Photo by Alexandre Debiève

What If We Don’t, And They Stay?

A company’s CEO and CFO were discussing training programs for their employees when the CFO says, “what happens if we train them and they leave?”

The CEO replies, “what if we don’t, and they stay?”

This unattributed business adage (or maybe the attribution has been lost due to thousands of posts and reposts on LinkedIn) lays out a classic tension between management and labor. How does an organization train its employees just enough to do a proper job but not so much that they depart for a higher-paying firm? And what is the cost of not training them?

While civilian corporations take some risk in investing in employees, they can offset employee loss by participating in the open market for talent. They can hire MBA and Ph.D. graduates who funded their own training. They can also poach talent from other firms that funded training for their employees.

The Army, however, must build talent from within. It can’t — or at least, it doesn’t yet — take mid-career management consultants and make them tactical battalion commanders.

The Army clearly values professional development for both its officer and enlisted corps. Whether it’s one of the captain’s career courses, the Command and General Staff College, or the Advanced Leaders Course, the Army has a school for leaders at every echelon. These standard courses are also supplemented with numerous fellowships, broadening opportunities, and advanced civil schooling offered to servicemembers for free.

But they are not entirely free.

While free in terms of money, they are not free in terms of time. Army professional education opportunities, especially non-standard offerings, typically come with an active duty service obligation. Some ADSOs require an additional year of service, while ADSOs for advanced civil schooling are three days owed for every one day in the degree-producing program.

Recently, the ADSO became a focus for Army Futures Command.

After laying out three initiatives to train the next generation of Army cyber talent — each involving a financial investment on the Army’s part — the commander of Army Futures Command laid out one of his top priorities.

“And so we’re starting off with a service obligation. We’re starting off with an additional skill identifier or potentially a new branch in the Army,” he said. “We’re going to have to focus on how do we not train these folks up and then lose them to industry as soon as we have them trained. And that’s really the focus for the next six months or so for AFC.”

Although it’s possible AFC will develop a unique solution for service obligations, it will likely use the standard 3-for-1 ADSO. Using one of the cyber programs as an example — a two-year master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon — a soldier would incur a six-year service obligation upon completion of the degree. However, they may only serve three of those six years in an assignment that would use their acquired skills before the Army reassigns them to another unit.

Gen. Murray is correct in that we can’t generate talent without considering how to retain it. However, senior leaders’ focus on the current ADSO model as a retention tool is misplaced.

While the Army needs to receive an adequate return on investment when it commits taxpayer dollars towards professional education, it should do so in a way that also encourages greater participation across a wider pool of talented soldiers.

Murray reported that 20,000 soldiers expressed interest in the cyber initiatives. Taken at face value, this might suggest participation won’t be an issue.

There are two problems with this line of thinking. The first is that interest does not equate to applications, and time will tell how many actually apply for the opportunities offered. Additionally, it’s unclear how many more soldiers would be interested in participating in the new programs if there were no strings — or fewer strings — attached.

If the Army reconstructed ADSOs for certain opportunities, it might recruit higher-quality candidates for special professional education, such as the cyber programs in development. The most impactful change would be to adjust ADSOs from time-based obligations to duty-based obligations.

For certain specialized education opportunities, the Army should tie the service obligation to service in post-graduation assignments. For instance, if the Army pays for an officer to attend an MBA program and then teach at West Point, the officer should be required to fulfill the commitment to teach. Beyond that, it’s up to the Army to figure out how to retain the officer.

A duty-based obligation would encourage officers to apply to teach at West Point who aren’t interested in whatever comes after (remember: assignments are usually three years, and the current ADSO for an MBA is approximately six years).

The Army could still retain these officers after they meet their duty obligation. The Army could offer a compelling assignment in a similar functional area or improve quality of life and quality of service programs to encourage continued service. Not only could these changes increase the talent pool of applicants, but it would also serve as a forcing function for the Army to hyper focus on talent retention initiatives.

This focus would have downstream effects for all officers, not just those interested in selective opportunities. And while teaching at West Point was used as the example, the Army could apply this same logic across its catalogue of professional education.

The Army’s recent talent management improvements under Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville have been revolutionary. The Assignment Interactive Module 2.0, the Battalion Commander Assessment Program, and the Colonels Command Assessment Program are not just incremental improvements to current systems; they are wholesale changes that represent a commitment to rethinking the status quo.

Why can’t we do the same to the ADSO?

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The views expressed are those of Brennan Randel and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or any government agency.

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