Research Brief

With the drawdown of active military forces, the role of the Reserve Components looms increasingly large. They played a major part in Operation Desert Shield/Storm (ODS/S), have participated in all major deployments since then, and are playing a key part in Bosnia, Iraq, and elsewhere. Thus, it is important to know how mobilizations affect retention. However, opinion on this effect divides sharply. Some argue that mobilizations and the attendant financial and family hardships drive people out of the Reserve Components. Others hold that the opportunity to practice skills won through years of training and to serve the nation actually fosters retention. To help answer this question, National Defense Research Institute researchers Sheila Kirby and Scott Naftel have reviewed a rich array of data collected following the Gulf War. The results of their work appear in The Effect of Mobilization on Retention of Enlisted Reservists After Operation Desert Shield/Storm. They conclude that the ODS/S mobilization had only a minor effect on retention and that the things that influence retention are the same ones that have affected it for decades: paygrade, component, individual satisfaction, and the attitudes of spouses.

Mobilization Does Not Have a Large Effect

The groups of most interest in studies of retention are those at the end of their first enlistment or in the middle of their careers. Accordingly, Kirby and Naftel focused their analysis on enlisted personnel having between 4 and 12 years of service. They reviewed the records of over 3,200 reservists, roughly equally divided between those who mobilized and those who did not, and followed them for three years after ODS/S. The data do not show large differences in retention between the two groups. Overall retention rates are 55 percent for the ones who mobilized and 60 percent for those who did not, but the difference is not statistically significant. The statistical model the researchers developed to analyze various factors influencing retention shows that mobilization history has little effect on the probability of retention. Furthermore, they find that the likelihood of being called up has a modest positive effect on retention. That is, those who assess their chances of being called up as higher appear to have a higher likelihood of remaining in the Reserve Components. This finding, coupled with the fact that actual mobilization does not appear to make much difference, suggests that those who argue that the opportunity to serve acts as an inducement to remain are correct.

What Matters in Retention?

Paygrade and Component

Mirroring the findings of previous retention studies, paygrade and component significantly influence retention probabilities. Lower paygrades have lower retention. This finding is not surprising, given that, holding years of service constant, the lower rank probably reflects lower performance and lower promotion opportunity. Sharp differences exist among components, with the Naval Reserve and the Marine Corps Reserve having the lowest retention rates and the two air components (the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard) having the highest. Overall differences in retention rates probably result from differences in mission, structure, and experience mix as well as inherent differences among the components themselves. Differences by mobilization status across components are statistically insignificant.

Individual Satisfaction

Figure 1. Retention Rates, by Satisfaction with Reserve Participation

Again confirming earlier research, the data show that satisfaction with reserve duty correlates well with the decision to stay. Figure 1 shows the overall retention of mobilized and nonmobilized reservists by degree of satisfaction. Those satisfied with their participation have significantly higher retention rates. Between 60 and 70 percent of those who are happy with their participation are in the service three years later compared with only 25 to 33 percent of those who are dissatisfied. The statistical model shows that satisfaction is the most important predictor of the likelihood of staying in the reserves. Retention probabilities of the satisfied are one-and-a-half to two times as high as those of the dissatisfied.

Spouses Matter

Figure 2. Retention Rates, by Attitude of Spouse

What spouses think about Reserve Component service has a significant effect on retention. Figure 2 shows the results. Only about 30 percent of reservists who were not mobilized and whose spouses have a very unfavorable attitude remained three years later. The retention rate of those with supportive spouses is over twice as high: 70 percent. The pattern among those who mobilized is similar.

Money Is Less Important

Mobilization can have an economic effect. It can cause an individual to gain or lose income or incur additional expenses. Specific instances of substantial income loss received widespread coverage immediately following the Gulf War, and these prompted some to predict wholesale defections. This does not appear to have happened. Somewhat more than half of those called up did not lose any income; about a third lost $1–$4,999; and about 15 percent lost $5,000 or more. However, lost income was not the only economic effect, because some incurred increased expenses because of the call-up. About three-quarters had expenses of $1–$2,499, and a little over one-quarter had expenses of $2,500 or higher.

Income losses and additional expenses could be expected to affect retention of returning reservists. Although a simple comparison of retention by the extent of these losses and subsequent retention shows some decline in retention as losses become larger, the differences are statistically insignificant. The statistical model shows no difference in the probability of retention, regardless of economic loss.

An Important Caveat

The data strongly suggest that being mobilized to participate in ODS/S did not adversely affect retention, nor did loss of income or increased expenses caused by the call-up. Thus, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic that mobilizing reserves in the future under similar circumstances will not lead to recruiting and retention problems. However, Kirby and Naftel warn that these conclusions may not extend to the spate of mobilizations that have occurred since the Gulf War. That large-scale mobilization enjoyed widespread support and had a specific duration. Frequent small-scale mobilizations that are perhaps unpopular may produce very different retention effects. The increased operations tempo experienced by the Reserve Components in recent years requires careful watching to ensure that the likely adverse effects on reservists and their families are mitigated.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation research brief series. RAND research briefs present policy-oriented summaries of individual published, peer-reviewed documents or of a body of published work.

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