This article is another in the #Talent: Thoughts on Talent Management in the Military series.
The military blogosphere is alive with discussion of talent management and retention. Tim Kane’s Bleeding Talent appears to have sparked a wildfire of calls for personnel management reform which to date have gone unanswered. Discussions abound recommending a market-based military assignment system where Air Force officers (or their sister service counterparts) apply for jobs and commanders hire them instead of the current system that pathologically rejects the officers’ desires and commanders’ inputs. In my personal experience, discussion about this possible market-based system immediately and inevitably devolves into the exact same fundamentally flawed question (at least for Air Force personnel):
How are we going to get people to go to Minot?
For those unfamiliar with Minot Air Force Base, it is in North Dakota and, at least according to those who ask that question, is closer to hell than Afghanistan. This article seeks to examine nine common assumptions and claims of those who ask this question and attempts to offer possible implementation methods.
Claim #1: People don’t want to go to Minot.
Assessment: Flawed assumption.
Air National Guard bases throughout the country have people who happily choose (even compete) to live there long-term, even in North Dakota. I’ve heard it’s a nice place from those who have been. Also, although I don’t have data on active duty military members’ location desires regarding Minot, civilians seem very keen on the place. Minot has experienced a 10% population growth per year since 2010. In 2010, the population was 40,000. By 2017, they expect it to be over 60,000. Clearly, there are insane amounts of people who want to go to Minot.
Claim #2: You might get people to go, but the most talented will congregate at “good” locations.
Assessment: Flawed premise.
What is a “good” location? DC? Not for the person who hate the city. Montgomery, AL? Not for the person who loves DC. Destin, FL? OK, that’s probably a “good” location. But, maybe a “good” base is one in which the mission is attractive or the commanders are respected or the quality of life is posh or the base services are solid. Maybe a “good” base is one at which a person can stay for more than two years so their spouse can have a career or their kid can be the high school football star. Maybe “good” means the childcare center is really great or the schools are fantastic or they have free sno-cones in the summer. The definition of a “good” base is different for everyone and is not solely based on location.
The definition of a “good” base is different for everyone.
Claim #3: Assuming Minot is a “bad” base; people don’t volunteer for bad locations.
Assessment: Not supported by evidence.
People volunteer to go to AFGHANISTAN.
Claim #4: Assignment systems that give servicemembers and commanders too much agency (choice) don’t work. The Air Force tried it in the 1990’s and it failed.
Assessment: Flawed premise.
First, we tried drones before WWII. They didn’t work well. Look at us now! Apple tried the Newton in the 1990’s. It didn’t take. Now, Steve Jobs is a legend. Manned flight didn’t work out for Icarus or da Vinci. But last month, we landed a spaceship on a comet. “We tried it before and it didn’t work so we should not try again” is the battle cry of a non-innovative, status quo seeker. We need to find these people and rid our military of them ASAP. I’m all for not repeating past mistakes, but the last time the Air Force tried this was the last millenium. Innovation and improvement are about trying, failing, and then trying again.
Second, the Air Force Officer Volunteer Assignment System of the 1990’s instituted a free labor market, it seems without effective use of market shaping incentives. Market shaping incentives, for example, might be increased pay at some locations or non-financial incentives such as faster career progression or early promotion. There are many possible incentives to motivate people to choose a given location.
Innovation and improvement are about trying, failing, and then trying again.
Third, market-based systems that provide agency (choice) to servicemembers and commanders by utilizing market-shaping incentives exist and work! For example, the Navy market-like Assignment Incentive Pay system not only works, it saves money. The Army recently conducted a successful pilot study of a similar program called the Green Pages. The Air Force also has a variety of personnel management incentives for its enlisted members. In fact, labor-market economics are not really that new, they are proven concepts like democracy and capitalism.
Counterargument: Military members are not motivated by money!
Rebuttal: Some are, some aren’t. Plus, incentives could be any number of things: good quality of life, good schools, good services, good commanders, good mission, good follow-on assignment, good promotion chances, early retirement, etc.
Counterargument: The Air Force doesn’t have the ability to adjust pay by location or purposefully have better services at a particular base.
Rebuttal: Servicemember housing allowance (Base allowance for housing — BAH) is already adjusted by locale. Cost of living adjustment (COLA) is also adjusted by locale. Imminent Danger Pay is locale-dependent. The Navy’s Assignment Incentive Pay is locale-adjusted. We also have various retention pays (bonuses) that are not locale-dependent, but are designed to retain specific talent or experience pools. With a few policy adjustments or by working with Congress to adjust necessary laws, we could have the ability to do these things.
Claim #5: Commanders and individual officers cannot be trusted to put the “needs of the Air Force” over personal desires.
