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Research Questions

  1. Do organizational factors (e.g., deployment cycle, peer characteristics, and command culture), as well as institutional factors (e.g., norms and processes in the implementation of Army directives) related to a soldier's experience in the Army, contribute to first-term attrition?
  2. Are there opportunities to reduce attrition related to these factors?

The U.S. Army invests significant resources in recruiting, training, and preparing new soldiers. When a soldier does not complete a full contract term, the Army views this as a net loss. The goal of the research summarized in this report is to determine whether organizational factors matter for producing attrition and to generate hypotheses regarding the mechanisms by which organizational factors generate attrition. The authors made use of the random assignment of soldiers to their first battalion to determine whether the "luck of the draw" — the battalion to which the soldier is assigned and the senior noncommissioned officer (NCO) at that battalion — is directly linked to the observed variation across assignments in eventual first-term outcomes. The authors complemented that analysis with interviews exploring the factors that could be driving differences across units, such as leadership and command culture, availability of soldier supports, management of deployment and training cycles, and installation amenities.

The quantitative part of the report shows that organizational factors affect attrition above and beyond the effects of soldier characteristics. The qualitative part highlights potential pathways through which battalion-level characteristics might manifest in differential attrition outcomes.

Rather than conceptualizing attrition as a soldier being "fired" for poor performance, this report describes attrition as a process in which leadership may fail to provide needed interventions or to perpetuate a culture in which soldiers want to and are able to remain in service. The authors identify opportunities to address the factors under the Army's control that are associated with attrition.

Key Findings

A soldier's first assignment can substantially affect probability of failing to adapt

  • Regardless of the location to which a soldier is assigned, the particular combination of battalion and senior NCO can alter the probability of failing to adapt by several percentage points (upward or downward). Even within an installation, the probability of two new junior enlisted soldiers failing to adapt can differ by several percentage points depending on the battalions to which those soldiers are first assigned.
  • There is a systematic relationship between a combined battalion and NCO effect on failure to adapt and the effect on reenlistment.
  • Although attrition outcomes vary somewhat with the tenure of different senior NCOs, attrition in a particular battalion is "sticky." That is, battalions with particularly high or low attrition maintain that status when the senior NCO rotates out.

Leadership, experience with jobs, training calendar, and social support all matter

  • Unit-level NCOs appear to play an outsized role in attrition outcomes. These busy NCOs have discretion in whom they decide to invest time to provide guidance and mentorship.
  • Soldiers indicated that the pace of training calendars made adapting to Army life difficult. This was further exacerbated by their lack of understanding of why certain training exercises were necessary.
  • Soldiers reported that barracks conditions detracted from quality of life, and location was critical to a soldier's quality-of-life assessment.
  • Social support appears to offer some possibility to arrest cycles of soldier decline that may end in attrition, while family life may actually contribute to attrition.

Recommendations

  • Better manage the timing of new soldier assignments.
  • Train and equip recruiters to advise enlisting soldiers on critical aspects of their enlistment, including match to MOS, benefits, and other aspects of Army life.
  • Provide training and support to NCOs preparing to take on a leadership position.
  • Learn why NCOs may provide more support to some soldiers over others.
  • Consider adopting a model of attrition that allows for a greater degree of complexity and interplay between quitting and firing behaviors.
  • Further explore the link between attrition and reenlistment.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    A Shifting Paradigm for Soldier Attrition

  • Chapter Three

    Examining the Influence of Soldier Attributes and Organizational Factors on Attrition

  • Chapter Four

    The Effect of a Soldier's First Assigned Battalion on Attrition

  • Chapter Five

    Exploring the Underlying Factors Influencing Soldier Attrition

  • Chapter Six

    Recommendations and Further Considerations

  • Appendix A

    Descriptive Statistics of the Full and Matched Sample

  • Appendix B

    Full Regression Results for Descriptive Analysis

  • Appendix C

    Technical Details for Matched Sample Analysis

  • Appendix D

    Additional Results from Quantitative Analyses

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs and conducted within Personnel, Training, and Health Program within the RAND Arroyo Center.

This report is part of the RAND Corporation Research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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