To fight tomorrow’s wars, the Marine Corps must improve recruiting, retention, and assignments
The system is not working as it should.
The Marine Corps needs a fundamental redesign of its talent management. Between March 2020 and March 2022, I documented military pay processes in support of the Full Financial Statement Audit. This involved reading Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, and Marine Corps manpower and fiscal policies and interviewing the individuals who execute the policy via processes. I spoke with personnel from Marine Corps Recruiting Command, the hardworking people who process retirements, and everyone in between. During every interview, I asked what was wrong with the Marine Corps’ military human resource system. The vast majority described a system that is simply not working as it should, and no matter where they worked, they could see cracks forming in the machine. But the cracks were so pervasive, all they could do was shrug their shoulders.
This is why it was so disappointing to read the reactionary stance of retired Lt. Gen. Gregory Newbold, and his disparagement of Talent Management 2030 (TM2030). His impressive resume includes three tours at Manpower and Reserve Affairs — officer assignment officer, head of enlisted assignments, and director of Manpower, Plans, & Policy — but his recent op-ed reveals he has not kept himself informed about the Marine Corps personnel environment over the last two decades. In the article, he describes the current system in much better shape than reality, presents factually incorrect information, takes contradictory stances, ignores important demographic data and scientific research, and encourages an impossibly risk-averse stance.
For background, TM2030 provides the framework and philosophy for overhauling Marine Corps personnel policies. The document divides the changes into four major areas: new models for recruiting talent, aligning the assignments process consistent with Marine Corps warfighting philosophy, instituting career flexibility initiatives, and adopting modern digital tools, processes, and analytics.
The Current System
Newbold claims TM2030 fails to appreciate unintended consequences. He fails to present evidence the current industrial system is working. The current manpower system is broken and Marine Corps recruiters barely keep it together.
The Marine Corps is not meeting its retention mission. It is retaining the correct number of Marines overall, but not the correct type of Marines. For many years the Marine Corps failed to attract enough Marines to reenlist for a second term, particularly in specialties like intelligence, aviation maintenance, and infantry. However, this year there is a good story when it comes to riflemen reenlisting. The Marine Corps is reasonably close to meeting its first term reenlistment goal for riflemen. Meeting this goal is a team effort dependent on the hard work and diligence of commanders, career planners, and headquarters personnel. Two major efforts stand out though. First, larger bonuses were offered. In 2020 a rifleman’s 48-month reenlistment bonus was $7,200. This year it was $16,250. Second, reenlisting Marines opted to switch to rifleman as opposed to their original specialty. Marines that used to be in logistics or communications chose to be in the infantry.
These two efforts directly align with TM2030. Allowing Marines to switch specialties is explicitly mentioned. Previously, good Marines dissatisfied with their specialty would have left the Marine Corps. Now, arguably the most important specialty in direct ground combat has more Marines leading to appropriately staffed infantry units.
Newbold likes direct ground combat Marines to be “mobile, agile, and hostile.” In his world, the majority of first-term infantry Marines are extremely agile in avoiding the career planner, very hostile to reenlisting, and superbly mobile in running away from the Marine Corps with their DD214 resulting in infantry personnel shortages. What are the unintended consequences of this legacy system?
Here are two:
- To meet end strength, the Marine Corps retains excessive Marines in other specialties. While these numbers are closely held, there are anecdotes of specialties at 130% of the goal. These “excess” Marines fill supporting establishment roles admirably, but their presence undermines the active-duty force’s ability to generate combat power.
- Increasing recruiters’ missions is another way to meet end strength. Any time in the fiscal year, the Manpower Plans, Programs, and Budget Branch Head, a colonel, can send a memo to recruiting headquarters increasing the number of Marines it must recruit. Multiple three-star commands can fail to retain Marines and it falls on the recruiting stations across America to make up for it.
TM2030 calls for a complete overhaul because this is a broken system. The Commandant knows this and he was correct in making talent management a priority.
Correcting factual errors
- Despite Newbold’s claims to the contrary, Marine leaders are fully in control of promotions to sergeant and corporal. If the Marine has met the cutting score and his command does not think he or she is ready for promotion, there is an easy way to prevent the promotion. It is called not-recommending a Marine for promotion. It is counseling and an entry in Marine Online. An Outlook Calendar reminder solves this problem.
- Newbold decries high-performing Marines receiving additional money. He claims that “The Marine Corps already recognizes exceptional talent, but does so in a subtle way that preserves what we call ‘esprit de Corps.’” There are many examples that disprove this, but here is one example for officers and one example for enlisted.
- A Major with less than 12 years of service is paid $94,740 per year in base pay. The FY22 aviation bonus for a Harrier pilot is $35,000 per year. Plus, the Harrier pilot would receive Aviation Incentive Pay of $800 per month or $9,600 per year. The Harrier pilot makes $44,600 or 47% more per year compared to a peer major.
