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Army should change how it picks enlisted leaders to lower attrition, study says

Soldiers stand in formation at the 7th Army Noncommissioned Officer Academy during a Warrior Leaders Course graduation ceremony in Grafenwoehr, Germany. (Gertrud Zach/U.S. Army)

The Army could lower attrition rates, save money and improve junior soldier performance if it was better at selecting its senior enlisted leaders, according to a new study.

A Rand Corp. analysis, called “The Value of Experience in the Enlisted Force,” found that the most effective senior noncommissioned officers aren’t necessarily the ones who were promoted the fastest.

NCOs who made E-6 faster actually had more soldiers fail to complete their initial service contract than their counterparts who moved slower up the ranks, according to the data.

“As a result, although ‘fast promoters’ may be excellent soldiers, fast promotion does not imply that they are also excellent leaders,” according to the study from Rand, a nonprofit research group often commissioned by the military.

The study examined how experience levels among NCO leaders influence their soldiers’ performances and found both too little and too much experience among leaders can have negative effects.

“Junior soldiers have lower first-term attrition when their senior enlisted leaders possess key types of experience, but more experience is not always valuable,” the Rand study found.

The sweet spot appeared to be somewhere in the middle when it comes to experience — NCOs with between 22 and 25 years of service had more soldiers who stayed in the Army and got promoted at higher rates, according to the study.

The relationship between NCOs and the performance of junior soldiers has generally been overlooked, partly due to the difficulty in tracking a force that undergoes frequent relocation, the study said. Rand researchers isolated cases and found certain types of leader experience, such as time in a unit, time in service and amount of time deployed all factor heavily when it comes to developing junior troops.

Junior soldier attrition rates were lowest when senior personnel had between 20 and 39 months of deployment experience, the study reported. But the soldier attrition rate is higher when the senior leader has either less than 20 months or more than 39 months deployed.

“This suggests that it is only certain types of leadership experience that improve the performance of junior soldiers,” Rand said. “Furthermore, additional experience is not always preferable.”

Soldiers are also more likely to be involuntarily separated or otherwise fail to complete their initial service term when a leader is new to a unit, regardless of the leader’s experience level, the study found. Rand data said about one-third of leaders have fewer than 15 months of experience in their current units, which “suggests that a leader’s start-up period is expensive to the Army.”

The Army should consider ways to maintain continuity, such as designing a more substantial overlap between leaders at times of transition and increasing time a leader spends in a unit, Rand said.

“Our results suggest that focusing on this issue also has the potential for cost savings,” the study said.

When comparing two similar units with 100 junior soldiers, having a leader with the right experience level would mean that two additional soldiers would complete their initial terms of service, Rand said.

“This suggests that the Army would need to recruit about one fewer soldier for each unit with a leader of typical experience than for one with a less experienced leader,” the study said.

The costs of recruiting and training one soldier are about $60,000, according to Rand.

Rand recommended the Army consider providing additional training and support for its least-experienced senior enlisted personnel, maintain more continuity during senior enlisted leaders’ transitions between units and give greater weight to desired leadership traits in the promotion process.

“The Army desires effective leaders and mentors because they motivate their soldiers to perform better,” the study said. “NCOs who do a better job at these tasks will be more likely to accomplish their mission and produce junior personnel who themselves go on to become strong leaders and mentors.”


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