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To become 'force of future,' Army must fix personnel churn

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 26, 2015) -- To become a "force of the future," the Army must slow down the movement of officers and other personnel into and out of important jobs.

Speaking June 24 at an Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare event near the Pentagon, Undersecretary of the Army Brad R. Carson, who also serves as the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, discussed challenges and concerns he has in developing a "force of the future," or "21st century defense department," as it specifically relates to personnel management.

Undersecretary of the Army Brad R. Carson, who also serves as the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, discusses challenges and concerns he has in developing a "force of the future," or "21st century defense department," as it specifically relates to personnel management at the Association of the United States Army Institute of Land Warfare event near the Pentagon June 24, 2015.

"It is my firm belief that the current personnel system, which has satisfactorily served us well for 75 years now, has become outdated," Carson said. "What once worked for us has now, in the 21st century, become unnecessarily inflexible, inefficient, and irreparable."

Carson said he's been given an Aug. 19 deadline to deliver to the defense secretary a plan of action to reform the personnel system - a plan, which has been coordinated with all the military services.

"I have promised him revolutionary change," Carson said, adding that he is working with 100 military, government and civilian academic personnel to develop his plan.

Carson outlined several personnel challenges faced the Army - but also by the other military services - which he posed in the form of questions. "Should [we] accept the churn through jobs that is characteristic of the current personnel system and the requirements that it sets" Carson asked.

Churn among high-ranking officers, refers to the length of time those officers stay in their positions before moving on to a new job.

Fortune 500 CEOs, Carson said, typically stay in their position for maybe seven years. The Army's chief of staff holds his position for four - or less. The chief human resources officer at a Fortune 500 company has tenure of 4 years, while the average tenure of the G-1 in the Army has been about two years for a quarter-century now.

For the CIO/G-6 and the G-8, he said, both have "on average half the tenure of their corporate analogues."

Churn is even greater at lower levels, he said. Nearly half of the Army, 50 percent, turns over every other year.

"In three years, a whole organization is a new one," he said.

That level of churn in positions, he said, means Army officers don't have the time to develop in their work as fully as they might. He said general officers are put in jobs for which they have no background, but are able to do well because they are natural leaders. But by the time they gain full expertise in a particular section of the Army, "they move you on to a new position or retire you altogether. It makes no sense," Carson said.

While Carson is not yet making recommendations on how to fix the problem with churn, or how to gain the benefits of eliminating it - he did say there is a way to achieve the benefits without returning to the military's pre-World War II era personnel system, which left some senior leaders in their positions until they died.

During that time, he said, some military officers remained captains, in some cases, for 20 years while they waited for somebody above them to move on.

"That's when we went to the current system in 1957," he said. "But there are ways to select out each year the people that aren't performing well ... that will avoid that cluttering at the top."

He also said that the brightest people - the kind the military wants to employ - end up partnering with other bright people. Smart officers marry smart spouses - doctors and lawyers, for instance, he said. And having that officer move every two years means that their spouses have to move as well and "can't have a career," he said.

"Moving every two years is a hardship on them," Carson said. "If we want to keep the people we want most to stay in, we have to let people stay in duty stations and jobs longer than we do today."

Carson said he was also concerned with the inefficiency of Army recruiting.

"Should we accept in the Army, the waste, the inefficiency in Army recruiting," he asked.

The Army brings in between 60,000 to 80,000 new Soldiers a year, Carson said, a challenge to Army recruiters.

"They must be what the Army operating concept calls ... resilient and fit, they must be Soldiers of character, they must be competent, committed, agile and adaptive, they must be capable of forming cohesive teams of trusted professionals, all the while representing the diversity of America ... a tall order," he said.

Making recruiting more complex, he said, recruiters must filter out those who don't meet weight requirements, don't meet education requirements, have a criminal background, or have drug problems.

"It's estimated that each year, less than 400,000 young people become eligible for military service," he said. "And across all the services, more than 250,000 of that 400,000 cohort, nearly 60 percent, are needed. That includes both active and Reserve components."

He said the Army spends "billions of dollars" to meet that recruiting challenge. But he said that each Army recruiter averages just 10 contracts a year - less than one a month. The numbers are similar for the Navy, and the Marine Corps. Air Force recruiters, he said, are averaging about 45 contracts a year. "Almost five times the output of recruiters in other services."

What concerns Carson, however, is the great cost of recruiting compared to the loss of so many Soldiers so early in their careers due to unexpected attrition.

"The Army makes 16 million contacts a year - the results of various forms of marketing, in the hopes of [for] this year, writing 68,000 contracts," he said. "That's not too great a batting average. But for me the real problem is still deeper. And that is the realizing that of those 68,000 contracts, it is estimated that 40 percent will not complete their first term of enlistment. And more than 20 percent will not make it to their first duty station. That's expensive, very expensive."

He said the military services have tinkered with the quality standards of the recruits they allow into service, to include reducing the number of conduct waivers and increasing the percentage of those recruits that must have high school diplomas. But the efforts have not changed the attrition rates for first-term Soldiers.

"Despite these changes, the needle on first term attrition has not substantially moved," he said.

ENRICHMENT LEADS TO EXODUS

Carson noted a surprising finding: the more the Army invests in an officer, the more likely it is that officer will be out of the military before 10 years of service.

The Army has multiple commissioning sources, such as Reserve Officer Training Corps, the military academies or Officer Candidate School. But he said for the Army, the most time and money is spent developing officers at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.

Additionally, the Army makes substantial investments in future officers by providing four-year ROTC scholarships, and to a lesser degree, to students on two-year and three-year ROTC scholarship students.

But retention rates for those officers, he said, are essentially the inverse of how much time and money the Army spends developing them. For 2004 West Point grads, he said only 38 percent now remain on active duty. Of four-year ROTC students in the same year, only 43 percent remain on active duty. For non-scholarship, or two-year ROTC scholarship officers, 55 percent remain on active duty.

"Those officers whom we make the most investment in, and in which we spend the most time, are the most likely to leave the Army," Carson said.

A FAMILY BUSINESS

Also of concern to Carson is the makeup of today's military. He said the Army has become something of a "family business."

About 83 percent of recruits, he said, have a Family member who has served in the military. About a third has a Family member who retired from the military. About 36 percent of recruits across all departments had a father who served in some branch of the military, he said, and six percent of recruits had a mother who served.

"This level of military service in no way reflects the broader society in which we live," he said. "And indeed, while the familial aspect of this is quite noble, it does suggest that the full diversity of America's brilliant mosaic is not being captured by the U.S. military."

In line with that concern, he said, the percentage of female officers in the Army today is about 22 percent. "Not nearly enough," he said. "Especially as women now predominate the higher education, and the need for knowledge workers in the Army and other services is only going to grow over time."

He said more disheartening is that among female officers, approximately 50 percent leave service after their initial commitment is complete.

"I don't believe we can be an effective Army, an effective military, unless we refuse to accept these things," Carson said. "That means we have to change the way we do business.

"We have to move to a world where the talents of each and every Soldier, the skills knowledge and behaviors required for every job are well known, are mapped, and where we have the ability to match the demand for talent with a supply - a supply we recruit, retain and develop ... this is the force of the future.

"The strength of the American military, and especially the Army, is not our expensive kit, but our priceless human capital. And I believe we must have a personnel system worthy of our mission. And on behalf of Secretary Carter, I am committed to achieving this."