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Attrition and How it Affects Military Retention Rates

Attrition and How it Affects Military Retention Rates

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The unsteady military retention rates is an ongoing issue that the U.S. government is trying to curb, if not resolve. As there are many causes that affect military retention rate, several solutions are also underway to minimize attrition among the recruits.  

Let’s delve into these matters deeper by looking at how attrition can be resolved by measures the DoD and recruitment services have in place.


What is attrition in the military?


Attrition in the military happens when there is inability to maintain military retention rates. This issue can be attributed to several factors and not only during recruitment as known to many. 

As a recruit hurdles another phase of the process such as accession, there would appear factors that may trigger attrition. The worst part is, it doesn’t only happen at a particular time. Problems can sprout anywhere in between stages.


The 36th-Month Dilemma


Recruiting managers often observe some overt manifestations during recruitment, entry, or re-entry into a military branch. Comparing what occurs in each military service during these phases is onerous. It requires unique sets of variables or samples. Added to that, timing is not always the same.

For example, the Army tops the list when it comes to attrition while the U.S. Marines have the lowest rate. However, data changes constantly, so, each year, it’s another ball game and new strategies have to be put in place.

Overall, attrition significantly peaks just before the 6th month upon accession. Although some of them would roughly reach their 7th month, it is apparent that after 36 months, attrition is on high gear.


Why Does Attrition Affect Military Retention Rates?


To narrow down on this specific concern, let’s tackle the big four causes of attrition that impact military retention rates.


Military Retention Rates


Performance issues: This is based on how the enlistee performs physically during training. Stamina is important because of the activities they have to undergo during extensive training periods.


Medical and physical problems: Some enlistees do not declare their real physical condition at the onset of the recruitment. Some may have medical issues that they intentionally cover up just to have a chance at being enlisted in a service.


Fraudulent enlistment: It was found out that there are fraudulent entries in applications forwarded to recruitment offices. Enlistees sometimes lie about their age, real name, or marital status. Several of them may have been found out to have prior criminal records and others provided fake educational documents.


Other issues: There are also other problems like following the trend of enlisting together with friends and enlistment hopefuls are not really serious about entering the service. Some may have pending family matters which they think they have to go back to even in the middle of training. It could also be a re-enlistment issue that makes them leave the training hanging.


Who is More Inclined to Attrit?


Apparently, demographic characteristics like marriage, gender, and education level likewise need to be considered as factors leading toward attrition. Patterns may vary from time to time across branches of the military including the subjects’ unique qualities. Therefore, these variations make attrition difficult to detect or determine at times.

It has been noted that female recruits are more attrition-prone in the Army than in other military services. Regardless of gender, not owning a high school diploma or its equivalent are probable attriters in the Navy as well. Married enlistees also lean towards attrition in their first year but not likely once they get past 12 months.

These variations can be detected based on the algorithms during the screening phase. To top that, some attrition trigger factors can be covert and may surface after accession. One perfect example is the taste factor which occurs in first-time applicants. 

The excitement of serving the military and the country may not be for long; not for everyone who is accepted in any of the four services, though. Others may discover that the lifestyle change is too abrupt and the thought of going back to their normal routine is no longer feasible. 


Military recuits on training
Photo Contributor: PeopleImages.com – Yuri A/Shutterstock


Is forecasting key to promoting military retention rates?


Based on data collected from a 2002 to 2013 analysis report, all four military services have accessions totalling to 2,189,024. The report shows who is taken in or re-admitted; who attrited, and the time they most likely did. It also included some overt behaviors that led to attrition within a period of 36 months in service.

Using a specific analysis will show how powerful forecasting is based on data that distinguishes attriters from non-attriters. It will provide a perspective on how the situation looks. Also, it makes it easier for recruitment managers to find and develop policies that can be used to mitigate attrition–as well as promote military retention rates


Take a closer look at this data gathered in 2021:


Re-enlistment data
Source: Defense Manpower Data Center



Based on the reenlistment data for all four US military branches in FY 2021, the U.S. Army still lags behind the others.


How much does attrition cost the U.S. Government?


Between 1974 and 1977, there were more than 444,000 enlistees in the services who had been separated before they had completed their initial enlistments. It cost the Government a clear $5.2 billion. This included benefits available to the servicemen after having been discharged. 

