Military Retention Rates: How to Increase the Numbers

Military Retention Rates: How to Increase the Numbers

The decrease in military retention rates is a major issue for national defense. The scarcity of seasoned leaders impacts military effectiveness and raises questions about lower job satisfaction in the defense forces. 


The U.S.’s overall military retention rate was 55% in 2021, highlighting the need for improvement. Inadequate compensation, toxic leadership, and limited freedom were cited as some of our defenders’ biggest hurdles. 


Encouragingly, the U.S. Navy surpassed retention goals for FY23, while the Army has achieved its retention goals since 2021.


This article explores the military’s proactive measures to bolster military retention rates,  ensuring that top officers remain in service rather than leave the military early.


Why Military Retention is Important


Importance of military retention
Photo by Benjamin Faust/ Unsplash


Military retention is the rate at which military personnel choose to stay in the military after their obligated term of service in the enlistment contract has ended. Here’s why it matters.


Strengthens unit readiness


Ensuring that experienced and trained military personnel continue to serve is essential for maintaining the military’s effectiveness and preparedness. Keeping skilled service members preserves institutional knowledge and expertise, which is crucial for successful military operations. 


Therefore, effective retention strategies are vital for ensuring that military units are prepared for national defense.


The military readiness ratings are derived from GAO’s examination of Department of Defense readiness data for specific mission areas and force elements in each domain. Resource readiness ratings assess personnel, equipment, supplies, and training status, while mission capability readiness ratings determine a unit’s ability to fulfill its designated missions. 


Saves time in training


High retention rates lead to a steady and united team, cutting down on the expensive and time-intensive process of hiring and training new staff. For example, the U.S. Army trains soldiers in over 40,000 tasks annually. These include training for a radio communications system repair, which can take several weeks per soldier. 


The Army sees this extensive investment that will pay off over time. However, the time and effort in training new personnel becomes unproductive if they are to quit the forces early.


Saves costs in military recruitment


Recruiting demands considerable resources, involving time and money for advertising, screening, and processing recruits. By retaining current personnel, the military avoids the expense of recruitment and training new members. 


It is estimated that recruiting one soldier costs between $13,000 and $24,000. If a soldier doesn’t complete their first term, the Army must spend a similar amount for a replacement. Therefore, the Army needs to minimize losses at every stage.


How to Increase Military Retention Rates


How to Increase Military Retention Rates
Photo by Bumble Dee/ Shutterstock


High military attrition rates lead to a lack of experienced personnel, impacting the military’s readiness and effectiveness. Here are seven actionable ways to meet their retention goals.


1. Create a positive environment


A major reason for declining retention in the military is the lack of trust in officers. Creating a positive environment where trust, unity, and collective responsibility are fostered is crucial to boosting trust in the system. This involves addressing toxic leadership, integrating leadership assessments and evaluations, and promoting trust, respect, and adaptability within the force. 


Additionally, creating a greater purpose beyond duty boosts motivation and commitment among team members.


2. Increase pay and benefits


Increasing military pay and bonuses is pivotal in maintaining retention, particularly during extended deployment periods. It enhances competitiveness against the private sector and mitigates the less attractive aspects of military life. 


For instance, while civilian wages saw a 1.6% increase in 2009, military personnel received a 3.2% annual pay increase. In 2024, the National Defense Authorization Act also gave service members a 5.2% pay raise, the most significant in two decades.


The Department of Defense leverages bonuses and other special incentives to drive targeted retention improvements in specific communities. Notably, the U.S. Air Force has introduced bonuses for  Airmen joining the service granted upon completing Air Force training and a four-year or six-year enlistment commitment.


3. Implement transparent promotion systems and provide leadership training


Implementing transparent promotion systems ensures promotions are based on merit rather than seniority. This prevents job dissatisfaction, improving retention rates. 


The U.S. Army is committed to maintaining a transparent, efficient, and comprehensive promotion system tailored to the needs of soldiers. They update soldier records to accurately reflect promotion dates for timely backpay disbursement and recognize their unwavering dedication.


Furthermore, providing leadership training significantly benefits enlisted soldiers seeking career progression. The Army provides various leadership courses aligned with the skills to advance a soldier’s career. These courses bolster inherent leadership capabilities and impart new communication, tactical, and teamwork skills. 


Notably, the Army has instituted the Battalion Commander’s Assessment Program to evaluate individuals’ creative and critical thinking skills before appointing them to leadership roles.


