Uncertainty on the Personnel Front

March 1, 1996

The Air Force made its Fiscal 1995 recruiting goal, but it was a tough year. USAF managed to achieve its objectives because indi­vidual recruiters, on average, proved to be more productive, bringing in more recruits per month. Still, offi­cials worry that recruiters will have to do even better. They say the re­cruiting outlook for the near future looks worse than 1995’s.

Like the other services, USAF in 1995 had to overcome the inevitable effect of years of massive cuts in military forces and end strength. The drawdown led many in the public to conclude not only that the armed forces did not need any new recruits but also that the military no longer offered a stable career.

The services continued to struggle with the problem of diminishing inter­est in military service among today’s young men, who are decidedly less likely to want to enlist than were their counterparts of several years ago.

Recruiting new troops was not the only worry. The drawdown and years of high operations tempo caused ser­vice officials to fear that the force might encounter severe problems in retaining high-quality, experienced military personnel and maintaining their morale. Thus, DoD and service leaders placed new emphasis on pro- grams and policies designed to en­hance military “quality of life.”

So far, Air Force enlisted reten­tion has been fairly stable. Pilot re­tention is actually up somewhat.

The three military departments each year enlist roughly 200,000 young people, with another 50,000 new non-prior service recruits needed for the Guard and Reserve. The total number of enlistees entering the rolls during the last fiscal year was 175,783, but DoD projects a requirement of 208,000 in Fiscal 1996 (which began last Octo­ber 1) and 226,000 in Fiscal 1997 (starting next October 1). About 20,000 newly commissioned officers enter the services each year.

Much like last year, the Air Force in 1996 needs to recruit 31,000 young people for the enlisted force (only 300 of whom may be prior service) and 5,061 new officers. Those numbers drop slightly over the next two years, then rise again. (See Figure 1, above.)

Thus far, the Air Force has had no difficulty finding qualified applicants for its officer ranks. In Fiscal 1992, the service was able to choose from 9,161 applicants to meet its require­ment for 4,856 new officers. In Fis­cal 1995, it had 13,950 applicants for 5,042 officer openings.

Shrinking Pool

What concerns personnel officials, however, is a different problem: There are simply fewer seventeen-to twenty-six-year-olds in the coun­try today than there have been since the baby-boom generation began to reach maturity in the 1960s. That youth cohort, which peaked in the 1970s, has been shrinking for a de­cade. Thus, the military will have to recruit a larger portion of the smaller pool of available youth.

Over the past twenty years, the Defense Department has learned to heed the results of surveys that annually question some 10,000 young men and women about their interest in and attitudes toward military ser­vice. Those surveys, taken each year since 1975, have provided “strong indicators of potential recruits,” ac­cording to DoD manpower studies.

If the surveys can be believed, they show a major change in attitude. Four years ago, one in every three males aged sixteen to twenty-one showed some interest in joining the military. By 1994, however, the ratio had dropped to one in four. (See Figure 2, at right.) Pentagon officials noted, however, that the enlistment propen­sity of sixteen- to twenty-one-year-­old females appeared stable.

In a surprising and troubling turn of events, enlistment interest has fallen even faster and further among black youths. The Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Ronald R. Fogleman, in an address to the Tuskegee Airmen Convention in Atlanta, Ga., in Au­gust, reported that the “propensity” of blacks to enlist had dropped from fifty-four percent in 1989 to only thirty-two percent in Fiscal 1995.

To help determine possible rea­sons for the lower interest level among all young men, the Defense Department conducted research in several focus areas, including Ra­leigh, N. C., Dallas, Detroit, and Baltimore. Even before the final re­port was released, the data seemed to indicate that one reason is that the young men want to “exceed their parents’ lifestyles.”

Anita Lancaster, assistant direc­tor of the Defense Manpower Data Center, said that, although parents may be successful, students tend to see them as struggling to make ends meet. Today’s young people want to go beyond the achievements of their parents—earning a comfortable liv­ing, paying their bills with money left over—by going to college.

“Over and over, almost everyone we spoke with said education was the way to success and that [the] education process can’t stop at high school,” said Ms. Lancaster in an October interview with American Forces Information Service.

Not a Boost, but a Drag

Increasingly, military-age people regard the four-year military com­mitment as something that would delay their quest for a better-paying job, rather than as a means to achieve a higher civilian standard of living. Even the military’s higher-education incentive, the Montgomery GI Bill, falls short, in their view. Many stu­dents prefer to use other options—attending community college, work­ing part-time during school, or taking a break for a semester or a year to earn money for tuition.

Today’s youth also apparently want more stability in their careers—not something easily achieved with the increasing use of the military in peace­keeping missions. According to the Pentagon surveys, the frequent and largely unpredictable deployments to trouble spots around the world has had a negative impact on the propen­sity of young persons to serve.

