Much of the discussion around retaining aviators in the Navy begins and ends with the aviation bonus (see our own contribution, about giving the bonus earlier, here); however, the bonus is only one of a series of diverse policies that must target both junior and senior aviators. While today’s retention challenge is focused at the department head and post-command level, the Navy must be prepared to respond to changing economic factors, the unknown effects of the blended retirement system, and the evolving motivation of the officer corps. The five ideas that follow emphasize empowering leadership at the tactical level, modernizing the pay structure, and borrowing best human-capital management practices from outside the U.S. military.
Warfighting Must Come First
During discussion of retention efforts, junior officers often comment on administrative burdens that prevent a warfighting-first focus. The Navy is making headway in this vein, but more must be done.
First, institute an annual objective-based tactical requalification similar to the Naval Air Training and Operating Procedures Standardization (NATOPS) or instrument-flight-rule exams.1 The Optimized Fleet Response Plan (OFRP) and unit-level training cycles assess these qualifications, but tactical proficiency diminishes when focus is directed toward competing interests. This often creates a disconnect between what senior leaders say and what happens at the unit level. This disconnect tends to erode organizational trust with negative consequences for retention.2 Objective-based training can inspire healthy competition, just as the “greenie board” that tracks pilots’ carrier traps does. A competitive culture that promotes warfighting first will maintain perishable skills at each career milestone independent of the OFRP cycle. Formalizing annual tactical check-rides will resonate with aviators’ tactical spirit and provide a powerful forcing function to realign unit focus across the fleet.
Second, the Navy must increase the number of administrative officers in all fleet squadrons. At present, electronic warfare (VAQ) units do not have any assigned limited-duty administrative officers. This critical manpower billet provides units with valuable continuity and expertise that enable squadron aviators to focus on tactics. This will increase unit lethality and limit distraction from warfighting.
Keep ’Em Flying
Many other militaries give aviators the option to remain lieutenants and stay in the cockpit. U.S. Navy retention numbers suggest not every aviator wants to be a department head or commanding officer (CO). Whether it is because they want to stay in the cockpit or be junior officers for life, the Navy should give aviators the ability to choose an alternate path that aligns with their intrinsic motivations. By creating a permanent flight-lieutenant specialty—similar to the British military, among others—the Navy can increase the likelihood that more aviators will stay in the service and in the cockpit.
By permitting aviators to choose to retain the O-3 rank permanently, the Navy can earn a much greater return on its human capital investment and operate in a more fiscally responsible manner.
For discussion, assume that an aviator has a 20-year useful operational life. An aviator who leaves before a department head tour allows the Navy access to only 8 to 10 of those 20 years, a significant opportunity cost. Worse, the lost dozen years fall during the prime of the pilots’ tactical abilities. Considering the high costs of recruiting and training a single aviator, retaining even a few would be an economic and strategic win for the service.
Most aviators do not start their careers with an eye toward the airlines. Unfortunately, at some point before they reach their minimum service obligation, the balance often tips in favor of leaving active duty for more lucrative airline pay and a better work/life balance. An aggregate bonus of $1 million or more might turn some heads, but it is a long-term solution that is financially and morally insolvent. A measured, flexible bonus structure or pay system with performance milestones can close the pay gap and retain officers who want to be a part of the profession of arms. Increasing monetary bonuses is only one of many changes the Navy needs to make an enduring change.
Trust Small-Unit Leaders
The Navy’s meritorious advancement program (MAP) allows COs to promote junior enlisted personnel one grade in recognition of outstanding service. A meritorious advancement is an exciting and proud moment for the entire command and one of the most rewarding and exciting things a CO gets to do.
The Navy should do something similar with the aviation bonus and empower squadron COs to award one aviator bonus each fiscal year. It will give them a modern, tangible economic incentive that rewards and motivates lieutenants in ways that yet another Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal simply cannot. It simultaneously would send the message that the Navy values the bonus recipient’s hard work and entrusts leadership to shape our force. By taking this step to increase organizational trust the Navy will increase productivity and morale—and decrease turnover, making this change a retention force multiplier.3
The Navy’s pay structure needs rapid modernization to compete for talent and create a system that rewards performance. A Defense-wide two-tiered pay scale would simplify greatly incentive pay and give services the flexibility to attract and retain talent. The department head bonus, the command bonus, and on-track flight pay effectively have instituted such a system already. The military does not uniformly value the retention of all officers—each has different experiences, skills, and talent whose value varies. As such, the military must behave like a modern corporation and pay those who are most qualified first, thereby aligning the Navy’s balance sheet with its principles.
This system is easy to manage and sends an organizational message that will offer more than a “bravo zulu” and a solid fitness report for performance and skill. It also accords with current discussions about bringing those with high-demand skills or experience into the service at higher ranks (or pay-scales). The present organizational reality—that high performers and those who go the extra mile are paid the same as those who merely do the minimum—is corrosive. A tiered pay system would create added incentives to those who work hard to achieve selection milestones. Healthy competition can increase performance across the entire naval aviation enterprise.
A tiered pay scale also can positively influence organizational behavior. It will no longer simply be good enough to make the next rank and be a part of the 70–80 percent who will promote. Rather, those who desire additional rewards will strive earlier in their careers to stay on the “golden path.” This two-tiered pay scale is in harmony with the current milestone screening to get increased flight pay. As such, the Navy should evaluate eligibility for higher base pay during department head, command, and major command tours.
By creating an O-4 and O-4S, O-5/O-5S and O-6/O-6S to coincide with administrative screen boards, it would send a clear message to the fleet that the Navy prioritizes warfighting—something all can support. As the war for talent progresses, the Navy and the services must make dynamic policy changes to retain quality, not just quantity, and influence long-term organizational behavior.
Diversity of Effort is Key
For the Navy to meet aviation enterprise retention challenges, no single initiative will be sufficient. The Navy must enact a diverse set of policies that align with a myriad of personal motivations. Only by modernizing its thinking about pay and career paths, will the service retain the best talent and cultivate its profession at arms.