- - Sunday, January 24, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

While opening combat arms roles to female soldiers garnered the most publicity last month, minimal attention has been given to the Army’s decision to grant talented soldiers an opportunity to take a brief “intermission” in their military service to pursue opportunities in the private sector.

Intending to boost retention rates, eligible soldiers were notified that they would have the opportunity to pursue professional and personal growth opportunities for a maximum of three years in the civilian workforce. While the pilot program is limited to 20 officers and 20 sergeants per calendar year, it is a major step in the right direction for an organization that has been bereft of a viable retention strategy for high potential talent segments of its workforce that would like to seek alternative career experiences while serving on active duty.

This type of career flexibility will appeal to the millennial generation — the generation that now comprises more than 66 percent of the Army. Currently, 18.3 percent of active duty members of the Army are between age 18 and 21, and 48 percent are between 22 and 30 years old. Millennials have courageously stepped forward to volunteer to help fight what is now a 14-year war in the Middle East. But, after multiple deployments and a sequestration-driven downsizing in the Army that resulted in several soldiers receiving pink slips while serving in a combat zone in 2014, there were few incentives for soldiers to stay in an Army that seemed so ungrateful for their sacrifices. As a result, many talented junior officers have decided to separate from the Army — something a recent Atlantic Monthly article called the “brain drain.” Millennial soldiers have been willing to make a commitment to service, but this generation also wants to be personally fulfilled.

The Army Career Intermission Pilot addresses these important goals — benefitting both the individual soldier as well as the Army. The private sector will also gain by employing a combat leadership-proven talent group from the veteran community, while the Army will profit from the intellectual capital that is acquired through having its young soldiers gain real-world experience in a challenging competitive corporate environment.

To maximize the benefits of this program, the Army must strategically partner with appropriate landing organizations to enhance the soldier’s goals and the Army’s needs. For example, a logistics specialist would obtain invaluable experience working within the supply chain management operations of a company like Amazon.com. Likewise, a technically savvy officer in the newly formed “Cyber” branch of the Army would acquire tremendous skill sets by spending a few years with a Silicon Valley startup.

Sabbaticals have always been an important strategy to enhance scholarship and teaching for university professors. Likewise, top tier consulting firms have often welcomed their most talented managers back to their consulting roles after a sojourn in key leadership positions in a focused sector. Consulting firms acknowledge the value of these kinds of career “intermissions” — valuing those who “boomerang” back with additional industry expertise, leadership capacity, and stronger networks.

If expanded, this program will also begin to address the continued downsizing of the force to 440,000 — the smallest size since before World War II. Currently, the Army is losing combat experienced leaders every day. These losses involve experienced soldiers who will never be able to rejoin the ranks while we are still addressing major challenges in addressing short term budget constraints in resource capacity. During their time “away” from the military, the global threat landscape will inevitably change and the military hierarchy can look forward to the return of a combat experienced work force to come back through the door armed with industry best practices in their career fields.

The pilot program also has further long term benefits that will be realized when participants retire from active duty. Veterans will enter the workforce with a resume that has been enhanced by both the private and public sector — decreasing the already alarming rate of veteran failure to obtain employment upon separation from the Army. A recent Department of Veterans Affairs report indicates that 53 percent of separating post-9/11 veterans face a significant period of unemployment following their service to the country.

The Army needs to expand and enhance this program by making it competitive in personnel selection and partnering with strategic civilian counterpart organizations to optimize success for all involved. Those who have volunteered to serve in the military have sacrificed a lot for their commitment to protecting the country. It is time to begin to provide meaningful work experiences while they continue that commitment.

Former Army Capt. Jonathan Hendershott (West Point, 2007) served in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division and as a company commander in Ft. Hood, Texas. He currently works as a management consultant in New York City.

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