Why people leave government

Sour-faced drill sergeant to shaggy Navy aviation recruits: “I know why most of you are here. We’re not stupid. Before you sell what we teach you over at United Airlines, you’ve got to give the Navy six years of your life, sweet-pea.” That, of course, is a young Lou Gossett Jr. , playing Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

The line popped into my head when reading our reporter Scott Maucione’s...

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Sour-faced drill sergeant to shaggy Navy aviation recruits: “I know why most of you are here. We’re not stupid. Before you sell what we teach you over at United Airlines, you’ve got to give the Navy six years of your life, sweet-pea.” That, of course, is a young Lou Gossett Jr. , playing Gunnery Sgt. Emil Foley in “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

The line popped into my head when reading our reporter Scott Maucione’s report , not on the Navy, but the Air Force’s strategy for dealing with a shortage of pilots. Its problem lies not in recruitment, but rather retention. The major carriers are enjoying a financial boom. They, too, have an ongoing need for pilots. So, where better to recruit than the military, where they get top-notch aviators,  with the training and experience already paid for?

As the 25-year-old movie script shows, there’s nothing new in this career path, military-to-commercial. The great Eddie Rickenbacker is remembered almost as much for his Eastern Airlines career as his World War I heroics.

Right now, the Air Force has a shortage of 600 pilots. Salaries typically come up when people try to explain departures for the private sector. A $25,000 retention bonus doesn’t look like much when compared to a six-figure salary serenely piloting a 737, where, golly, you get coffee served by a flight attendant.

Yet the Air Force’s Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein testified last fall that lack of flying time may be one reason pilots are mustering out. He said: “Pilots who don’t fly, maintainers who don’t maintain, controllers who don’t control, will walk.” Well yeah, but if you’re short 600 pilots, how come the rest aren’t flying overtime? It has to do with budgets, readiness, a mismatch of operations, equipment and people. Whatever, the situation has resulted in a declining rate of aviator retention, both for the Air Force and the Navy. No one ever strove to be a military flyer just to sit around and be bored.

More than anything, uncertainty and vagueness about the near future drives people to look elsewhere. Maybe not in wholesale numbers, but in enough numbers that an agency feels it.

This is why I wish the Trump administration’s review of government operations, as outlined in the March 13 executive order, had a shorter timetable. If — and it’s a big if — something substantial happens, a recommendation won’t happen for another year. Yet those who have a strong expectation that something will happen, will know it way before then. The result: A long period of stasis, if not tangible, then certainly psychic.

A zillion studies on why people leave include boredom or feeling unchallenged by the work. Better opportunities also make the lists, as does stability of the organization. So it should be no surprise to the Air Force or any other agency when departure rates rise.

I laud the Air Force leadership for trying to find a reasonable way through this particular crisis. They can’t give million-dollar bonuses. And they don’t have the money, apparently, to keep all their planes in flying condition at once and fuel them for sufficient training or other missions to engage their people. So they’re going to go to the competition, the airlines, and talk about part-time work or toggling between Air Force and airline flying.

A 737 lacks afterburners. Does an F-18 have a cupholder?

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