- A Staff Sergeant with less than 10 years of service makes $46,638 per year in base pay. An infantry Staff Sergeant can reenlist for 48 months and receive $14,000, which is a $3,500 per year bonus, then go be a drill instructor and receive an extra $3,333 per year for a three-year tour. The infantry Staff Sergeant makes $6,833 or 15% more per year compared to a peer in the fleet.
There is nothing subtle about making 47% or 15% more than a peer. These premiums are paid to any Marine that meets the requirements. A top-tier pilot makes just as much as a bottom tier. The infantry Staff Sergeant could be the finest in the regiment, or average. The institution makes these decisions to keep trained individuals. To insinuate the Marine Corps does not pay to retain desired skills is false.
Newbold can’t decide if he wants humans to influence the manpower process or not. Artificial intelligence influencing assignments and promotions are bad. But he also disagrees with individual Marines, commanders, commands or locations influencing the process. It appears Newbold is advocating for the current centrally controlled system with selected headquarters Marines issuing orders. It would be better if he simply said the status quo is ideal. Newbold cannot advocate for the current system openly, perhaps because he knows this opaque system is disliked.
There is an even worse pay contradiction. The Marine Corps does not have to reward its best people with additional money because it is a strong team and can retain personnel with “esprit de corps.” He then claims lateral entries won’t work because the Marine Corps can’t pay enough. Which one is it? If the Marine Corps is an outstanding team, it reasons people from all walks of life will want to join at various points in their careers for a chance to experience esprit de corps and the Marine experience. If the only way to get technical personnel is by paying at or above market wages, then it reasons the Marine Corps will not retain its own technical personnel without paying above market wages. But, he already embraced the premise the Marine Corps does not have to reward its best people with money to make them stay.
Demographic Data and Scientific Research
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median age for a man’s first marriage in 1970 was 23. In 2021 the median age was 30. In 1970 there were 10.6 marriages per 1,000 people. In 2018 there were 6.5 marriages per 1,000 people. Per the World Bank, births per woman in America have dropped from 2.48 in 1970 to 1.7 in 2019. Newbold was commissioned in 1970, and his view of America’s demographics is stuck there. Fewer and fewer Americans in their 20s are encumbered with a spouse or child. The Marine Corps is aware of these trends and it has a fantastic opportunity to recruit a more mature force.
These demographic trends also counter his concerns about parental leave. Newbold creates a theoretical captain in her second tour having two children (or more). This is statistically unlikely. The mean number of children born to women aged 22 to 44 with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 1.0. Many women would never take parental leave. The majority would take it once, a smaller amount two times, and then outliers would take three or more. Would parental leave build resentment? Perhaps, but it may be what is necessary to retain skilled personnel.
Neuroscience provides the strongest case for an older force. As TM2030 points out, research indicates the brain fully develops at 25. An interesting research insight is humans need less sleep to function properly as they age. A force 3-4 years older requires less sleep to operate. Most importantly, a teenager’s prefrontal cortex is not fully developed. With a fully developed prefrontal cortex, humans respond rationally, with good judgment, and with an awareness of long-term consequences. Without a fully developed prefrontal cortex, teens process information emotionally with the amygdala. Again, America’s demographic changes provide an opportunity to recruit Marines with the cognitive maturity 18 and 19-year-olds may not have.
Newbold also brings out the well-worn problem of money. He extols frugality and wants to obtain the least expensive force possible. Since Newbold retired from the Marine Corps in 2002, America’s GDP has grown from $11 trillion to $23 trillion. This could be an article of its own, but a $23 trillion dollar economy needs to be protected by an appropriately capable and well-funded military force.
Talent Management Risk Aversion
Newbold wants the Marine Corps to, “temper impulsive judgments and radical actions without fully, even exhaustingly, testing each premise and outcome.” This is the most worrying critique he makes of TM2030. This is not physics. 180,000 active duty personnel are constantly being influenced by economics, geopolitics, cultural changes, Marine Corps policy, and many other factors. It is nearly impossible to have a credible control group to test each one of these premises. With humans, like with warfare, perfect information will never exist. The Manpower and Reserve Affairs website describes the change philosophy: “TM2030 change will be iterative; policies and procedures will be analyzed, adjusted and implemented”. There is a risk with changing the talent management system and the Marine Corps will do its best to mitigate this risk.
The best evidence for a bold talent management transformation can be found on Damien O’Connell’s Controversy & Clarity podcast dated January 28, 2021. In a striking disclosure during an interview with Lt. Gen. David Furness, the division commander said, “No one worked harder to put sergeants in front of squads. You know I had 243 squads in 2nd Marine Division. I wanted 243 sergeants in front of them and the most I ever had was 115.” In other words, the current talent management process provided a division commander with less than half of the Marines he needed in key roles.
The fact is that in order to exist within the current manpower model, the Marine Corps has to prioritize training infantry sergeants as recruiters over assigning them to infantry battalions. This is insane. The Marine Corps is a warfighting organization. It has a moral obligation to provide a Marine fresh out of the School of Infantry with a trained sergeant as a squad leader. This can only be done with major talent management reforms.
Christopher McCarthy is a Major in the Marine Corps Reserves and an analyst at Manpower & Reserve Affairs. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.