U.S. soldiers participate in a training exercise at Kahuku Training Area on Oahu, Hawaii, March 13, 2020.

U.S. soldiers participate in a training exercise at Kahuku Training Area on Oahu, Hawaii, March 13, 2020. Army Pfc. Jessica Scott

It’s Only Going to Get Harder to Recruit and Retain Troops in a Post-Pandemic World

The Pentagon needs to accelerate its transition from industrial-age to information-age personnel policies.

The U.S. military has long seen the need to move past various industrial-age personnel policies as it works to attract and retain talented people, and has begun to do so. But the pandemic will bring changes to the labor market and to defense budgets that will make it harder to compete for the talent that is key to great power competition. Now is the time to press forward with reforms.

The COVID-19 crisis has shown how critically important personnel are to overall readiness. Yet for all Defense Department leaders’ talk about the qualitative advantage that American troops possess over our adversaries, still innovation and investment in people processes have taken a back seat to exquisite and expensive weapons. If the trillions of dollars in pandemic-relief spending lead to lower defense budgets and end-strengths, the services will need to be better equipped to identify and retain exactly the right people with the right mix of skills and experience.

Current record levels of unemployment, coupled with the way calamity often draws Americans to public service, may yield a bumper crop of talented recruits in the months and years to come. But the work-from-home revolution engendered by the country-wide lockdown shows just how flexible corporate America can and will continue to be. The move toward virtuality in work and personal life will further power the tech industry’s ascendance in a post-pandemic world, driving competition for people with technical skills. 

Meanwhile, all of the pre-pandemic pressures are still in effect. Demographic trends show a declining population of young men and women who are eligible for service. Public-opinion polls show that fewer Americans have a personal connection to the military. Changing societal norms and technological advances mean that recruits and troops want flexibility in career and family decisions. Skills that are vital to a 21st-century military are also coveted by well-heeled corporations. Defense budget cuts and a predilection to cut military personnel/end strength before multi-year acquisition programs will continue to strain the force.

In response, military leaders have been mulling, and in some cases actually implementing, personnel policies and personnel management technology that acknowledge and serve the needs of a modern work force. They have also been removing inefficiencies in recruitment and retention by eliminating outdated barriers to entry and reentry into military service. Related: Esper to DOD: Expect to Telework for 'Weeks For Sure, Maybe Months'

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Take the “up or out” system, whose rigidity can delay the advancement of talented people — or force them to leave the service altogether. Using existing regulations and provisions granted in recent defense authorization acts, the services have announced some changes and begun implementing others to promote officers based on merit and performance. Officers deemed high-performing by promotion boards, for example, will wear the rank and be compensated for the promotion up to a year before their peers. The Army is implementing a new weeklong in-person assessment that will determine suitability for battalion command; officers attending Captains Career Course will take the GRE as an additional assessment measure. 

Some of these efforts seek to retain people with certain valuable skills. The Navy has its Professional Flight Instructor program, while the Air Force is changing its promotion process so officers in specialized communities are not evaluated against pilots and other Line of the Air Force officers. It is also expanding the number of career promotion categories to retain more people with the skills to counter the threats of today and tomorrow. And such efforts are not entirely limited to officers; the Navy has expanded its Meritorious Advancement Program, which aims to advance the most qualified enlisted sailors less by seniority than by observed high-quality performance.

Such programs are good signals that services value talent and performance. But most focus on officers and specific technical communities. The pressures that the pandemic will generate on the force mean that the military’s talent-management changes need to be force-wide and accelerated.

Services need to make a common thing of permeability — the ability to muster people in and out of the military, or to transfer them among military branches, as their skills are needed. The recent call-up of thousands of personnel to respond to the pandemic shows the urgent need for fast and flexible options to identify and activate reservists. Congress has awarded immense provisions for lateral entry, though limited options exist beyond medical, JAG, and cyber pathways; the services should fully embrace and expand these options. Such programs should be combined with easing transition from the active component to the reserve component and vice versa. Losing former active duty individuals from the military because of bureaucratic inefficiencies is an immense waste of talent. For career fields that would be best suited for lateral entry, such as cyber, the services would benefit from enabling moves to and from the reserve component so skills remain competitive and talent is retained. Current policies and regulations prevent a timely transition between the components, further hampering retention. 

More prosaically, the military must become better at human resources, as experienced by troops and civilian employees, with tools that offer the kinds of services that are common in the corporate world: access to benefits information, job marketplaces, reimbursement processes, and the like. The IT burden of service cannot be on the margins, but one comprehensively addressed. The pandemic crisis has put into stark relief the need to support a virtual work environment and modern IT practices. If these varied process and IT issues remain antiquated and cumbersome, the military risks losing service members out of frustration of accessing services. In a post-pandemic world, talented individuals may express more interest in public service, but with decreased defense budgets the military will have to adapt and be flexible enough to match the right talent with the right job at the right time.  

The biggest change must be one of mindset and culture at the military’s top levels. New statutory authorities supported by Congress and nascent programs allow service members to opt out of promotion boards and request different career opportunities through Career Intermission Programs. But the success of these programs depends on leaders and culture backing up career intermission, education, and other options.

Pilot programs can test new initiatives, but real cultural change must be transformational and sustained in policy changes and with support from leadership. A groundswell of support from the force can further foment change: when servicemembers take career intermissions and still get promoted or move from the active to the reserve force with no impact on upward mobility, then the force will believe that the services are serious about managing and nurturing talent. In a post-pandemic era of great power competition, people, as a key enabler of American readiness, will only become more critical.

 The opinions in this piece are the authors’ and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Navy or the U.S. government.