Naval aviation’s retention woes continue to wear on the Fleet. In Fiscal Year 2018, the Navy reported a shortfall of 1,242 aviators and experienced an aviator separation rate that was 31 percent higher than the 10-year average.1 The strike fighter community has been especially affected by low retention rates among midgrade officers and, as a result, the Navy has been forced to reduce the number of screened department head billets for each of its F/A-18E squadrons by 25 percent. This is especially problematic when coupled with other manning shortfalls. For example, more than 1 of every 4 first-tour strike fighter pilot billets is unfilled, according to a recent Government Accountability Office report.2 These have combined to put the readiness of operational squadrons at risk and fatigued a highly specialized yet limited workforce. To address retention issues, the Navy has recently implemented a number of new programs and policies—changes that are productive and necessary but will not fully resolve the retention crisis by themselves. A thorough consideration of some underexplored and generationally specific causal factors reveals issues that must also be addressed through the application of sound leadership principles within naval aviation.
One of the unique but not widely discussed aspects of the current generation of junior naval aviators is its ongoing connection with life outside the Navy. Where previous generations were relatively insulated from the lives of non-aviators after earning their wings of gold, today’s junior officers are acutely aware of the daily lives of their civilian peers thanks to social media.
The effects of this awareness are multifaceted. If the notion of a civilian life might have once seemed unenviable to naval aviators, today’s continual exposure to the “curated” slices of their civilian friends’ best experiences may lead to a different perception. “Social media envy” has been researched extensively, and studies have proven that regular exposure to social media commonly leads to negative self-comparison.3 The detrimental effects can apply to naval aviators just as easily as to civilians.
An outlet such as LinkedIn gives naval aviators continuous insights to a world of rewarding careers outside of the Navy, while at the same time, Facebook and Instagram can bring frequent reminders of the sacrifices associated with military service. Pictures and notes from civilian friends about time spent with their families - tee ball practice, birthday parties, and first days of school - remind aviators of moments they were not able to spend with their own loved ones while embarked on an aircraft carrier for a 6 to 10-month deployment.
In these ways, social media culture can both temper the sense of exceptionalism associated with naval aviation as a profession while also exacerbating the perceived intensity of the sacrifices demanded by naval aviators’ career choices. The days of aircrew believing that doing anything other than flying for the Navy is unimaginable are over. Those options are quite easily imaginable; today’s generation of naval aviators are fed images of them constantly and, due to the inherently self-aggrandizing nature of most social media posts, the views do not look bad.
This is particularly damaging for the Navy when coupled with more quantifiable factors affecting retention: uncompetitive pay compared to the private sector; a lack of flight hours; and the inability to continue flying for multiple consecutive tours.
Another aspect that is comparatively overlooked, however, is the natural progression in life priorities that many aviators undergo during their careers as they start families. The average ages of a first-time mother and father in the United States are 26 and 31, respectively—in the heart of most aviators’ initial aviation service contracts.4 This means domestic dynamics change dramatically for many aviators between the day they commission and their first opportunity to leave the service. Aviators who leave young children behind when they deploy lose the ability to be active participants in their children’s lives for months at a time and often miss major milestones: birthdays, first steps, and first words to list just a few. These cherished moments can never be replaced by anything the Navy can offer.
Additional stressors include the burdens placed on spouses, who must raise their children alone for extended periods. This is especially troublesome for dual career marriages. (Marriages in which both parents have full-time jobs have increased from 31 to 46 percent since 1970.5) These demographic trends mean the spouses of today’s naval aviators are more likely to be forced to forgo career ambitions compared to previous generations. All things considered, it is completely expected and absolutely healthy that for many aviators, the Navy becomes less of a priority in the grand scheme of their lives as they progress through their careers.
The result is a somber realization: Many of the drawbacks to a career in naval aviation cannot be overcome through policy change alone. While initiatives like the Professional Flight Instructor program offer a valuable way to retain experienced aviators in training roles and will effectively ease some of the growing burdens on junior officers during their shore tours, there will still be a vital need for aviators who can lead operational units during grueling deployments around the world. The Navy must continue efforts to reduce personnel tempo, but even a notional “short” 5-month cruise with an associated work-up cycle represents far more time away from home and family compared to alternative professional opportunities. Increases in aviation bonuses and flight pay are definitely helpful and necessary, but the Navy will still likely not be able to compete with the combined monetary and lifestyle benefits of many civilian careers for which its best officers are qualified.
Taking these considerations into account, the quality of leadership that naval aviators experience in their units can act as one of the pivotal counterbalances to the negative aspects of continued service. Management research has demonstrated that a poor manager or supervisor is the number one cause for a worker’s decision to voluntarily leave an organization, ranked even higher than the desire for an increased salary.6 It is worth posing the question, then: How can leaders actively promote the desire of junior personnel to continue to serve? Based on considerations of the factors that drive aviators’ decisions to leave the Navy, the application of a few simple leadership principles can positively influence retention trends.
