Service Personnel Policies Help With Retention During Pandemic

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (April 29, 2020) -- While the private sector suffers from social distancing and the effects of illnesses and forced shutdowns related to COVID-19, the U.S. military must continue to do its job. And though it's too early to tell if challenges with employment among civilians have driven more people to military recruiting stations, one thing that has benefited is retention, the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness said.

Speaking yesterday as part of an online discussion with the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Washington, Matthew P. Donovan said that because of the increased social distancing and quarantine requirements, the military services have had to reduce the numbers they move through basic training. That reduction might leave a gap in total end strength, he said, because service members might still retire or separate in the same numbers as usual.

To address that issue, Donovan said, the military services have adjusted personnel policies to get existing service members to perhaps stay longer -- and many are doing so.

As the services put voluntary extensions on enlistments and voluntary extensions on retirement dates or dates of separation into effect, that is making up for some of that gap now, Donovan said. "Folks are deciding to stay longer because they look on the outside and they [say], 'You know, I've got a pretty good job now, so I want to stay,'" he added. "It's one of the things that we're tracking, but it seems to be evening out right now."

Over the long term, the military does face competition with the private sector for talent, Donovan said, and changes might need to happen in the future to address that competition.

One possibility, he said, is looking at existing "up or out" policies requiring service members to meet timed promotion milestones or risk being asked to leave the service. Some he noted, may be happy in a particular place and in their current rank.

Other considerations include providing the opportunity for personnel to "take a pause" in their career without suffering a penalty. For example, service members might be able to leave or pause their service to start a family and then come back at a later time and pick up where they left off.

"One of the things that we're working with the Congress is to apply more permeability, the ability to move between the different components at different times in your life," Donovan said. "It may be when you're younger and you want to start a family. And that applies to either males or females, depending on who has the career going at the time." And many senior service members have parents who may be aging and in need of care, he noted, and they may want to be able to take time off and return without any penalty.

Such policy changes wouldn't mean that during such a pause personnel would get promotions or advance in seniority, but "you ought to be able to come in at the same place you left," he said.

Donovan said the Defense Department is in close consultation with Congress on these types of personnel issues.