Morale: All At Sea

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September 25, 2011: The U.S. Navy recently notified 60,000 sailors (about 16 percent of navy strength) that they will be spending more time on sea duty (assigned to a ship). When the ship is in port, the married sailors, and many of the unmarried ones, live in homes or barracks ashore. But when on sea duty, they can expect to spend at least 20 percent of their time living on the ship while it is at sea. While many sailors prefer sea duty, others avoid it. Married sailors are usually under some pressure to stay ashore most of the time.

This change comes after years of complaints about sailors who never seemed to get assigned to a ship (and thus risk spending up to six months, or more, at sea during a single voyage.) Meanwhile, other sailors seemed to spend most of their time assigned to a ship. So the navy finally combed through their personnel records to find who had been a landlubber too often, and changed their personnel software to avoid sailors spending too much time away from sea duty.

The navy was able to implement this unpopular (to those getting more sea duty) policy because the U.S. Navy has been downsizing (reducing the number of sailors on active duty) for the last eight years. At the same time, a growing percentage of sailors want to stay in the navy. Currently, the biggest reason to stay in uniform is the desire to stay employed. The global recession has pushed unemployment rates in the U.S. to over nine percent, double what they were four years ago. That said, new sailors have always wanted to stay in the navy. Currently, 72 percent of sailors finishing their first enlistment want to stay in, but it was 61 percent eight years ago.

This higher retention (people deciding to stay in uniform) rate has provided the navy with a rare opportunity to significantly increase the quality of their personnel. This is being done in two ways. First, there are higher standards for those being recruited. Even with more people wanting to stay in, the military has to replace about 13 percent of its strength each year (due to retirements and first-termers who leave). Secondly, people who want to stay are being screened, in order to decide who can stay. This is done by finding out who isn't meeting the higher standards.

In some cases, the higher standards mean little more than agreeing to train for a new job. The last decade has seen a major shift in job skills needed. There is a bigger demand for people with computer and electronics skills. The navy is going through a technological reformation, which is, for example, reducing the need for clerical workers (more automation) and aircraft maintainers (fewer aircraft, and the new ones need fewer hours of maintenance), and increasing demand for computer, intelligence and electronics experts.

But perhaps most importantly, this is an opportunity to increase the quality of the leadership. Many NCOs (Petty Officers) and officers who just get by, are finding out that this is no longer good enough. Retiring, or not renewing contracts on these sailors makes it possible for more capable leaders to get promoted. Many of these hotshot NCOs and officers believe that there is not enough pressure to get rid of the deadwood. Despite the fact that better quality leaders save lives in wartime, and get the fighting over with more quickly, there is a traditional resistance to getting rid of a lot of older leaders. The military always has a hard time dismissing officers and NCOs who have given years of loyal and diligent service, often at the risk of their lives, and almost always at great cost to their families.

Throughout the last decade, navy recruiters have been able to keep raising standards for new recruits (high school diploma, college and other studies, physical condition and test scores). In 2003, 94.3 percent of recruits had a high school diploma, versus only 90 percent two years earlier. It kept rising. The higher re-enlistment rates meant fewer new sailors have to be recruited and fewer went to sea with just classroom training. Of the nine enlisted ranks (E-1 to E-9), the first three are considered sailors still in training. That percentage keeps falling, and is currently about 25 percent. For most navies, the figure is 40 percent or more. A higher proportion of trained sailors on board makes for more effective, and content, crews.

The constantly improving retention and recruit quality is the result of several factors. First, there's a war on, and patriotism does play a role in this. The three year recession also played a part, as recession always does. But the navy has also been doing more to make life at sea more bearable. "Habitability" (quality of life on the ship) improvements are constantly made to existing ships, and the designs for new ones. The next generation of ships, which will start to appear at the end of the decade, will have major increases in habitability (as well as much smaller crews). Better training, better living conditions for families and pay increases (including re-enlistment bonuses) also play a role. All the positives tend to work together, especially the steadily rising quality among the leadership (officers and petty officers). This has been going on for over a decade, and is paying off. On the negative side, there is the increased time at sea, especially during the Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. But then the navy changed its policy on regular (non-combat) time at sea, keeping the ships in port more. This also makes it easier to get a lot more ships to sea for a combat situation. This was a major change in how the navy operates, and was well received by the crews. You can tell by the re-enlistment rates.

While the navy keeps having a difficult time designing and building new ships that it can afford, and do what they are supposed to, the quality of its sailors have never been higher. Moreover, the constant downsizing, and desire of sailors to stay in the navy, makes it easier to get people to switch to new jobs (something that requires months, or years, of training, and slows down promotions). And now, with sea-time more equitably distributed, morale has been bumped higher.

 


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