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Unhappy SWOs, Navy wants to hear from you

Mar. 19, 2013 - 06:10PM   |  
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The surface Navy launched a new survey of junior officers in March to assess morale and seek ways large and small to improve life. The survey is open to surface warriors from ensign to lieutenant commander. Officials will use the answers to assess whether recent changes “will keep us fair in the channel,” according to the March 2 message announcing the survey.
Many of the 45 questions require multipart answers to gauge all aspects of surface fleet satisfaction. One question, for example, asks whether the best officers in each rank are being retained. Another question requires a survey taker to rate 51 separate statements on a scale from strongly agree to strongly disagree; five examples:\
• “I believe if you are honest and work hard, you will be promoted.”
• “The department heads on my ship seem to be enjoying their tours.”
• “I believe my commanding officers honestly reported readiness conditions on my ship.”
• “The Navy is demanding too much of ships during the pre-deployment period.”
•“The Navy is now viewed as a business by leadership rather than a service.”

Do you feel valued aboard your ship? If you make an honest mistake, will it be held against you? Is the Navy demanding too much? Do you plan to stay in?

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Do you feel valued aboard your ship? If you make an honest mistake, will it be held against you? Is the Navy demanding too much? Do you plan to stay in?

These are among the battery of blunt questions posed in the latest survey of junior surface warfare officers, an effort launched in March by the top SWO bosses concerned the Navy’s mismatch between money and missions will convince the best officers it’s time to leave.

“We do not have to remind you that we live in a resource-constrained environment and that our greatest resources, our sailors and the officers who lead them at the tip of the spear, are not immune to the challenges we have been presented and will continue to face in coming years,” Vice Adm. Tom Copeman, chief of Naval Surface Forces, and Rear Adm. David Thomas, head of Naval Surface Force Atlantic, said in their March 2 message announcing the survey. “The [junior officer] survey aims at gauging the attitudes and perceptions of our future leadership and is a vital method by which we will measure our community health.”

Since taking charge of the surface Navy nine months ago, Copeman has elevated cultural issues while the fleet deals with the fallout from budget cuts, including deferred repairs and canceled cruises that may endanger the surface force’s gradual turnaround. Copeman is confronting black-shoe culture head-on, a branch that has a reputation for being strict and stressful, in an effort many hope will yield a frank discussion of ways to improve the force.

‘If you could change one thing’

The survey is open to officers from lieutenant commander to ensign — even the “George ensign,” the nickname for a wardroom’s most junior officer.

“No voice is unimportant, no matter how experienced or inexperienced,” states the message, which was obtained by Navy Times.

SWOs are asked to enter basic background information before beginning the survey, which officials estimate will take the better part of an hour.

Many of the 45 questions have multiple parts; some are multiple choice, with a few fill-in-the-blank items.

“If you could change one thing that would significantly increase the morale and esprit de corps of the SWO community, what would it be?” asks one essay-format question.

Retention does not appear to be an issue — for now. The surface Navy historically retains roughly a third of its black shoes from division officer to department head — about 35 percent, on average, over the past decade. That rose to 38 percent for the past three years as the economy has continued to flail, dropping by a percentage point in the most recent year, according to Capt. Kevin King, the head officer community manager at Navy Personnel Command.

When the economy does turn, many are concerned top-notch officers will seek opportunities out of a Navy potentially hamstrung by deep spending cuts. Copeman is one of them. He startled the service by frankly discussing his concerns that sailors and officers are getting fed up with budget woes.

“There’s a point at which we have to give them more resources to help them meet that challenge,” Copeman said in his Jan. 15 speech before the Surface Navy Association’s annual conference. “We just can’t do it. I mean, people will start walking.”

A SURFOR spokesman said Copeman was not available for an interview by March 15.

Taken altogether, some officers are hailing Copeman’s straight talk.

“This survey was instrumental in fixing the JO retention problems of the ’90s,” said an active-duty captain with command experience who has studied retention issues; he asked for anonymity to critique a three-star’s policy. “By asking questions, collecting data and tracking trends, SURFOR will have quantifiable information on what we need to do to improve retention, as well as improve SWO life overall.”

He added, “It’s great to see that there might be some longer-term planning going on at SURFOR.”

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