Attrition: Sailors Mown Down By Paper Bullets

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April 30, 2011: For most of the last decade, the U.S. Navy has been downsizing. Big time. That means the navy was forcing out veteran sailors and officers. According to the feedback the navy has been getting, the system was not always getting rid of the worst performers, or retaining the keepers. So the navy is adding more screening (to make sure the right people get to stay) and more warning (so excellent sailors in overmanned job areas can decide whether they want to retrain for a more-in-demand job, or just leave). The navy has also been raising its standards for new sailors and officers. In short, it's been more difficult to get into the navy, and to stay in. But in the last few years, the emphasis has been on more accurately evaluating those who should stay long term.

The core program in this effort is "Perform To Serve" (PTS), that was instituted eight years ago. PTS was originally an effort to get rid of people the navy didn't need (not possessing skills still in demand) or want (disciplinary or physical fitness problems). Initially only first term sailors, seeking to reenlist, had to endure PTS, and basically had to reapply for their jobs. After a few years, junior NCOs also had to do so, including those with 10-14 years of service. While about 90 percent of those NCOs who applied, kept their jobs. But among the other ten percent there were often people often worth keeping. The screening system was found to be flawed, and the navy lost another good sailor who was not allowed to reenlist.

The basic cause of the downsizing and PTS is that changing technology has caused shortages in some jobs, surpluses in others and the elimination of many because of automation. The PTS program allows sailors in overmanned jobs to take aptitude tests to see if they qualify for training in another job. Some sailors can't make the cut, and have to leave. Others may score low on the aptitude test, but have excellent leadership skills. Since NCOs don't do a lot of the actual work, the leadership talents are much more important. Until recently, the navy was not checking for this.

For the last three years, the navy has also been conducting a review of all its senior NCOs (Chief Petty Officers with 20 or more years of service). So far, about 97 percent have been judged fit to continue serving, leaving about 150 a year being forced to retire. But the army, with twice as many senior NCOs, only forces 30-40 a year to retire, using a similar program. The navy believes that the main reason for this is the fact that, because so many army NCOs have been in combat in the last decade, and under a lot of stress, the ones who were not up to the job had already left, and some questionable sergeants still in service were cut some slack.

The navy is different from the army in other ways. While officers command the navy, and the ships, it's the "Chiefs" who run the navy where the work is actually done. Those chiefs with over twenty years service (and thus eligible for retirement at half pay) are considered the most essential. But it was always known that some of these senior chiefs were just coasting, and not living up to their responsibilities. Thus review boards were established to measure the performance, over the past five years, of all the most senior chiefs. Anyone with disciplinary problems, or low performance evaluations, would be in danger of not being "continued" (allowed to reenlist). But now chiefs who don't make the cut are forced into retirement immediately. Retirement can cost some chiefs a lot of money, because those with less than 30 years service, will lose out on the 75 percent pay you get when you retire at 30 or more years. You get half pay if you leave after 20 years. The navy did not set any quotas for how many chiefs to boot, they just wanted the low performers gone.

Aside from wanting to improve the quality of the senior NCO force, the additional retirements make it possible for more qualified chiefs to get promoted, and for junior NCOs to become chiefs. Because of the recession, more senior chiefs are putting off retirement, and promotions to chief have slowed. The new review of the chiefs also motivates many marginal chiefs to operate more effectively.

 


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