We have people who jump on grenades, fly within range of enemy surface-to-air missiles, and run directly into enemy fire for their country and their fellow servicemembers.
We give commanders the authority to kill people and put people in jail. We give our Lieutenants $150 million aircraft and nuclear weapons. The people who say commanders and officers cannot be trusted are seriously misguided. Sure, there might be a few people that don’t care for the bigger system, but checks and balances exist which could address such concerns.
There is, however, a valid point that some people have raised:
Counterargument: Commanders and officers don’t have visibility on all the needs of the Air Force and all the assignment spots and thus might prioritize easily visible needs (their own) over ethereal “needs of the Air Force.”
Rebuttal: Valid concern, but web-based systems give us the ability to post requirements for all to see. In fact, an Air Force system already exists to search requirements — the online Assignment Management System. With a little modernization and a bit of shaping by a centralized requirements team, the existing program could be exactly the system we need. Additionally, a LinkedIn-style resume system such as the Army’s Green Pages could support a market-based system and increase the quality of person-job match.
Claim #6: “This isn’t a democracy; we don’t need to care what people want.“
This is a democracy. People vote with their feet (i.e., leave the service) and many of our most talented are doing so. See Final Argument #2: Retention below.
Claim #7: “Service Before Self” is one of our Air Force core values. You signed up for this; you should be willing to serve your country unequivocally. Why are you being so selfish? Damn millennials…
Assessment: Shameful misrepresentation of our core values, blind rejection of American societal changes, and a “no true Scotsman” logical fallacy.
People do sign up to serve their country. Many die for their country. But no one likes seeing their family jerked around and uprooted every few years with little or no say in the process. It’s “Service Before Self,” not “Service Before Everything Including Family.” This is the kind of talk that undermines the legitimacy of our core values. And, with generational shifts in gender role expectations and increasing percentages of career-oriented military spouses, such misrepresentation of our core values generates work-family conflict that breaks families apart and drives talented servicemembers out of uniform.
Claim #8: “Look, that would be great and all, but we don’t have personnelists in the numbers or of the talent to be able to manage such a system.”
Our personnelists are not the problem. We have many sharp, intelligent, and innovative personnelists who are hindered by a system which forces them to operate a logistics network that shuffles people around as if they were boxes. Instead, we should enable our talented HR professionals to shape a modern labor market and talent management system that empowers commanders and Airmen while meeting all Air Force job requirements. When we as an Air Force start to prioritize our personnelists and personnel systems at a level commensurate with that of our aircraft, we will have the right number of personnelists with the right tools and a system that works.
Final Claim: “Sure we lose some of our most talented people, but we have enough overhead to be good enough. Our Air Force is still the best in the world, so what’s the problem?“
Assessment: Good question.
- Inefficiency. How much does it cost to move (permanent change of station — PCS) one-third of the force every year? Approximately $3.76 Billion Dollars. If people chose to stay in one place longer than a few years, it could save dollars in the $B range. The $B range (billion) is where it starts to matter. A lot.
- Retention. It costs money when we lose people we want to keep. Let us use fighter pilots as just one example, since the USAF currently has a fighter pilot manning problem. They say it costs $6M to make a fighter pilot. This is to make a baby fighter pilot, not an experienced Major (O-4) with 1,500 flight hours. To do that costs (conservatively) five times as much, so let’s say $30M. When one such pilot leaves before we want them to, we’ve just thrown away a $30M investment. In an era of fiscal constraints, throwing away $30M per fighter pilot can add up. Given a claimed coming shortage of fighter pilots in the hundreds (if not more), we seem to be throwing away a lot of money. America should be mad. I am.
- Talent is our advantage. Based on the rapid rise of military competitors, our technological edge is eroding and the quality of our people may be our only advantage. We need to keep our margin of talent as high as possible. Let’s take China for example (they are not an enemy, but they are definitely a competitor). Will we win the defense spending competition? No — and Russia circa 1990 would argue it’s not a good idea to try. Will we win the manpower numbers game? No—China has four times the people of the US and almost twice as many military members. Will we win the technology advantage? Maybe—but our lead is shrinking rapidly, especially given the intellectual property pursuits of various nefarious actors (i.e. raiding the cyber cookie jars of US weapons contractors for F-35 plans). Thus, we must leverage and retain what may be our best, if not our only, strategic margin — our talent.
We need to keep our margin of talent as high as possible because it may become our best, if not our only, strategic advantage.
Our talent is too important to squander in an industrial-age system that, as Tim Kane said, is more logistics network than labor market. And, despite what the Minot-haters say, it is time for a change. And it’s time to stop bleeding talent.
J.P. "Spear" Mintz is a U.S. Air Force officer. The opinions expressed are the author's alone and do no reflect the official position of the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
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