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Unofficial Navy retention survey aims to head off manpower problem

The paper had been generating a buzz for weeks when it showed up in Ben Kohlmann’s inbox in early April.

Authored by a fellow Navy pilot, it warned that the service is on the cusp of a manpower crisis: Talented, highly qualified officers are leaving the Navy in droves, wrote Cmdr. Guy Snodgrass.

Snodgrass cited growing departure rates among key groups, including SEALs and aviators, and listed reasons why the situation will worsen: the improving economy, longer deployments, fear of military pay cuts, and the withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan — conflicts that provided the “morale-boosting effect of participating in national crises.”

“They’ll be taking their expertise and lessons learned with them,” Snodgrass wrote about the departing officers, and the problem “seems to be going undetected by senior leadership.”

Like it did for many readers, the paper, titled “Keep a Weather Eye on the Horizon,” struck a chord with Kohlmann, a lieutenant in a staff job at Norfolk Naval Station, Va.

All around him, Kohlmann said in a recent interview, bright young officers are choosing to leave.

He got in touch with Snodgrass, who was in Virginia Beach preparing to become the executive officer of an overseas strike fighter squadron. Soon, they were working on what they hope will be part of a solution: a 15-minute online survey that aims to shed light on why sailors stay in the Navy or get out.

The service often uses what it calls retention surveys, but this is different. The survey was not developed or blessed by Navy officials.

Along with an intelligence officer named Chris O’Keefe, Snodgrass and Kohlmann are conducting it unofficially — something almost unheard of — in their off-duty time.

They started by assembling a 15-member advisory board, including academics and sailors with a range of ranks and commands, who helped them shape the questions. Then they built a website, dodretention.org.

It went live May 1. In the first week, about 4,000 people took the confidential survey, Snodgrass said.

He and Kohlmann said their goal is a full, honest picture of all the factors that play into retention. They think those go far beyond pay and benefits, to things such as sailors’ satisfaction with their work, their lives and their leaders.

Among the survey’s questions: Do you have a mentor? Is there enough parking? How does the Navy affect your marriage or your ability to date? When you’re at sea, how much sleep do you get? Do you think evaluations are fair? Do you think the right people get promoted? Is your boss too risk averse, or too focused on bureaucracy? Do you think top Navy leaders are willing to hold themselves accountable?

Snodgrass said he thinks that because the survey is unofficial, sailors will be more truthful than they are on questionnaires handed out by their commands.

The survey will be available through the end of the month. Using the same channels that circulated Snodgrass’s paper — blogs, social media, email, word of mouth — the survey’s creators want to reach as many active duty sailors as they can. They’re hoping for at least 30,000, or about 10 percent of the service.

How have Navy higher-ups responded? “There hasn’t been pushback or advocacy,” Kohlmann said, although some top leaders have shown interest.

“I share many of the concerns and have similar questions to those detailed in Guy’s paper,” the chief of naval personnel, Vice Adm. Bill Moran, wrote in March on the U.S. Naval Institute’s website. “We have to do better, and I must say that this discourse helps.”

Basic findings from the survey will be released in June, Kohlmann said, followed by a deeper report later in the summer. All of the raw data also will be made available.

Snodgrass said he hopes the information will be used by leaders across the Navy to boost retention, and he suspects a lot can be done inexpensively.

He said he thinks the effort may already be helping simply by generating discussion about how to make the Navy better, which could give officers who are considering leaving a reason to stay.

“It encourages you to become a stakeholder in the organization,” he said.

For more information or to take the survey, go to dodretention.org.

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