military retention rates

Military retention rates are falling, but there’s a way to save them


Military retention rates have been steadily declining, but there’s a hero on the horizon.

Imagine this: A senior pilot with years of experience and training under their belt is currently serving a six-month tour of duty in a far-away country. They just talked to their spouse and kids via Skype. Their partner says that the family is burned from the military lifestyle. They’re done and want a “normal” civilian life in a “normal” environment.

The service member has a choice to make: Stay in and lose their family, or leave the military.

Measuring on-base health

“Recruiting airmen, retaining entire families” is the mantra at Barksdale Air Force Base. But for years they didn’t have the right data to understand why some stay and others leave.

They knew there were aspects of the on-base living experience they could improve to better serve their forces, but which ones should they prioritize?

Every day approximately 14,000 airmen and their families at this “city within a city” go to work, seek medical care, grocery shop, bank, dine, pursue hobbies, entertainment, recreation, and fitness goals through on-base services. They aren’t just employees here – they and their families are also customers of an extensive set of base services.

A lot of investment goes into creating a resilience-building experience for these communities that could otherwise fracture during deployments, moves to new assignments, new schools, and new communities.

Especially during these times, Air Force families look to on-base support and assistance. When airmen and their families perceive the right support, their experience feels one way. When support isn’t there in their minds, the experience is something completely different.

A new wingman for modern times: Enter X-Data

X-data is short for “experience” data. Asking the service member and their families about their experience and perceptions is critical.

Some examples: What’s your experience been like living this life as a military family? What are the things that happen that make you want to stay or leave? And then, for the military base commanders, what can you do about it? We know happy employees are engaged employees, and the same philosophy should carry over to the public sector.

That’s what the leadership team at Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana wanted to find out.

Barksdale AFB’s leadership wanted to know the base-specific factors that were influencing the decisions to leave the Air Force entirely. But when it came to on-base measurement, fewer than 10 percent of target audiences were responding to existing email and paper surveys.

They needed a better way to measure the experiences of airmen and their families, including more creative ways to hear from difficult-to-reach populations on base.

Finding the right mix of X (experience) and O (operational) data isn’t just about finding a better way to serve customers. It’s also about finding a better way to attract, retain, and understand the needs of employees. That applies to all industries, including aerospace and defense.

In the world of aerospace and defense, there’s no shortage of operational data. Armed services leaders know, for example, how many service members they’re recruiting. They know how many jobs are open and which are the most critical to fill. They know how much is being spent on healthcare, benefits, training, deployments, and how long it takes on average to move service members and their families to a new duty station. That’s operational data, or O-data, and there’s a lot of it in the defense world. And because there’s so much operational data, one might think there’s enough there to understand the employee’s world, right?

O-data can’t clue you in on that type of employee attrition risk. X-data, on the other hand, could.

Improving military retention rates via technology and the human touch

With better technology, Barksdale leadership designed more succinct surveys. In addition to traditional email and social feedback channels, they armed themselves with the survey on iPads and smartphones, then engaged respondents at work, at base social events, and on-base retail facilities.

Leadership personally greeted airmen and/or their families and asked, in-person, for answers to a simple survey on the spot.

Barksdale Air Force Base now has information that can be compared across departments and over time. With shorter surveys and standardized demographic questions, X-data can be compiled to create a holistic picture of the base experience from the airmen and the families’ points of view.

These new approaches are helping base leadership understand community sentiments about on-base amenities and resources, and also create a method to get ahead of some of the additional risks and realities of military life: mental health issues, suicide risk, domestic abuse, and alcohol or substance abuse, for example.

Today, multi-channel surveying continues at Barksdale AFB, including on-the-spot outreach. Base leadership regularly reviews survey results as part of their monthly leadership team meetings.

Deep analysis and dashboards help base leadership understand which improvements matter most to airmen and their families, which can lead to better military retention rates. From ensuring on-base services are available during the right hours, to understanding how local schools impact airmen’s families’ desire to stay, X and O data and XM tools are helping Barksdale AFB avoid the risk of airmen attrition and creating the resilience-building community command leadership envision.

Want more insights on how experience management can improve employee retention and satisfaction rates? Contact us today.

Stephanie Thum
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Stephanie Thum

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