Overcoming these perceptions and attitudes, which would not be easy in any case, was made more difficult by the DoD decision to cut the number of recruiters and recruiting budgets dur­ing the drawdown. DoD officials said two-thirds of its recruiters worked more than sixty hours per week this past year. Many recruiters also covered larger territories than in past years.

The Air Force operated in Fiscal 1995 with about 850 recruiters na­tionwide. The authorized strength was 1,000, which the service recently increased to 1,200. During the draw-down, the overall USAF recruiting force—including officers, enlisted personnel, and civilians—dropped about twenty percent from Fiscal 1989 to Fiscal 1995.

Typically, the service has had trouble filling recruiting vacancies in some high-cost-of-living areas and some isolated locations, but USAF officials believe the recent attention to quality-of-life issues, including increases in cost-of-living and hous­ing allowances, will help them fill recruiter positions. In addition, ser­vice officials pointed out that re­cruiters received promotions to tech­nical sergeant and master sergeant at a slightly higher than average rate in the Fiscal 1995 cycle.

The job is not for everyone, stated Gen. Henry Viccellio, Jr., former com­mander of Air Education and Training Command and now commander of Air Force Materiel Command.

In a July 1995 commentary de­signed to encourage airmen to apply for recruiting duty, the General said, “It’s demanding work for the man or woman who welcomes great re­sponsibility and who relishes work­ing independently.” Starting with “Wanted: Enthusiastic young men and women for exciting job opportu­nities,” General Viccellio also em­phasized that recruiters must have “impeccable records and impeccable appearance” with “integrity and de­termination.” He cautioned that the Recruiting Service was not desper­ate enough to take just anyone.

More Money, More People

To help its front-line representa­tives, who probably worked harder in 1995 than at any time since the Vietnam War era, the Pentagon also stepped up its recruiting and adver­tising funding.

In Fiscal 1994, DoD reprogrammed $41 million into recruiting. For Fiscal 1995, the department’s recruiting bud­get increased by $89 million, bringing the total recruiting investment to $2 billion, with about $1.4 billion of that for active-duty forces. The advertis­ing fund increased from $145 million in Fiscal 1994 to about $185 million each for Fiscal 1995 and 1996.

The Air Force used some of its re­cruiting dollars in Fiscal 1994 to launch a radio-advertising campaign. USAF continued the campaign in Fiscal 1995 and will keep it active through at least Fiscal 1996. The increased funding, which essentially restored USAF’s recruiting budget to its pre-drawdown level, also covers personal letters mass-mailed to each senior graduating in 1996 and continues direct-mail cam­paigns by local recruiters.

For Fiscal 1996, the service’s to­tal recruiting budget is $49.9 mil­lion, compared to $33.7 million in Fiscal 1991. Projections call for a steady increase through the turn of the century. (See Figure 3, above.)

Despite the expansion of budgets and the recruiter force, Air Force officials predict that next year will be tough, perhaps tougher than the most recent years. In fact, recruiters started the new year at a disadvan­tage; the Air Force had to borrow from the Fiscal 1996 delayed enlist­ment pool to meet its 1995 goal.

“This puts us at a deficit, but I’m confident we’ll rebound,” Maj. Gen. Kurt B. Anderson, USAF Recruiting Service commander, said in a No­vember recap of the year’s effort.

However, General Anderson added, “that’s not to say that we don’t ex­pect more difficult times in Fiscal 1996.” He said that competition among the services for quality re­cruits is intense. In a September in­terview, the General characterized last fiscal year as “a strong con­cern.” This fiscal year, he said is “a serious concern.”

Congress saw the value in enlarg­ing recruiting budgets, providing ad­ditional funds to ensure the military pay raise and an increase in the hous­ing allowance. At the same time, how­ever, some lawmakers attacked both the Montgomery GI Bill and features of the military retiree pay system.

Congress first attempted to in­crease the amount of money an air­man would have to pay into the edu­cation program [see “GI Bill Hike May Hurt Recruiting,” December 1995 “Aerospace World,” p. 15]. Despite indications from young people that the bill may not be the drawing card it once was, it is still a highly useful tool. DoD officials believe it helps attract prospective recruits who might be on the fence.

Similarly, the services viewed the latest Congressional move, known as “High One,” to restructure computa­tion of retired pay without a “grand­ father” clause as a breach of faith. Senior civilian and military leaders told Congress that High One would seriously erode morale for existing troops, many of whom might decide not to remain in the services, and send the wrong signal to young people who might be thinking about joining. [See ‘High One’ Defeated,” November 1995 “Aerospace World,” p. 15.]

Neither measure passed. To a large extent, however, the damage was done. Moreover, other proposals are likely to spring up as Congress and the Clinton Administration struggle to balance the federal budget.

