Corporations are free to manage their personnel as they see fit within the existing frameworks of the law. They often go to considerable lengths to attract and maintain talent in order to gain competitive advantage in their field of business.
Government organizations not so much. The entire Army enlistment and re-enlistment bonus budget is about the same as the New York Yankees budget, but instead of being spread across a baseball team it gets spread across the million plus individuals involved in the US Army. Invariably this leads to a situation where highly motivated individuals can get better compensation in the private sector than in the government sector.
Which leads us to a conundrum in the military, do you really want the “best and brightest” or do you want the “dedicated and resilient”? It seems about every year some leader or other bemoans the fact that “we are hemorrhaging our best and brightest!” and trying to fix that in order to retain top talent. In fact our Officer Evaluation Reports and Non-Commissioned Officer Evaluation Reports are specifically structured to select only the top performers for promotion.
Last year the promotion rate to Major for Infantry Captains was 80%, and the promotion rate to Major for Electronic Warfare Officers was less than half that. Why is this? It stems from a number of reasons
1, Senior leaders understand Infantry Officers and have a good grasp of how to develop subordinate Infantry Officers. In contrast a Brigade Commander will only get one EWO as part of his staff that he has no idea how to develop. This leads to a culture where it is easy to ignore one outlier in your organization and focus on what you know.
2, Senior leaders value command track Officers more than staff track Officers. All commanders can talk at length about the “burden of command” but rarely pontificate on how to properly integrate existing and new technology into ongoing and future operations. This also leads to a culture of leaders focusing on what they know and rewarding the familiar.
3, The evaluation system is not designed to capture objective data, and people who are good at visibly selling themselves and building rapport with their rater and senior rater are much more likely to be rated highly. This ensures that evaluations are much more subjective than objective in nature and therefore your relationship with your boss and hiss boss can be much more important than actual competency.
These factors should explain why a group of personnel with essentially the same background and performance can have vastly different outcomes in career progression. The people who have better “organizational politicking” and choose career paths that focus human interaction inside the organization (Infantry) are more likely to get promoted than persons who are less inclined to “organizational politicking” and choose career paths that focus on technical solutions inside the organization (Signal Corps). Even easier to see the promotion rates with jobs focused on human relations exterior to the organization (Information Operations) and technical solutions external to the organization (Electronic Warfare).
The reason that the Army is always “hemorrhaging talent” is that the people with the jobs and skills valued least by Senior Leaders (Brigade Commanders) are the ones valued MOST by the private sector. That Battalion S6 with all the DOD 8570 certifications faces at least another decade of verbal abuse from technologically illiterate Combat Arms officers, OR they can get out and double or triple their income. The FA30 IO Major can directly translate their experience into marketing, editing, or sales. The Public Affairs Officer just drops the “officer” from their job title and goes right back into Public Relations. Engineers with an actual Engineering degree can probably find a job even at the bottom of the ocean.
In contrast, there are very few positions requiring the large scale maneuver of men and equipment on the battlefield to close with and destroy the enemy in Corporate America. There is possibly the case to be made that because of these advantages for the non Combat Arms personnel that Senior leaders subconsciously protect members of their own branch out of loyalty to the service. After all there is no need to protect that System Administrator who essentially has a golden parachute waiting.
The good news is that the Army will always churn out another generation of technical oriented personnel to run through the wringer. Some of them will choose to stay their entire career simply out of devotion, and some of them will survive to reach senior ranks. And there will always be enough of them to get the mission done. Even if they aren’t the “best and brightest” they will be good enough to accomplish the mission.
The biggest problem with facing civilian leadership (SecDef and Service Secretaries) is that the leadership they consult on how to “fix” the problem of talent loss see absolutely no problem with the current system. After all the current system put them into the positions they now occupy. As flawed as the system is for talent retention it seems to be working to keep the military running at some level of functionality. Pure institutional inertia is a difficult thing to overcome.
I don’t have any mind blowing suggestions for how to fix the promotion and retention system except to get rid of the ranking system in place and change all evaluations to “promote, retain, release” and force the Rater and Senior Rater to explain why an individual should be promoted, retained, or released from service. I would remove all “hard and soft enumeration” as it has simply become the “easy button” for promotion boards to look at instead of anything else in the record. Yes that would make it harder for those poor Colonels, but no one said being a senior leader should be easy.
The military runs on the hard work of Captains and Sergeants First Class for everything from delivering the mail to interacting with a host nation civilians and military forces. But the military is not welfare, and even if the Army chose to change the evaluation forms there would still be rampant favoritism and senior leaders who protect their branch. Because they understand the Army needs Infantry and Armor. They don’t understand that it desperately needs people skilled in technology as well. But as long as the schoolhouses can continually crank out another generation of Senior Rater OER padding, nothing will change.