As military leaders evaluate ongoing recruiting problems in light of both cultural and demographic obstacles, the solution they turn to is retention. If the military can’t hire enough new service members, it needs to at least keep them happy enough to stay.
Service chiefs say their retention numbers look great. At the same time, they say they need to create an environment that makes service members want to continue to serve. That environment includes more services for families and spouses, better pay and more flexible career options.
“Thankfully, our retention rates are very high — at historical highs, actually. What I do worry about is keeping that shored up though, I don’t want that to slide,” said Agnes Schaefer, assistant secretary of the Army for manpower and reserve affairs. Shaefer spoke on a panel about the all-volunteer force at 50 at the Center for a New American Security on June 6.
Over the next decade, lower birthrates will create a smaller pool of applicants as most Americans continue to show reluctance to serve in the military. Combined with an attractive job market, DoD sees increasing competition for the skills of its service members.
Citing increases in pay for civilian industries, the military increased bonuses for jobs seen as highly competitive. This year, some Air Force pilots at the end of a service commitment can apply for a $50,000 retention bonus. The House’s version of the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act includes a pay raise of 5.2% and an additional raise of up to 35% for lower ranked enlisted pay grades.
The often-repeated saying among service leaders is recruit the soldier (sailor, airmen, etc.), retain the family. An executive order President Joe Biden signed June 9 addressed issues surrounding military families by creating economic incentives for hiring military spouses, reviewing access to childcare and ensuring barriers are removed for women serving in the military.
“I take all of these things, whether it be spouse employment, childcare, housing, very seriously, because this decision whether or not to stay is not necessarily exclusively a financial one,” said Alex Wagner, assistant Secretary of the Air Force for manpower and reserve affairs. “It is a lifestyle and there are values and opportunities of a military life that we don’t talk about enough.”
Surveys of military members indicate childcare remains one of the top concerns. Deployments and demanding schedules make it tougher to find childcare, especially when both parents work. The Defense Department made expanding childcare a priority, and is building new facilities and offering incentives to childcare workers. Even with incentives however, most DoD-affiliated childcare centers operate with a staff shortage. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said his service offers free or discounted tuition for children of staff at childcare centers, but more needs to be done.
“We’re doing more to get family-oriented people doing childcare in their home — getting people licensed and able to do that and making sure compensation is adequate. So childcare is getting a lot of attention,” Kendall said Thursday at a Center for a New American Security fireside chat.
Across the services, retention efforts include promoting diversity and making sure women and minority groups have support and opportunities for advancement. The Army recently created a Women’s Initiatives Team which will advocate for policy, programs and resource changes to help Army women succeed.
The Department of the Air Force has an LGBTQ+ Initiative Team (LIT) that hosted a gathering of airmen, Guardians and senior leaders June 8 for Pride Month.
“It’s a diverse force and getting more so over time. That means people are going to have to work with people they haven’t had a chance to be exposed to or understand,” Kendall said. “You’re going to need to understand those people and have some empathy for them, understand what they’ve been through in their lives and be able to make them as effective as they can be, and work with them.”
Wagner said keeping families happy in the military means that tolerance and empathy needs to extend to spouses and children as well. In some cases, LGBTQ children who are military dependents have had to move to different schools after they reported bullying.
“Part of our responsibility is not only taking care of the member, but taking care of their entire family. When I hear stories of racism in schools, when I’m forced to move families from installations because their school will do nothing when their LGBT kid is being bullied, that worries me, because that’s distracting from the mission and from our readiness,” Wagner said.
For individual military members, the services are coming up with new ways to provide career flexibility as incentives for retention. A new talent management proposal for the Space Force would allow for Guardians to move between part and full-time status without career repercussions. The Space Force is also running a pilot program to allow Guardians to track workouts with wearable devices as an alternative to physical fitness tests.
Along with the Air Force and Navy, the Army wants to allow service members to choose where they are stationed. Military members frequently mention choice of duty station when surveyed about the priorities.
“We are finding that station of choice is the top of these sorts of options that people choose, which I think is interesting. And Alaska of all places is the top station of choice,” Shaefer said.