Attrition: Beating the Odds


March 12, 2007: The U.S. Army is using more cash, and more science, to maintain its strength without conscription, and even expand, during wartime. For example, since 2003, the army has increased spending on retention bonuses from $85 million a year, to $735 million. The higher figure is still less than one percent of payroll cost. But in terms of keeping trained, and experienced, people, the savings is much greater. It takes over five years to train a recruit to become a squad leader. That's over half a million dollars. So spending up to $20,000 to keep someone like that in, makes a lot of sense. A lot more money is going to the troops, in many forms. There are now several forms of "hazardous duty" pay, as well as energetic, and expensive, efforts to make life as comfortable as possible in the combat zones. Getting air conditioning, good food, and other amenities to the battlefield costs money. But it does wonders for morale and recruiting. As a result, the cost per soldier per year has gone from $75,000 in 2001, to $120,000 in 2006.

The other breakthrough is less well known, and has been a long time coming. The army has found ways to lowering its admission standards in order to get all the volunteers it needs. For example, the army allowed up to four percent of the recruits to be of the second lowest aptitude level (Category IV). The percentage of recruits who are high school graduates is now 82 percent, versus 92 percent three years ago. More recruits are being let in on waivers. The most common items waived are medical conditions, criminal records or drug use. For example, many urban recruits have asthma problems. If the recruit is headed for a job that does not require the kind of physical effort that low grade asthma would interfere with, a waiver would be granted. If a prospect has a low grade (no felonies) criminal record, and appears to have moved on from that sort of thing, a waiver is possible. Same with prior drug use. Prospects are made aware of the regular, unannounced, drug tests for troops on active duty.

The army has long used statistical analysis of recruit records, and the subsequent performance of those soldiers, to work up a profile of recruits that appear risky, but are not. Many recruits with physical or psychological problems are harder, and often impossible, to train. Those with criminal tendencies are often disciplinary problems, even after training, and many of these have to be discharged before their term of service is up. However, after studying millions of recruits, the army has refined its parameters for what kind of person will make a successful soldier. So waivers are not as risky as they used to be, nor are high school dropouts and those who score lower on the aptitude tests.

But there is always risk, and greater cost. These recruits are more expensive to train, and many of them get tossed out later. But the majority do well. So if you want more troops, you have to come up with ways to train recruits formerly rejected as too much trouble to deal with. This is more expensive, and cause more headaches for NCOs and officers that have to deal with them, but it's a way to keep your numbers up.

So far, this new category of recruits has accounted for about ten percent of the new troops coming in each year. The attrition rate has been higher, but overall, it has meant only about one percent of recruits are lost (because they could not complete their training, or could not handle the discipline.) Those who do succeed, will have higher rates of disciplinary problems for as long as they stay in. That's a hundred or so additional courts martial a year.

A lot of the new screening and training techniques come from civilian firms, with similar problems. But the army has innovated as well. Partly because of the unique aspects of military life, and partly because the army is getting a lot of opportunity to perform in this area.




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