexual assault prevention training, and other unnecessary activities that detract from operations. The Marine Corps must focus more on recruiting individuals who have the moral character to do the right thing—rather than accepting people who have broken moral compasses who require constant supervision and morality training. Recruit training should screen young Marines for character; if recruits do not have it, they should not be allowed to graduate from boot camp or receive a commission.
After making someone a Marine, the Corps must focus on retaining the best individuals and promoting talent. Let Marines be Marines. Don’t discharge them for having too many tattoos. Let them train under tougher conditions and accept higher risks to reflect operations. Marines must be warriors—professional yes, but ready for battle when things go south. Let Marines be investments that continue to grow, not depreciating assets that decrease in value as they come to the end of their contracts. Teach Marines their value and help them protect and add to it.
More than anything else, real Marines want to practice their warfighting skills. As pilots, for example, my colleagues and I want to fly. Pilots should average 15 or more hours of flight time per month, but most Marine pilots currently log 10 hours or less. This has a significant impact on our combat readiness and effectiveness. Other combat arms are impacted similarly by cutbacks in training money.
The retention deficit is a major problem for the future security of the country and for filling the ranks of the Marine Corps. It is a result of low job satisfaction created by false perceptions of service, cumulative operational fatigue, and too much time spent on tasks not related to combat skills. The flight of talent directly impacts operational readiness, safety, and combat effectiveness. Marine Corps leadership will be tempted to try to solve the deficit by offering financial bonuses to Marines who agree to re-enlist or stay beyond their initial commitments. More money may help, but any solution must include a culture that focuses on combat effectiveness, the time and money for realistic training, and a focus on individual Marines as valued investments and not a replaceable commodity.
Captain Boley is a Marine helicopter pilot who flies the AH-1W SuperCobra at Marine Corps Air Station New River, North Carolina.
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