Military Personnel:

Systematic Analyses Needed to Monitor Retention in Key Careers and Occupations

NSIAD-00-60: Published: Mar 7, 2000. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 2000.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on recent trends in retention rates among officers and enlisted personnel in the four armed services, focusing on: (1) how much information the Department of Defense (DOD) has on retention trends across the services; and (2) analyzing changes in retention rates in the aggregate and by career stage and occupation from 1988 through 1998.

GAO noted that: (1) widespread reductions in retention rates were not evident at the aggregate level across the services from 1988 through 1998; (2) aggregate measures of retention, however, mask significant reductions that occurred among specific groups of military personnel in different career stages and occupational specialties; (3) these drops in retention were more evident among enlisted personnel than officers; (4) although rates declined to some extent in the early 1990s, enlisted and officer rates in 1996-1998 were very similar to those in 1988-1990; (5) the retention rates declined for enlisted personnel in the Army, the Air Force, and the Marines by 4 to 8 percent; (6) among officers, retention rates changed by about 1 percent over both the long and short term; (7) the largest reductions in retention took place among mid-career enlisted personnel with 5 to 10 years of service; (8) DOD officials attribute mid-career reductions in retention to a combination of factors such as the growth in job opportunities in the civilian sector, the negative effects of increased military operations overseas, and service members' concerns about eroding benefits and quality of life conditions; (9) the reductions in late career retention rates were also associated with personnel losses resulting from the continuation of separation programs that offered early retirement to certain military personnel with at least 15 years of service; (10) enlisted retention rates declined by 10 percent or more over both the long and short term in up to one-third of enlisted occupational groups; (11) the majority of the occupational group declines were among mid-career enlisted personnel who were concentrated in the areas of communications and intelligence and electrical and mechanical equipment repair; (12) in contrast, occupational groups for officers showed relatively smaller changes in retention; (13) comprehensive information on military retention trends across the services has been lacking; (14) all the services have ongoing efforts to track retention, but use different data and measures, making it difficult to interpret results and compare trends; (15) DOD recently formed a working group to address retention issues across the services; (16) this group issued a report to Congress in 1999 that included data by service, grade, years of service and occupation but did not provide any analysis or interpretation of the data: and (17) as a result, there is no clear picture of where retention problems exist and whether across-the-broad or targeted policy initiatives may be needed to address them.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD concurred with GAO's recommendation to conduct more systematic and comprehensive assessments of military retention and communicate the results to Congress and other decision-makers in a timely manner. DOD has indicated that it will assess GAO's methodology and integrate it into ongoing efforts where appropriate or merited. DOD has established a retention working group to discuss retention issues and conducts monthly assessments of retention and recruiting trends across the services.

    Recommendation: In order to have timely and useful data on military retention, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of Force Management Policy to expand its ongoing efforts to monitor retention by conducting more systematic and comprehensive assessments of military personnel retention on an annual basis. Such assessments should examine overall retention across the services among enlisted personnel and officers as well as by key units and career and occupational groups. It is important that the assessments use consistent and reliable data and measures and appropriate time period to identify long- and short-term changes in retention. In addition, information on accessions, attrition, and end strength (total personnel assigned) should be incorporated into the assessments to provide a more comprehensive picture of gains and losses in personnel. Furthermore, information on requirements is needed to provide a context to determine whether changes in retention are meeting established goals. Finally, findings and conclusions about retention problems should be well supported and clearly communicated to Congress and other decisionmakers in a timely and consistent manner.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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