February 24, 2012: The U.S. Navy is making it easier for sailors, who volunteer to spend more time at sea, to stay in the navy. Sailors who wish to reenlist (usually for 4-6 years) have to compete with all other sailors who wish to do so. The number of people in the navy is limited by law, and when the unemployment rate is high, many sailors find themselves competing for a limited number of reenlistment opportunities. Many things are measured (job performance, skills, staying out of trouble) to determine how eligible for reenlistment a sailor is. Now, willingness to spend more time at sea earns you some extra points.
This is part of an effort to get more people to sea without hurting morale. With the U.S. Navy facing annual personnel cuts for the rest of the decade, it's become more difficult to give sailors more time ashore with their families. Shore time is good for morale but the navy needs ships at sea as much as possible to maintain seagoing and combat skills.
Several years ago the navy thought it had this manning problem solved. But now the navy has cancelled its decade-long experiment in "optimal manning." This was a policy meant to cross-train sailors, reorganize work on a ship, and introduce some automation in order to reduce crew size up to 20 percent. Early experiments seemed to work.
But optimal manning was less successful when it was tried on more ships. The long term impact was very damaging to morale and ship readiness. What happened was that as many little emergencies showed up, especially on long voyages, sailors were pulled away from their duties, especially ship maintenance. The maintenance deficits were often never made up and ship systems began to fail. In particular, they began to fail the periodic readiness inspections.
Another attempt to get more people to sea occurred last year when the navy notified 60,000 sailors (about 16 percent of navy strength) that they would be spending more time on sea duty (assigned to a ship). When the ship is in port the married sailors, and many of the unmarried ones, live in homes or barracks ashore. But when on sea duty they can expect to spend at least 20 percent of their time living on the ship while it is at sea. While many sailors prefer sea duty, others avoid it. Married sailors are usually under some pressure to stay ashore most of the time.
This change comes after years of complaints about sailors who never seemed to get assigned to a ship (and thus risk spending up to six months, or more, at sea during a single voyage). Meanwhile, other sailors seemed to spend most of their time assigned to a ship. So the navy finally combed through their personnel records to find who had been a landlubber too often and changed their personnel software to avoid sailors spending too much time away from sea duty.