Why DoD thinks the Career Intermission Program can help solve its personnel problem

This is part 2 of Federal News Radio’s special report: Taking a break to retain talent in the military, in which Federal News Radio looks at why DoD thinks the CIPP program can help. Read part 1 here.

As the Pentagon puts more pressure on its all-volunteer force, it’s finding a disconnect between the people it wants and the people it has in its ranks.

The next generation warfighter must have a set of skills that prioritize intelligence over brute strength and combat experience as well as cybersecurity and other 21st century technologies.

“Our leaders then are going to have to be self-starters. They are going to have to have maximum amounts of initiative. They are going to have to have critical thinking skills well beyond what we normally think of today in our operations. They are going to have to have huge amounts of character so that they make the right moral and ethical choices with the absence of supervision under the intense pressure of combat. They are going to have to have a level of mental and organizational agility that is not necessarily current in any army really,” Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in October 2016.

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The military is finding that to attract those people it needs to offer more than just money as an incentive.

Lawmakers and military officials see the Career Intermission Pilot Program (CIPP) as a way add some degree of flexibility to the rigid “up or out” promotion system set by the 1980 Defense Officer Personnel Management Act (DOPMA). At the same time, CIPP can provide some of the flexibility today’s families need to stay in the military and live their own lives.

“If the military is going to recruit and retain a volunteer force with the necessary skills, it needs to do two things. It needs to recruit, assign and promote in a way that develops and retains value across a wide range of skills including the highly technical skills, and it needs to better accommodate the evolution of American society and the American family. And it needs to do those things without sacrificing the aspects of the system that are working well,” former Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.)  told Congress last May.

The 2017 Blue Star Military Family Lifestyle Survey listed time away from family as service members’ number one concern.

CIPP is one way DoD can address that top issues causing service members anxiety. CIPP can provide time with family while also improving  troops for a small price compared to a majority of DoD personnel costs. GAO estimates between 2009 and 2016 DoD spent $4.8 million on CIPP. About $2.8 million of that was for medical expenses, $1.1 million for permanent change of stations and $800,000 in salary.

The military service personnel chiefs are taking notice as well of the need for more flexibility. While they aren’t ready to shed the framework of DOPMA, they do want more flexibility in the system.

“We’re challenged to sustain some low-density, highly-technical specialties or specific skill populations within the larger branches,” Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, the Army deputy chief of staff for personnel, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Jan. 24. “The Army’s about people, and a review and adjustment to DOPMA would enable more efficient and effective management of human capital to help ensure inevitable cycles of reduction and expansion work more smoothly for the services. Our analysis tells us that while DOPMA is a solid framework, it would benefit from a review and adjustments to offer opportunities for managing key and critical skills with the officer grades to deal with today’s rapidly changing world.”

Some lawmakers agreed with the personnel officials.

“DOPMA’s authors never envisioned the force as currently constructed,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “We must ask ourselves, can a personnel system designed for an industrial-age military be successful in an information age? The system is unable to quickly provide the officers required to respond to unforeseen threats that demand unexpected skill sets. It is unable to effectively respond to rapid changes to the defense budget, resulting in inefficient and systemic shortages or surpluses of officer manpower. And DOPMA functions as a one-size-fits-all solution, which does not allow the services much ability to differentiate amongst themselves and amongst various career fields.”

Apart from retaining the talented individuals already in the military, DoD is facing a smaller pool of people from which to draw.

The Pentagon estimates only about 25 percent of 17- to 24-year-olds are eligible for military service.

And traditionally, DoD focused on younger, male recruits. the Defense Department noted as part of a draft legislative proposal to make CIPP permanent.

“The percentage of U.S. males qualified, and having a propensity, for military service, is declining. To offset this trend, Navy is actively recruiting and focusing on retaining a higher percentage of women. A 2013 Center for Naval Analysis study of female and minority retention in the Navy states that, “women tend to value non-monetary incentives more than monetary incentives,’” the legislative proposal’s authors wrote. “As Navy continues to expand opportunities for women, the lack of non-monetary retention incentives that appeal to the growing female population will hinder Navy’s efforts to capitalize on the skills, training and experience they have gained. Male Sailors are also interested in CIPP opportunities for a variety of reasons. Reasons for requesting CIPP vary, from pursuing higher education to starting or raising a family, to caring for exceptional family members or elderly parents, and to volunteering in humanitarian efforts for underprivileged communities.”

There is no doubt CIPP is having a significant impact on those who use it, which gives credence to DoD’s interest in making it a permanent program.

Navy Lt. Eric Bray chose to join CIPP for family reasons. He worked as a surface warfare officer before applying for the program.

Bray’s daughter was in need of a brain resection, where surgeons remove part of her brain.

“I can tell you hands down the CIPP program saved my career. I had already had the discussions that I was walking away. … I had already made it very clear that I was walking away to take care of my child [before CIPP],” Bray told Federal News Radio.

Bray kept his medical benefits in the military to take care of his daughter.

“We tried every med that we possibly could, every treatment other than obviously this invasive surgical procedure. As a last ditch effort her mom and I held on as long as we could,” Bray said. “Native medicine is a beautiful thing and having the ability to hold on to that and still be able to take care of my child is worth its weight in gold.”

Bray now is back on active duty as a communications officer in San Diego, California. His daughter has special needs, but he and his wife are able to give her the care she needs.

“My daughter’s doing exceptionally well all things considered,” he said.

While caring for his daughter, Bray finished his third Master’s degree and started a small business as a franchisee with UPS. Bray has been in the Navy nearly 20 years and says he’d like to retire after 30 years.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Suzanne Hopkins also was attracted to CIPP for family reasons.

She served as a surface warfare officer for 11 years and as a human resources officer after that. When her Marine husband was transferred to North Carolina just as they were having her first child things got stressful.

Hopkins was able to take three years off to care for their child and have another until her husband finished his 20 years in the Marine Corps and was able to retire.

Hopkins is now the manning officer for the Littoral Combat Ship Squadron 1.

“Once the approval came through everything was fine and we didn’t have to worry about being a separate family and then in the time we were in North Carolina we had another child, which is another reason I took the program because I knew we were going to expand our family,” she said.

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