Battling Turnover Rates: Lessons to Be Learned From the U.S. Army

Posted January 07, 2006 by

The United States Army is like a business. It faces the same challenges — of recruitment and retention, of productivity, of mission — that all businesses face, and these common threads present both the Army and the private sector with opportunities to learn from each other and to move forward in ways that can benefit everyone.

Full disclosure: the U.S. Army is a client of but did not request, know of, or participate in the writing of this article.

The enlisted force is the backbone of the U.S. Army, and the Army makes every effort to retain its best people. For years, there has been a significant concern in many circles around the negative impact on recruitment resulting from the war in Iraq and continued engagements in other hot spots around the world, including Afghanistan, South Korea, Kosovo, and many, many others. But apparently, the Army has found ways to battle turnover rates and retain its soldiers. Over the last three years, re-enlistment rates have been at least six percent higher than the Army’s goals. The troops re-enlist knowing they will return to Iraq and other hotspots and once again be risking their lives. Are they doing it for the money, the glamour, the prestige? Well, the Army is paying its people bonuses for re-enlisting, but I think that few would argue that anyone fighting the war in Iraq is going to stay in the Army for a few thousand dollars more a year.

What is it that the Army is doing so right and what can corporations learn from the Army’s ability to retain its personnel despite those people being forced to be able from their families for months or even years at a time, sleeping on the ground, and constantly dodging improvised explosive devices (IEDs), bullets, mortars, and scorpions? Why is that so many organizations, which do not ask their people to risk their lives, are having significant problems retaining the most talented and productive employees? This failure to retain the most talented and productive employees – the stars that drive the success of any organization – costs small employers thousands of dollars a year in lost knowledge and experience. And for large organizations, the price is even steeper at millions of dollars, year after year.
Does your organization suffer from high personnel turnover? If so, you are certainly not alone. You are not the only one left in the dark, wondering why you’re continually losing your workforce. “While most organizations want to blame turnover on wages and benefits, they actually do not play a major role in why people leave their jobs,” according to an article entitled “How to Prevent Employee Turnover: A look at the top three reasons employees leave a company—and what you can do to correct the problems.”
If the above statement made in the article is true and if the Army is like a business, then there must be other reasons for the strong re-enlistment rates besides the unprecedented bonuses.
Maybe it can be attributed to the quality of today’s service members. I’ve been working with Army recruiting experts for 10 years, and I’ve always been impressed by their dedication, strategy and vision. They know where their best soldiers come from. They focus on hiring the best, not just generating leads. They’re not afraid to take chances and try out new ways of connecting with and engaging their target market, as seen by their use of pay-per-lead programs with job boards such as They understand that retention is a full employment life cycle that starts right from the first contact with their potential new recruit and continues until after that service member has completed their service. And in some cases, Army recruiters maintain contact with service members for years after they have completed their service, not because the recruiters expect the service members to re-enlist, but because the recruiters understand the power of the networking. Many employers today do not start thinking about initiating retention efforts until it’s too late.
Maybe the Army’s retention rates can be attributed to the increased sense of duty possessed by today’s all volunteer force. While testifying at a committee hearing titled “Your Troops: Their Story,” leaders said that soldiers re-enlist because they believe in the mission they are performing. Serving their country is the passion of re-enlisting soldiers. “These guys and gals are in it for the fight,” said Brig. General John F. Kelly. “That’s where they want to be and what they want to do.”
Without a sense of purpose, the Army would not be what it is today. If you’re not providing your employees with a sense of purpose and if you’re not motivating them to take pride in the work they are performing for your company, then chances are your employees are becoming bored. Bored employees do not make for lasting employees.
Maybe soldiers are re-enlisting because of the strong support and recognition they are receiving. In an American Forces Information Service news article, Army Command Sgt. Maj. Neil Ciotola said, “Soldiers understand that they have the backing of elected officials and from most of the American public, and they don’t ask for anything more. All they want is support and a sense of camaraderie.” High re-enlistment rates in units that have deployed multiple times can be attributed to the camaraderie that forms between soldiers who have been in combat together. Many of these bonds last a lifetime.
What is your employee’s work environment truly like? The only thing your employees may want is more support and teamwork. While money is important, employees are more motivated by thoughtful, personal, and creative recognition that comes directly from their supervisors and managers. In fact, surveys consistently show that more than 40 percent of people who quit do so because they feel they weren’t appreciated for their contributions. These surveys show that lack of appreciation, lack of teamwork, and the perception that the company doesn’t care about employees are consistently the highest rated reasons for low job satisfaction. Numerous studies show that motivation is especially stronger if your recognition creates a story the employee can tell to family, friends, and associates for years to come.
Like a business, the Army has significant recruiting challenges as well. Although the re-enlistment rate is certainly good news, the Army is still well short of its recruiting goals for the year. Members of the Army are also saying they are more likely to think twice about re-enlisting because of the consistently long work hours and not the prolonged deployments or life-threatening combat duty, according to a new RAND study. The recent study found that active duty troops who often put in longer work hours than normal — either at a desk or in combat — feel greater stress. The study also mentioned as stress levels and workdays rise, their inclination to re-enlist slips.
To know and understand why your employees stay, why they leave, and how you can become or remain an employer of choice is vital to the success of your business. Learning what works and what doesn‚Äôt from one of America‚Äôs oldest institutions can help guide your way to success. Remember, the Army faces the same challenges — of recruitment, retention, productivity, and mission — that all businesses face, and these common threads present both the Army and the private sector with opportunities to learn from each other and to move forward in ways that can benefit everyone.

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