Our armed forces have a manpower problem.
After years of contracting, our armed forces are now being asked to expand to meet our commitments here and abroad. For fiscal 2018, the Army is being asked to recruit 80,000 new soldiers, while the other three services are charged with recruiting a combined similar number of sailors, airmen and Marines.
While recruitment issues have garnered most of the headlines, a second challenge is retaining the forces we currently have.
These men and women are as important as new recruits, if not more so. Our armed forces have already invested in their training. They have the expertise that our armed services cannot easily afford to lose.
Yet, as our military leadership knows, these men and women are increasingly concerned about their choice of the military as a career.
One of the issues that worries them is the education of their children. This is particularly true of members of the military with young families.
The opportunity for travel has long been one of the attributes that attracts young recruits to the military. In fact, the Navy once used the advertising slogan, “Join the Navy and see the world.”
But the nomadic nature of military life becomes less attractive once you have school-aged children.
Consider this: Traditionally, the average time on station has been 18 months to two years. That means that a military-connected child will move times six to nine times between starting kindergarten and graduating from high school.
These frequent moves take their toll in many ways. Many families would prefer spending more time in one station, especially if the schools are good.
Earlier this year, Military Times surveyed its readership of current and former military personnel on education issues. The poll had two interesting findings.
First, respondents confirmed they were worried about moving their child from a “good” school district to a poor performing one. Forty percent said they either have declined or would decline a career-advancing job at a different base to remain at their current military facility “because of high performing schools.”
Moreover, more than a third said dissatisfaction with their child’s education was or is a “significant factor in deciding whether to continue military service.”
These feelings were not exclusive to the poll respondents. The military has known about these concerns for years. The question has always been whether the Pentagon will do anything about it.
The Obama administration took a first step in addressing these concerns in 2016. It introduced a new policy allowing service members to remain at a duty station for an extended period in exchange for additional service. It was a good start.
But more can be done.
One of the most promising new tools to address families’ concerns comes not from the Pentagon, but the Department of Education. It is the Military Student Identifier.
As part of the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, school districts are now required to inquire whether a new student has a military-connected parent before he or she starts classes.
The goal of the identifier is to track military-connected students as they progress through their time in individual school districts. This includes how they perform, whether they graduate, and what they do after they graduate from high school.
States are now in the process of implementing the identifier. If employed successfully, it promises to direct more resources to poor-performing school districts near military bases. By helping these districts improve, it will address some of the concerns that military families have.
Perhaps, as part of his retention strategy, Secretary of Defense James Mattis could direct his policymakers to listen to the troops’ other concerns about education issues. A little time now could mean higher retention rates in the future.
• Ann Dunwoody is a retired U.S. Army general. Christi Ham is the chairwoman of Military Families for High Standards.
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