CNP Nowell: Navy Short More Than 5,000 Sailors for At-Sea Billets

February 9, 2022 1:18 PM
Ensign Sofia Bliek, from Vernon, Conn., on Feb. 6, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Navy has 5,000 to 6,000 gaps for sailors at-sea billets, the service’s senior personnel officer told a House panel on Tuesday.

The Navy currently has 145,000 billets at sea, Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. John Nowell said during a House Armed Services subcommittee on military personnel hearing. Following the fatal collisions of 2017, the Navy added 23,800 sea billets in an effort to buttress manning on surface ships. The service is in the midst of assigning sailors to the emerging positions but is falling short by 5,000 to 6,000, he said.

While the Navy has put an emphasis on having ships fully crewed as part of the reform following the 2017 collisions, there are manning issues highlighted by the gaps at-sea, Nowell said. The Navy is attempting to address them, including with the introduction of a program to encourage sailors to stay at-sea. The program, introduced in December, offers fiscal and practical incentives for sailors who choose to extend their time at sea, USNI News previously reported.

The program will also eliminate the five-year at-sea maximum rule with the goal of addressing some of the gaps, USNI News reported.

“How do we provide incentivization both monetary and nonmonetary to keep those sailors at-sea primarily and the journeyman level? We’ve really been leaning into this, and we have been helped by very good retention,” Nowell said.

One of the incentives for those positions, as well as retaining sailors in general, is the ability to stay in the same place for longer. The Marine Corps is instituting a similar program with the idea of changing jobs, not location, said Lt. Gen. David Ottignon, deputy commandant for the Marine Corps Manpower and Reserve Affairs during the hearing.

Keeping people in the same place is easier on their families, which can help keep service members in longer, both personnel chiefs said.

Having to move for a new duty is one of the reasons sailors consider leaving, according to Nowell’s written statement.

Overall, the service highlighted the geographic stability of sailors. Of the Navy’s 346,000 sailors, about 20 percent have been at the same duty station for three years, of those more than half of them have been in place for at least four years, according to Nowell’s written testimony.

Sailors assigned to Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS O’Kane (DDG-77) embrace their families after returning to their homeport at Naval Base San Diego on Feb. 6, 2022. US Navy Photo

“Feedback indicates that PCS moves and job changes continue to factor significantly in sailor and family retention decisions. From a 2018 Voice of the Sailor study report, 53 percent of sailors considered the impact of Navy moves on families as a reason to leave the Navy,” according to the statement. “Additionally, of the 38 percent of sailors with children, 65 percent considered the impact of PCS moves on their children as an influential reason to leave the Navy.”

Recruiting has been an issue for the forces, Nowell said, with agreement from the personnel chiefs of the other branches. Not only are the different services competing against each other, but the pool of applicants is also shrinking, he said.

In 2017, the Pentagon found that 70 percent of the country’s youth were ineligible for military service, USNI News previously reported.

“That’s probably one of my number one concerns,” Nowell said. “And then the other is that as we look at how we keep some of our communities that are always challenging, think cyber, think nuclear, think Naval Special Warfare or aviation, I think making sure that we have the flexibility and the agility, as Rep. [Mike] Gallagher (R-Wisc.) mentioned, with monetary and non-monetary incentives.”

Recruiting has also moved onto social media platforms, Ottignon said, adding that Marine Corps recruiters use gaming to connect with high school students. It would be helpful to be able to have more access to social media for recruiting, he said.

“I think what I would start by saying is that I agree that when we look to attract a young man or woman who looks to the Marine Corps for service, we’re looking for somebody who’s smart, tough, has a fighting spirit, courage, and it is challenging in some times in today’s environment with social media to reach out to those men and women,” Ottignon said.

Quartermaster 2nd Class, from Corpus Christi, Texas, shoots a sunline with a sextant to take a bearing from the bridge wing aboard the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Dewey (DDG-105) while conducting routine underway operations on Jan. 30, 2022. US Navy Photo

The Navy stopped funding television ads in 2020, after determining that they were not reaching the target audience, USNI News previously reported. Instead, they opted to advertise online, with a little funding also going toward radio spots and billboards.

When it comes to recruiting for some positions, such as cyber, the Navy has tried to be creative, Nowell said. The Navy brought back the warrant officer one program for the first time since the Vietnam War. There is also more awareness that not everyone wants to be in a leadership position, he said.

There are people in the cryptologic fields who want to keep doing their tasks instead of moving into a role that requires more administrative work. So they are now allowing for that, which has been popular, Nowell said.

The Navy has also used lateral entry options to bring in 44 sailors for cryptologic warfare and information roles over the past two years, he said.

To keep sailors, the Navy will also use monetary and nonmonetary incentives, Nowell wrote in the statement for the subcommittee.

“Competition for talent remains high, with continued challenges in the high-demand and low-density communities of nuclear, information warfare, and special warfare,” according to this document. “We continue to use monetary and non-monetary incentives – bonuses, special duty assignment pays, and high-year tenure waivers – to keep talented individuals in the Navy.”

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio

Heather Mongilio is a reporter with USNI News. She has a master’s degree in science journalism and has covered local courts, crime, health, military affairs and the Naval Academy.
Follow @hmongilio

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