Retention: Creating Choice Through Dissonance
A military does not exist without people. However,
today’s all-volunteer force is experiencing a decline in service member
retention, which directly impacts the military’s ability to do its job.
Retention is defined as the number of people in the military eligible to
reenlist, who choose to remain on active duty (Pang, 1998). This paper
will discuss the retention problem for the military and the reasons service
members leave or stay. The impact of this problem has a broad national
scope that includes national security, force readiness, and military quality
of life. Using military service retention levels as the measured dependent
variable, this study will manipulate the independent variable, which is
the amount of information and choices available to military service members.
The military has generally been able to meet
retention goals with slight fluctuations. The lowest retention occurred
in the early 1970s (from the downsizing resulting from the end of the Vietnam
War), and was consistent from 1993 through 1996. A noticeable drop in retention
levels occurred in 1997, and there is a continuing downward trend, according
to DoD statistics (Cohen, 1998).
Army retention rates for Fiscal Years 1993
through 1996 remained consistent at slightly more than 80 percent. The
Navy retention rate rose to 85 from 1993 through 1996. The Marine Corps
retention rate remained fairly consistent at 83 percent for FYs 1995 and
1996. The Air Force retained 89 percent of eligible personnel in FY 1996
(up 3 percentage points from FY 1995) (Cohen, 1998). Additionally, lack
of retention is also expensive. “Based on a General Accounting Office estimate,
it costs taxpayers more than $20,000 to replace each individual who leaves
the military service prematurely” (Pang, 1997).
By relating relevant communication theory
to the problem of retention, this study
provides an alternative solution to limit the exodus of military service
members. A theoretical framework is proposed through which retention issues
will be addressed. Specifically, the frame offers a public affairs approach
to inform military members, eligible to leave the service, of career choices
difficult to refuse, and to consider the military as a viable alternative.
A literature review was conducted of relevant
material regarding military retention, using the theories of organizational
assimilation theory, cognitive dissonance in persuasion, and mass communication
media richness theory, to form a two-stage approach
toward answering our research questions and providing methods to implement,
test and evaluate possible solutions. We will also discuss projected results
and the implications for public affairs and future theory building.
Statement of the Problem
The U.S. military faces a retention crisis
resulting from extensive change. The changes include downsizing or reengineering,
loss of benefits and rewards, and the impact of a strong economy and low
unemployment. Retaining first term and second term service members is a
continuing challenge, as well as retaining the expertise and corporate
knowledge of careerists.
Only 69 percent of second-term enlisted members
are choosing to reenlist, according to Secretary of the Air Force, F. Whitten
Peters (Air Force News, 1998). The Air Force has set its goal at 75 percent
to sustain appropriate experience levels. Peters said that although some
believe a strong economy is the reason why people are getting out of the
service, he feels retention is directly related to deployment rates.
The key underlying issue related to retention
is PERSTEMPO, defined as the time service members spend away from the home
station. Increased time away from home, be it deployed or working longer
hours, places stress on the members deployed, the members left behind who
shoulder the increased workload, and their families. The services work
to balance the needs for training, exercises, and peacetime operations,
with the individual needs of the service members for a "stable and predictable
tempo level." Service members want to serve their country, but they also
want a predictable tempo level and are obviously exiting the service when
their complaints are not heard (Cohen, 1998).
The Navy is currently exceeding budgeted deployed
ship OPTEMPO (Operations Tempo or number of operations conducted) of 51
days per quarter due to operations and the heightened threat condition
in ports in the Arabian Gulf, forcing ships to stay at sea. The current
COMFIFTHFLT OPTEMPO is at 78 days per quarter. “Sailors don’t mind working
hard at the front lines to support U.S. vital interests, but when they
see us continually robbing the rest of the force to do it, they wonder
where the health of their Navy is heading,” stated Admiral Archie Clemins,
Commander in Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet (1999).
Air Force Secretary Peters (1998) said the
severity of the problem hit home during a recent visit to Moody AFB, Georgia,
in August 1998. “They have 40 people coming up for a reenlistment in their
security forces unit. Out of those, only 2 plan to reenlist.” Peters stated
that most of the service members had been deployed more than 120 days,
many for more than 160 days. He stated that when you reach that kind of
OPSTEMPO, no matter how much you like your job, the impact on family and
other goals is just too difficult.
This trend is being repeated across all the
services according to Department of Defense statistics. It affects not
only deployed personnel, but those members left behind as well. This trend
is precipitated by a lack of attractive alternatives at the critical point
when service members are deciding whether to stay in the military, or to
leave. One military member, an Air Force staff sergeant, said that constant
deployments are not only hard for those deployed, but for those left behind.
During the deployments, the extended 12-hour days take their toll.
Military public affairs staffs can help provide
service members with accurate updates on military benefits and the efforts
being made to reestablish previously existing benefits. Public Affairs
Officers can inform the internal community of training programs to improve
retention. Public affairs can be a critical tool in improving retention,
if used at the strategic planning stages of the program. In order to do
so, relevant communication theories will be reviewed and applied to the