4. Make educational benefits more accessible to service members


The U.S. military service members face challenges in accessing educational benefits, including Tuition Assistance (TA) benefits rollbacks, delayed Army program payments, overpayments in the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and bureaucratic complexities. These issues hinder active-duty personnel from utilizing their benefits effectively.


To mitigate these issues, RAND has proposed solutions, such as 


  • Providing tailored information to potential recruits,
  • Making counseling services mandatory for first-time Post-9/11 GI Bill users
  • Offering comprehensive guidance on benefit and transfer options for those nearing enlistment term completion or transfer eligibility
  • Actively promoting the Tuition Assistance program


Amid these challenges, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness examined how the Post-9/11 GI Bill and Tuition Assistance—two largest education benefits—affect the recruitment and retention of affected service members. Results showed that these educational benefits had positive effects, such as attracting high-quality recruits and increasing intentions to use these benefits. 


5. Personalize retention strategies and improve recruitment methods


The U.S. Navy conducts personal interviews with sailors nine months before their contracts end to tailor retention strategies based on their needs.


Meanwhile, the Army’s reenlistment program incorporates retention control and reenlistment options for Army Reserve personnel. Career counselors manage these using retention-management software to retain highly qualified personnel for the long haul. They focus on retaining initial-term soldiers who haven’t fulfilled their military service obligation yet.


Currently, each military branch maintains its own recruiting organizations, competing for a small pool of applicants who must meet the same statutory qualifications and pass through the same Military Entrance Processing Stations. It could be more efficient if joint recruiting force recruiters were trained to understand opportunities in each branch and match them with individual applicants, promoting collaboration over competition.


Enhancing recruitment methods can include: 


  • Implementing robust referral programs
  • Enlisting influential spokespersons
  • Creating compelling recruitment videos
  • Organizing recruitment events
  • Consolidating recruitment organizations across different military branches
  • Offering financial incentives
  • Updating military tattoo policies
  • Engaging with potential recruits online


6. Provide robust family support programs and financial resources


The Defense Department looks out for its members’ families, too. Ensuring the well-being of military families matters because it is a big deciding factor for soldiers whether to join or continue military service. 


Programs like Strong Families Strong Forces make military life more appealing by reducing parenting stress and boosting reflective capacity. Organizations like Blue Star Families build strong support communities and provide emergency financial aid through H.E.R.O.E.S. CARE


Families can also get immediate help through the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, the Air Force Aid Society, and Army Emergency Relief, which provide emergency financial resources with interest-free loans, grants, or a combination of loans and grants. 


7. Create inclusive programs and support systems for diverse populations


All military branches are working to keep diverse groups of people by supporting women and minority groups. 


The Army created a Women’s Initiatives Team to push for changes that help women succeed in the military. Meanwhile, the Air Force launched an LGBTQ+ Initiative Team (LIT), a gathering for Pride Month to bring airmen, guardians, and leaders together. 


Women also get support through programs like the MDVA Women Veterans/Inclusion Program to tackle barriers and boost opportunities.


The Relationship Between Military Retention and Military Recruitment


Relationship Between Military Retention and Military Recruitment
Photo by Getmilitaryphotos/ Shutterstock


Military retention and recruitment are influenced by several factors, including pay scales, quality of life, and societal perceptions of the military. Low retention rates due to inadequate pay or poor quality of life can discourage potential recruits from joining the military. In contrast, successful retention strategies can lead to a more experienced and stable force, reducing the pressure on recruitment efforts. 


Therefore, efforts to improve military recruitment and retention often go hand in hand. They address the unattraction of recruits and improve the satisfaction of current service members.


Factors Affecting Military Recruitment


The Department of Defense needs to recruit and retain quality personnel who are innovative, adaptive, and knowledgeable. This way, they can sustain the ongoing transformation across the military services. However, it doesn’t always come easy. 


Here are some factors affecting military recruitment.


  • Pentagon reveals that 77% of individuals aged 17 to 24 are disqualified from the service due to poor mental or physical health conditions, substance abuse, or heavy weight.
  • The U.S. Army has struggled to meet its recruitment targets, with a significant fear of death or injury as a major deterrent.
  • A survey by RAND Corporation finds that 54.5% of Americans discourage young people they know are interested in enlisting in the military
  • Maj. Gen. Edward Thomas Jr. notes that only 13% of young Americans considered the military before the pandemic. This number further decreased to 9%
  • The 2021 Reagan National Defense Survey reveals a decline in trust in the military, with only 45% of respondents expressing trust compared to 70% in the initial survey from 2018.

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Written by Skyler Bernards

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