Be empathetic. Service as a naval aviator demands many sacrifices, not only from the aviators themselves, but also from their families. The worst thing a leader can do is dismiss these sacrifices and pretend they do not matter. On a broader level, it is absolutely poisonous for a leader to chalk up retention woes to junior aviators simply having an attitude problem. This type of misguided attitude will only inflame festering resentments. In fact, corporate research indicates that 92 percent of employees would be more likely to stay with an organization that exhibited empathy, and 60 percent of employees would be willing to accept less pay to work for an empathetic employer.7 While the sacrifices of a career as a naval aviator will never be eliminated, their detrimental impact on an individual’s desire to remain in the Navy can be allayed through genuine acknowledgement and recognition. This should be coupled with concrete actions that place an appropriate emphasis on quality of life considerations during periods when operational demands allow, especially during shore tours or Fleet maintenance phases.
Enable a culture of excellence. Organizations operating in contested environments must capitalize on their competitive advantages to succeed. Naval aviation competes for people with the airline industry, defense contractors, top graduate education programs, and a world of high-paying private sector employment opportunities in locales that are broadly considered to be much more desirable than many of the Navy’s major tactical aviation bases. What those opportunities cannot offer, however, is the pride associated with serving in a culture of professional excellence that has been fostered over the course of 109 years of unparalleled achievement, during which naval aviators have won our nation’s battles, expanded the horizons of human exploration and scientific discovery, and served at the highest levels of national leadership.
In a recent conversation, one of my mentors—who recently transitioned from active-duty service as an F/A-18 pilot to a civilian role with a Fortune 100 company—lamented that new job’s relative lack of competitive spirit, camaraderie, and dedication to excellence. These characteristics are naval aviation’s true competitive advantages. It is therefore crucial that naval aviation sustains its culture of excellence by providing opportunities and resources that can actively enable aviators to achieve their full potential in terms of professional performance.
Focus on the mission. Recent surveys of junior employees indicate that they are 4.5 times more likely to be engaged in their work when they feel a connection to the company’s mission.8 Historical Navy retention studies have likewise established a positive link between one’s belief in a unit’s mission and increased retention.9 This is all good news for a mission-driven organization such as the Navy, and leaders should strive to regularly emphasize the connections between individual contributions and the broader strategic goals they help secure. As the United States shifts more of its resources to preparing to confront peer competitors, drawing these connections could become more difficult compared to the immediate past when naval aviation units may have been more commonly engaged in active combat operations against non-state actors. However, the scale of the challenges that the Navy faces with regard to emerging peer threats, and the crucial nature of the roles that junior officers can play over the course of their careers to confront those challenges, give rise to a compelling mission to emphasize: ensure that naval aviation is ready to vanquish even the most capable of opponents.
Continually embody leadership ideals at all levels. In the relatively confined space of a squadron ready room, actions and attitudes of leaders are magnified to an excruciating degree. Furthermore, a junior aviator in a carrier air wing often has better insight regarding their potential future career path than their counterparts in civilian organizations. Most civilian employees do not see or interact with their divisional or headquarters leadership in the same manner as a junior officer who could be executing a 1v1 BFM sortie with their CAG in the morning and submitting a readiness report with their skipper in the afternoon. The depth and frequency of this exposure makes the quality of leadership even more vital to retention than it would be in another professional setting. This continual exposure also informs what is perhaps the most fundamental question junior aviators can ask themselves when considering whether they want to remain in the Navy: Do I want to become my training officer, operations officer, skipper, or CAG? As a result, the sustained leadership skills and demonstrated values of all officers along a junior officer’s chain of command become of paramount importance not only to the immediate effectiveness of the unit, but also to the long-term retention of talent within naval aviation as a whole.
Naval aviation’s retention crisis is daunting and has only been exacerbated by contemporary cultural trends. To make matters worse, these problems are manifesting during a time in which the Navy’s ability to control the airborne and maritime battlespace is being challenged at a level not seen for decades. This competitive setting demands that the Navy not only man each of its squadrons with a sufficient quantity of aviators, but also retain its highest quality personnel. Through consistent embodiment and promotion of professional excellence, personal empathy, and mission focus, naval aviation leaders can meaningfully influence desires among junior aviators to continue to fly Navy.
1 US Department of Defense, “Report to Congressional Armed Services Committees on Initiatives for Mitigating Military Pilot Shortfalls,” 16 January 2019, pp. 15-16.
2 US Government Accountability Office, “DOD Needs to Reevaluate Fighter Pilot Workforce Requirements,” (Publication No. GAO-18-113), April 2018, p. 12.
3 Holly B. Shakya and Nicholas A. Christakis, “A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, The Worse You Feel,” Harvard Business Review, 10 April 2017.
4 Quoctrong Bui and Claire Miller, “The Age That Women Have Babies: How A Gap Divides America,” The New York Times, 4 August 2018.
5 Pew Research Center, “Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load,” November 2015, p. 2.
6 Jack Altman, “Don’t Be Surprised When Your Employees Quit,” Forbes, 22 February 2017.
7 Shep Hyken, “A $600 Billion Employee Engagement Problem Solved: Empathy,” Forbes, 25 February 2018.
8 Brandon Rigoni and Bailey Nelson, “Millennials Not Connecting With Their Company's Mission,” Gallup, 15 November 2016.
9 Guy M. Snodgrass, “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon: A Navy Officer Retention Study,” Naval War College Review: Vol. 67, no. 4, Article 7, pp. 4-7, 2014.