Keeping the blogosphere posted on the goings on of the world of submarines since late 2004... and mocking and belittling general foolishness wherever it may be found. Idaho's first and foremost submarine blog. (If you don't like something on this blog, please E-mail me; don't call me at home.)

Thursday, November 01, 2007

"Retention Deep Dives" -- A Short-Lived Initiative

The New London Day has an interesting article in today's edition on a new initiative to find out why some boats are having low retention rates. Those of us familiar with the Submarine Force know this effort is doomed to failure, but for those unfamiliar with the inner workings of submarines, we'll discuss it here. Excerpts from the article:
The Navy is sending a team of experts to Groton next week to determine why one of the submarines has trouble retaining personnel.
Force Master Chief Jeff Garrison said on Wednesday that five people, including reserve captains, a command master chief from outside the Groton area and a career counselor will visit one of the subs at the Naval Submarine Base for two days.
Their goal is to figure out the root cause of the ship's poor retention, high attrition and low morale, and provide the commanding officer with ideas on how to improve the situation, Garrison said...
...The Groton submarine will be the first ship to take part in the program. Garrison would not say which submarine was selected.
“We'll send that same team to another boat with a high retention rate and high morale so we can better understand those best practices and share them with the rest of the fleet,” he said. “Then we'll determine if we're going to continue with these deep dives, but I'm sure we're going to have success with it.”
All of us have seen this type of initiative come and go. Some deskbound senior guys who will never go back to sea sit around shooting the sh** and come up with a bright idea. It doesn't matter what the idea is -- the common thread is that it demonstrates said desk jockey's loss of contact with the reality of boat life. (The same dynamic is at work when a boat gets in trouble for something they did operationally, and the investigating team convinces themselves that all the ancillary issues they discover are limited to only problem boats.)

So why do some boats have better retention than others? In some cases, it is because of a better command climate -- everyone is happier, so potential re-enlistees are more likely to want to stay in the organization that makes them happy. In my experience, though, that's pretty rare. Submarine Force retention rates, especially for first termers, is skewed by the re-enlistment of baby nukes who get a lot of money to reenlist for basically two extra years right after they get to the boat -- it counts in the numerator of the retention rate without having a chance of being a loss. A boat with "low" retention might just be in a cycle where they aren't getting many baby nukes.

The idea that crew interviews with a couple of reserve Captains will uncover some "truth" is completely ridiculous on the face of it. They'll go in looking for people with bad attitudes to ask them why their boat is so messed up, and guess what -- they'll find malcontents. What they'll forget is that every boat has malcontents, and even on the best boats they'll find guys willing to explain why their boat is crappy. (Don't get me wrong -- I like malcontents in general; I'm just mentioning them in this context because the investigators won't be looking for them on the "good" boat.)

Another problem with investigating retention rates is a dynamic that shows up sometimes in boats with really, really bad command climates. I served on USS Topeka (SSN 754) up until 1993 under "He Who Must Not Be Named" -- and Topeka had great retention rates, particularly among officers. You know why? Because re-enlisting for orders was often a Sailor's only quick way off the boat. For my cohort of JOs, 7 of 8 signed on for the Nuke Bonus (the fleet average back then was about 38%); not doing so meant you spent the rest of your obligation on the boat. It was a no brainer. (Me? I was a dig-it, and would have signed up anyway. I figured that, having made it through "Fast Eddie", I'd never run into anything worse, and I was right.)

Still, I'm sure it'll be interesting as Submariners on the Groton waterfront look to see which boat the "Retention Deep Dive" team is heading to -- and hoping it'll be their boat if they think it'll make everyone be nicer to them. A bitching Sailor is a happy Sailor, and there's nothing a bitching Sailor likes more than someone to bitch to.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't forget retention rates can be GREATLY beefed up by a stop in a tax free zone. People with no love of the Navy or submarines see even low SRB multiples TAX FREE as an acceptable payout. It would be interesting to compare retention rates to "combat zone" time. Another thing "said" desk jockey would never put together.

11/01/2007 8:40 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is actually a very simple thing to solve: just ensure that a sufficient number of crewmembers have the same qualities as the one shown at minute 1:08 in this "YouTube video of the world's quietest submarine."

That was easy. Got any other tough problems to, disharmony at the United Nations?

11/01/2007 8:59 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A couple thoughts...

1) By luck or by design I think they've got it right by using reserve captains. By bringing in someone who works in the real world (most of the time) I think they are less likely to feel any pressure to give COMSUBNAVFOR or whoever is at the center of the effort an anwer they already want to here.

2) The original post points out correctly that retention rates don't necessarily correlate with problems on the boat. There are all sort of variables invovled besides command climate (SRBs, tax free zones, etc.) But can we really argue there isn't a problem with retention or command climate in the force in general? At least they are making an effort to pull the string, even if they might be picking on the wrong boat.

11/01/2007 9:07 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was once privy to a telephone conversation between the senior, pre-flag officer detailer in D.C. (in those days) and an O-6 at SUBLANT who was on the fool's errand from the Admiral to "find out why junior officer retention is so low." Was only hearing one side of the conversation, but it was apparent that the CSL O-6 was in a bit of a tizzy to get the good word from the detailer 'oracle' so he could hustle that back to his boss and receive some pats on the head.

The oracle's laconic response (with more than a trace of a smile):

"Tell the Admiral that the real question is: 'Why do any of them stay in?' It's a miserable life. I think the ones that stay can't honestly think of what they'll do on the outside, and don't have the gumption, motivation or moral courage to go do something they've never done before. They basically stay in because they feel trapped. Tell him I said that."

