Attrition: Binding Them With Science

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January 28, 2008: The U.S. Army is using more cash, and more science, to attract, and then retain, less educated recruits. That's right, while recruiting bonuses have gone up, the percentage of high school graduates among recruits has declined. Last year, 71 percent of recruits were high school grads. The others had to complete a high school equivalency exam. Four years ago, 92 percent were high school grads.

Since 2003, the army has increased spending on retention bonuses from $85 million a year, to over $700 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 in pay and other costs. 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 over $120,000.

Yet there has not been a noticeable decline in troops quality.The army has found ways to lower its traditional admission standards, yet still get people who can perform well in a professional force.But it goes beyond letting in more troops who do poorly on written tests, or did not finish high school. 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. This is not popular among the officers and NCOs in units that have to do the tossing. 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. What the army is doing now has long been proposed by social reformers who believed the military should be used to upgrade the education and work skills of those who failed to get them at home or in the public schools. There was such an experiment during the Vietnam War (Project 100,000). The army resisted taking these 100,000 recruits, that normally would have been rejected. But the army did learn that many of the 100,000 made good soldiers. Since then, the lessons of Project 100,000 have grown and evolved, until the army is widening its recruit pool in order to keep its strength up in wartime.

 


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