Retention and Promotion of High-Quality Civil Service Workers in the Department of Defense Acquisition Workforce

by Christopher Guo, Philip Hall-Partyka, Susan M. Gates


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Research Questions

  1. Do personnel retention and career advancement vary by quality?
  2. What characteristics of workers are associated with their likelihood of rising to the Senior Executive Service in the Department of Defense?
  3. How does the type of pay plan affect retention, controlling for other workforce quality metrics?

The defense acquisition workforce (AW) includes more than 151,000 military and civilian personnel who provide a range of acquisition, technology, and logistics support (products and services) to the nation's warfighters. This report examines data from Defense Manpower Data Center files and draws from previous related RAND analyses to address questions about factors that affect personnel retention and career advancement in the AW. First, it examines available measures of personnel quality and explores whether personnel retention and career advancement vary by quality. A higher average performance rating is generally associated with an increased hazard of separation (decreased retention). On the other hand, individuals with advanced education degrees (bachelor's, master's, or PhD) are more likely to be retained than those with less than a bachelor's degree. Second, the report describes the characteristics of workers who rise to the senior executive service within the AW. Third, it explores how being in the Acquisition Demonstration pay plan or another demonstration pay plan affects retention, after controlling for workforce quality metrics. People who were in the Acquisition Demonstration pay plan and, in fact, any demonstration pay plan were retained longer than those in the General Schedule.

Key Findings

Likelihood of Retention in the Department of Defense (DoD) Acquisition Workforce (AW) Is Connected to Performance Ratings and Educational Level

  • Higher average performance ratings were associated with decreased retention. Further, the effect was much greater for employees who entered the AW at more-senior grades. Higher-rated individuals, especially the more-senior ones, were more likely to leave DoD altogether, presumably for more-favorable career opportunities.
  • Individuals last observed with a bachelor's degree or higher were more likely to be retained than those with less than a bachelor's degree. Further, at least on average, individuals who attained these degrees while in the AW were less likely to separate.

Likelihood of Promotion Is Associated More with Organizational Characteristics Than with Demographic Characteristics

  • Individuals with an Army background accounted for almost one-half of the Senior Executive Service (SES) ranks, despite making up just 28 percent of the AW.
  • Compared to the baseline career field of systems engineering, individuals in production quality, auditing, and program management are more likely to become part of the SES.
  • Gender and race were not significant predictors of promotion to the SES; women and minorities tend to work in career fields that are underrepresented in the SES.

Retention Was Better for Those in Demonstration Pay Plans Rather Than the General Schedule

  • Retention was 18 percent higher for those in the Acquisition Demonstration pay plan and 12 percent higher for those in other demonstration plan.


  • Our research reveals that many DoD civilian AW employees obtain additional education, possibly at DoD expense, while in the workforce. Further research of the effect of educational upgrades while in the workforce on retention could be fruitful.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One


  • Chapter Two

    Retention of High-Quality Civil Service Workers in the Acquisition Workforce

  • Chapter Three

    SES Profile Comparison

  • Chapter Four

    Effects of Acquisition Demonstration Pay Plan on Retention

  • Chapter Five


  • Appendix A

    Kaplan-Meier Survival Functions

  • Appendix B

    Robustness Checks

  • Appendix C

    AcqDemo Robustness

This research was sponsored by USD (AT&L) and conducted within the Forces and Resources Policy Center of the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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