Nearly half of this number qualifies for lifetime benefits as veterans’ benefits which can total to $2.7 billion. Substantially, the Congress can reduce the attrition cost setting a limit to veterans’ benefits like those who complete their enlistments or who have been separated due to service-connected disability.  

Recently, despite increases in the quality of DOD’s enlistees, about one-third of all new recruits continue to leave military service before they fulfill their first term of enlistment. However, things seem to have changed.


Measures that the DoD and the services take to identify causes of attrition


Military recruitment
Photo Contributor: Sergey Nemirovsky/Shutterstock


In recent years, the DoD and other services directly associated with military recruitment made some progress in collecting accurate data on why there are people who leave the service early or prematurely. The most common of which stem from medical reasons. Now, they are taking initiatives targeting enlistees they wish to rehabilitate.

Most likely, persons who fail during rigorous physical training or those who struggle with language or academic problems are at risk. The government is trying its best to identify the causes of attrition and with these concerns continuing to haunt the services, measures have been taken, implemented, and some are still being developed.

The difficulty in the recruitment of eligible enlisted personnel is now being handled with utmost care to expand the rapidly shrinking market, using innovative ways without compromising the quality of possible recruits. 

The three major services are keen on focusing on perceived problems and have added resources to address them.  The U.S. Marines is not included as military retention rates has never been a big problem in this branch of  military service.


Additional resources and measures provided by each military service 


The number of recruiters plus advertising budgets were increased. Larger amounts of enlistment bonuses and money are offered for continuing college education. Aside from these, the military branches themselves are offering their own perks. All of these can reduce attrition rates of first-term enlisted personnel


General Educational Development Plus Enlistment program

This branch attracts youths without high school diplomas through its General Educational Development Plus Enlistment program. The Army sponsors applicants to achieve enlistment standards. This program is attendance-based and targets those coming from community colleges. 

There is a high probability of attracting enlistees who don’t have any disciplinary issues and have obtained more than average aptitude scores on tests. Moreover, this program is also directed to college-bound youths.


Army National Guard College First

Another program that proves to be highly beneficial to incoming college students who want to serve in the military is the College First program. This new enlistment program helps future enlistees achieve their college goals while doing service. 

This program is directed to eligible senior high school, graduating students, and high school graduates even without military experience. It gives them a chance of completing one to two years of higher education (full time) while serving in the Army National Guard. The best part is, there is still no deployment or mobilization yet during the inclusive periods of study.


Navy College Assistance Student Headstart

Recruits in the submarine and nuclear fields are chosen for this program, placing them on active duty while they are enrolled in college. At the same time, they will receive an entry-level salary for about a year, after which they attend basic training. 


Technical Preparation Partnerships

In this partnership program, recruits can earn associate degrees while serving the first enlistment term. The Navy works diligently in coordinating with some community colleges.


Navy College Program

This voluntary educational program allows for continuing education while serving within and outside of the military service. It provides tuition assistance that can help sailors on active duty save on education costs. 


Community College of the Air Force 

Enlisting in the Air Force straight out from high school allows for exclusive program offers and hands-on experience opportunities to help in the development of your skills in order to advance in your career. 

With financial assistance available every step of the way, the Air Force provides training and education as far as where the individual’s endeavors take him. There are five different career fields to choose from. These are: electronics and telecommunications, aircraft and missile maintenance, logistics and resources, public support services, and allied health.


Here are the scholarship programs available in the U.S. Air Force:

  • Scholarship for Outstanding Airmen to ROTC (SOAR) program
  • Airman Scholarship and Commissioning Program (ASCP)
  • Professional Officer Course-Early Release Program (POC-ERP)
  • Nurse Enlisted Commissioning Program (NECP)
  • Physician Assistant Training program
  • LEAD Program


Increasing Military Retention Rates 


So, how much effort should recruiting managers have to use to raise military retention rates? Tons of effort is at stake and not only the DoD knows it. Recruitment managers are now looking at these things very closely. 

Therefore, it can be said that all military services that fall short of the projected number of recruits are more focused than ever. Many initiatives look promising and given the right words coming from recruitment managers, recruitment and low military retention rates will not pose issues in the long run.


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