Concern Number One

Adequate pay ranks as the number one concern for most military mem­bers. In fact, DoD ranks it as the strongest single stimulus in generat­ing the retention of top-quality people.

According to USAF personnel of­ficials, military pay raises since 1982 have lagged behind inflation by a cumulative 4.6 percent. Even with the 2.4 percent pay raise in Fiscal 1996, the Employment Cost Index (ECI) gap between military pay growth and that of the private sector will increase from a cumulative 12.6 per­cent to 13.2 percent.

Furthermore, they project that the current law, which limits pay growth to 0.5 percent below the ECI, will cause the ECI gap to widen to more than eighteen percent by 2001. At the same time, the inflation gap would increase to more than ten percent.

The fact that the inflation gap has remained relatively small has led Air Force officials to believe that the current ECI gap has had minimal impact on retention and recruiting. However, they cautioned that the cumulative effects of inflation and pay-increase differences will even­tually reduce the ability of the mili­tary to attract and retain highly quali­fied people.

Considering the initial indications from the youth surveys, young people

may already feel that the military does not offer competitive pay. How­ever, competitive pay or not, the Air Force has maintained a fairly stable enlisted retention rate over the past few years.

In Fiscal 1976, the retention rate for first-term airmen was 37.3 per­cent, for second-term airmen, 67.4 percent, and for career airmen, 9 1. 1 percent. Twenty years later, those numbers are 63.6, 77. 1, and 95.7. As seen in Figure 4 on p. 42, Fiscal 1983 was the high year for each cat­egory. The years since have seen slight ups and downs, but the num­bers have not dropped much.

The Air Force’s 1995 quality-of-­life survey seems to bear out the retention rates. Of the survey re­spondents, junior enlisted members were the most ambivalent about their career intentions. About thirty-six percent indicated they would not remain in the service, and another thirty-five percent were undecided.

Rated vs. Nonrated

That same survey highlighted a traditional dichotomy in the officer corps. The responses from rated of­ficers indicated they were less satis­fied with the promotion, evaluation, and assignment systems than non­rated officers were. The rated offi­cers felt that performance should count for more than it does.

USAF personnel officials could not say why the perceptions varied be­tween the two groups of officers. They plan to refine questions on the issue and to resurvey, possibly in 1996.

However, pilots and navigators might well have had cause for concern

with much of the service’s heavy op­erations tempo falling on their heads. They might have fared well in perfor­mance sections of evaluations, but deployments probably left little time for them to pursue professional or ad­vanced academic education. To help alleviate this concern, the service re­cently decided to “mask,” or exclude, having an advanced academic degree as a factor in promotion to captain and major for all line officers.

Despite their perceptions about promotion, rated officers are stick­ing with the Air Force in record num­bers. The pilot retention rate in Fis­cal 1989 was at thirty percent, then dropped to twenty-six percent three years later. In Fiscal 1994, the rate jumped to seventy percent, then sev­enty-two percent last year, nearing a record seventy-three percent set in Fiscal 1983. (See Figure 5, below.)

Navigator retention has held fairly steady over the years, with only a couple of significant drops. It reached a low of twenty-one percent in Fiscal 1993. However, for the last two years, their retention rate has been sixty-five and sixty-six percent, respectively.

These high rates could be based on a variety of factors, including the fact that airline hiring is at a low point and the availability of new Aviator Continuation Pay (ACP)­or pilot bonus—agreements.

It could also be that rated officers are getting more bang for their buck. Instead of disliking the high opera­tions tempo, rated officers partici­pating in the various peacekeeping missions find more satisfaction in their jobs.

The Fiscal 1996 ACP program also opens the pilot bonus to helicopter pilots for the first time. The retention rate for rotary-wing pilots has under­gone a steady decline, unlike the rate for their fixed-wing counterparts.

Additionally, service officials hope the new ACP will alleviate the long-term pilot shortage—projected to reach a high of 805 in Fiscal 2001. (See Figure 6, above.)

The pilot glut of a few years ago is over. Programs designed to reduce the flow into the cockpit will end. USAF expects to empty its “pilot bank,” those awaiting flying posi­tions, at the close of this fiscal year. The last “third pilots,” those await­ing flying training, will enter train­ing by the end of Fiscal 1997.

As a further hedge against the short­age, the Air Force has started a volun­tary recall of hundreds of former pi­lots now serving with the Guard or Reserve or just recently separated. The service approved fifty pilots for return to active duty last year and plans to accept another 100 this fiscal year.

The number of officers projected to complete flying training also will increase from 525 this fiscal year to 1,100 in Fiscal 2002.

It is still too early to calculate the actual impact on recruiting and re­tention of DoD’s quality-of-life im­provements, many of which have yet to get beyond the press release and planning stages. The Air Force is doing well with retention right now, but, as with recruiting, the challenge never really ends.