From my point of view, the good oracle was jesting, of course, and to no small consternation of the high-desire-to-please )O-6.

Then again -- was he really all that much off the mark...?

11/01/2007 9:26 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A bitching Sailor is a happy Sailor, and there's nothing a bitching Sailor likes more than someone to bitch to."


11/01/2007 9:30 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you complain, but you offer a reasonable solution at the same time, you're not bitching, your problem solving. This is a leadership trait.

If you complain while you're doing whatever you're complaining about having to do, you're bitching, and that's okay, too. Quiet sailors are the ones to watch out for.

But, if you complain about something while someone else is getting it done without you, you're a whiner and part of the problem. Expect a visit from the EB-green fairy later.

11/01/2007 10:49 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is a waste of time. From my experience, and this is just a generalization of my six years in the navy on a carrier, the majority, not all but a significant majority, of people that stayed in did it for three reasons:
1) They couldn't balance a checkbook. They were so broke they had to re-up.
2) Had to for the kids. Basically they couldn't afford to look for a job or the kids were in school or what ever. Their family prevented going civilian.
3) They were such complete screw ups, not even the Post office would take them.
For me, I was up to E-5 by the time I left, most of my supervisors were walking advertisements for civilian life. The guys that stayed in, all regretted it and were screw ups. My biggest problem with the nuclear navy was that instead of working for someone, I always had to work in spite of someone. Bang your head against a wall for six years, you get a terrible headache.

11/01/2007 11:24 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the O-6 got it exactly right.

My boat had a really good retention rate - every single JO who was senior to me stayed in past their JO shore tour (9 total)

Two of those really loved being submariners/future admirals.

Of the rest:

Three tried to go EDO (one successfully, WITHOUT a DH tour - this guy was the king of scams)

Two were prior enlisted and were pot-committed to the Navy.

One stayed because "The Navy is paying me $100k a year to get a master's degree" (PG school)

One stayed because his wife wanted him to.

100% of them signed buy-a-nuke contracts.

The funny thing is that, as a former sub JO, you could be making twice as much money within 3-4 years of leaving the service. It's just that the boat becomes your entire world and you lose all perspective of the real world, so you never even get the option to find greener pastures.

More power to those who really love it - we need motivated sub COs. (We may only need about 50 of them by the time those JOs make it to the command gate, but that's another story).

11/01/2007 6:54 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here we go again..... In the early 70's Admiral Z started Human Resource Management Centers to help CO's MANAGE their "Command Climate" and Retention problems. All ships and Submarines went through regularly scheduled Human Resorce Availabilities (HRAV's). It provided a lot of employment for Organizational Development consultants and contributed nothing to operational readiness and thats why it was killed of in the mid 80's. Somehow everyone forgot that we LEAD SAILORS, and MANAGE WORK AND PROCESSES!!!

Retention is about leadership. Is the boat a "happy" boat??? Sailors that are on a "happy boat" stay on them. If it's not, its a LEADERSHIP PROBLEM!!! What's the CO doing about it?? He outta be asking all the questions and starting to LEAD the effort to turn things around. If he can't, he needs to be relieved and get someone in that can!!! It's to late for leadership coaches and consultants if your in command. Either you got it or you don't. If you don't have it you got no business being there.

My two cents....

Keep a zero bubble......


11/02/2007 12:47 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

He who must not be named??Sorry but I do not get this reference.

11/02/2007 4:23 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Our boat won the siver anchor three years running as everyone reenlisted for early orders off the boat. As a result, "they" changed how the numbers were counted when selecting the winner.

This lends credence to the thought that excessively high retention is probably a bad sign...

11/02/2007 5:46 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Submarining is one of the coolest things that many young guys can sign up to do. They don't often do it for money even though the money isn't bad. Its cool and its fun. The Navy has to change that opinion before a guy will decide that he doesn't want to do it anymore. What's not cool is cleaning the shitter during field day on a tiger cruise while you son is with you. Its not cool to be chewed out by the QMC for wearing your sweater topside when you know that the QMC only took the duty that day because he's restricted to the boat for a alchohol related incident. I could rant for days, but the point is that the small things change us until we give up what we enjoy to escape what we don't.
RM1/SS (14 years active duty.)

11/02/2007 7:49 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was on four boats as an Aganger. I may be biased but if the MM’s on the boat are in a bad mood, that mood emanates throughout the boat. I’m not just talking about the Agangers but the nuk MM’s too. I truly believe that were Snipes don’t groove, ships don’t move.
I was very blessed that all the boats I served on had great command attitudes, from the Wardroom down to the Mess Cranks. Yes we bitched and moaned but it was while we were doing the job. Early in my career, I learned that if I was going to the Chief with a complaint, I’d better have a suggestion on how to fix it and I tried to push that as I moved up in rank.
We all have seen hard luck boats. As a Ship Sup on the McKee in the 90’s, we could tell what the command atmosphere was during the upkeeps and availabilities and there were boats that we hated working on. SLC, Houston and Topeka were very difficult to work with. I meet Bubblehead in passing and sitting through the Squadron Briefs listened to “He who must not be named” and for the Ship Sup, the upkeeps were very difficult to manage. That being said, the job did get done.
There is no easy fix for low retention because there are so many reasons for it. Command climate, a bad egg in the Wardroom, Goat Locker or just in a Division.

That Damn Good Looking Aganger From Iowa

11/02/2007 8:57 AM

Anonymous said...

Quite useful piece of writing, thanks for this post.

11/25/2011 1:30 AM


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