U.S. Navy Optimas Award Winner for General Excellence

The military branch maintains a massive workforce with programs that offer personnel a greater choice of jobs, education assistance and family support.

September 7, 2011

Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, held little appeal as a destination for U.S. Navy sailors in May 2005. The Navy found itself needing to fill 259 jobs that year at the base. Only 42 people volunteered initially. That’s when the service decided to utilize a novel program established in 2003 called Assignment Incentive Pay.


Through the initiative, Navy jobs are open for online “bidding” in which sailors can request compensation above their base salary. The Navy selects the most qualified individuals at the lowest price. The additional compensation can amount to $450 to $1,000 per month.

Within six days of the Guantánamo jobs going online, 223 sailors

volunteered for duty. By August, all but 37 positions had been filled through the pay program. The initiative is one of several that the Navy has implemented to make its workforce policies responsive to young sailors who want more control over their careers. Just as employers in the private sector are discovering, the Navy understands that the new generation of workers is demanding greater flexibility and more opportunities for education and career development, according to Vice Adm. Mark Ferguson III, chief of naval personnel and deputy chief of naval operations.

For instance, Task Force Life/Work is a program designed to help sailors attain more balance between their professional and personal responsibilities. As a result, the Navy has made improvements to maternity benefits, parental leave and flexible work options.

The Navy also offers tuition assistance, significantly boosting the number of sailors who obtain associate and bachelor’s degrees and other educational credentials while serving.

These efforts have helped the Navy better recruit and retain women and members of Generation Y. Essentially, the Navy has become more paternalistic as it tries to meet the needs of both the people working on a ship or at a base and the people who are depending on them at home.

“The leadership to the very top of the Navy realizes that we’re in a war for talent,” Ferguson says. “We recruit a sailor, but we retain a family.”

Ferguson’s recruiting challenge is daunting. The Navy must sign up 40,000 new people annually for a force that totals about 600,000, if reservists and civilians are included. Positions range from nuclear operators on submarines to pilots flying operations over Iraq to doctors and medical technicians in Afghanistan to countless jobs on ships and at bases around the world.

The goal is to retain servicemen and servicewomen beyond their initial four- to six-year commitment, encouraging them to transition from active duty to reserve status or to a civilian position.

“Our overarching vision is a seamless total force—the active component, reserves and our civilians—who are valued for a lifetime of service to the nation,” Ferguson says.

Keeping sailors on board depends on developing relationships with them.

“That bond with them, where they feel that we’re going to invest in them and take care of them and their families, is the strongest component,” Ferguson says.

Giving sailors the opportunity to bid on their own assignments through the incentive program is an example of valuing sailors. The incentive approach required a change in the hierarchical military mind-set, says Jeri Busch, head of the Navy’s military pay and compensation policy branch.

“We were trying to put forth the notion that it is in the Navy’s interest and the sailors’ interest to improve volunteerism in the assignment system,” Busch says. “We had to overcome a cultural notion of ‘orders are orders.’ ”

In addition, the Navy is saving money because Assignment Incentive Pay replaced a program called Sea Duty Credit that gave sailors extra time away from serving on a ship if they took a difficult-to-fill shore assignment. But the Navy still had to staff its boats, resulting in higher manpower costs.

With sailors—especially younger ones—snatching assignments because they’re a better fit for their lives, job satisfaction and retention are increasing, Busch says.

Offering greater choices of assignments, education assistance and family support has helped the Navy recruit what Ferguson calls “the next greatest generation,” who will help keep the United States safe from future threats. “They have stepped up and answered the call,” Ferguson says.

For the totality of its workforce initiatives, the U.S. Navy is the winner of the 2009 Optimas Award for General Excellence.