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Unofficial retention survey seeks sailors' unguarded opinions

May. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Sailors aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61) stand at attention Dec. 24 during morning colors as the ship is moored in Funchal, Portugal, for a port visit.
Sailors aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey (CG 61) stand at attention Dec. 24 during morning colors as the ship is moored in Funchal, Portugal, for a port visit. (MCS 2nd Class Billy Ho / Navy)
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A fighter pilot who recently argued that the Navy’s officer corps is facing an exodus is taking his case one giant step further.

Cmdr. Guy “Bus” Snodgrass launched an independent survey called the Navy Retention Study on May 1 that aims to take the temperature of the fleet — gauging what factors are driving sailors’ stay-or-leave decisions.

The online survey is open to all sailors and officers and takes up to 15 minutes to complete, Snodgrass said. More than 200 people had responded in a few hours after the launch, he said.

The unofficial survey covers every major community in the service, ranging from sailors and SEALs to surface warfare officers and aviators.

It seeks to answer deep-seated questions about why some sailors leave and others stay. But the all-hands outreach is unusual — beyond the typical scope of feedback for an officer’s graduate thesis, for instance.

Snodgrass — who’s paying for the study and website out of his pocket — said he developed the survey with a board of advisers from various communities, and has sought to make the questions targeted and relevant.

“One thing we wanted to do with this survey was determine why our men and women are leaving the service and, hopefully, what we can do to keep them engaged, productive, and fulfilled while in uniform,” said Snodgrass, a prospective F/A-18 Hornet squadron executive officer, in a May 1 phone interview.

The questions are wide-ranging: Are evaluations and fitness reports effective? Is this process to dependent on factors outside a subject’s control? How happy is your spouse with your military career?

It also drills down into individual communities. For example, one question asks SWOs to rate the quality of the instruction at department-head school. Another asks them about the crew size on the littoral combat ship, which has a crew of about 50, and whether they’d want to serve on it.

For SEALs, it asks whether operators have too many administrative burdens and whether the quality of the leadership in the SEAL community has influenced their decision to stay or leave.

Getting 'honest' answers

Snodgrass recently penned a controversial paper arguing that the Navy was facing an exodus because of high operational tempo, an improving economy and a growing disconnect between senior leaders and the deck plates. Snodgrass, who recently served as a speechwriter for the chief of naval operations, points to fighter pilots and special operators leaving in increasing numbers.

Snodgrass said the survey was intended to help bridge the gap.

“This is about creating a pipeline directly from the deck plates to senior leadership,” Snodgrass said.

Internal retention studies, which are conducted and sanctioned by the chief of naval personnel, are skewed, he said, because sailors worry that their answers may not be anonymous. That’s why he believes an independent survey could be useful to Navy leadership.

“Those of us in uniform understand the perception that despite our best attempts, sailors are still concerned that their responses could potentially be used against them,” Snodgrass said. “This runs the risk of reducing the number of people willing to take the survey, or possibly skews their responses.

“Our survey has been developed with input from members of the fleet to ensure we are asking the right questions, but we are producing this in our off-duty time. We understand the importance of anonymity, and this approach will ensure sailors can provide honest and thoughtful answers without the fear of reprisal or personal identification.”

The survey will be live until May 31. After that, Snodgrass said he will send the data to two experts for an independent review. From there, he and his board of advisers will put together a report and forward it to Navy leadership.

The results should be ready in August, Snodgrass said.

Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Bill Moran wrote in a post on the Navy’s official blog that he was happy to see an independent study and welcomed the feedback.

“I’m encouraged that along with the ‘official’ polling, crowd-sourcing and surveying that my staff in DC and Millington does on a regular basis, a group of interested and motivated folks are going a step further and taking their own independent look by asking their Shipmates what they think first hand,” Moran wrote in the April 29 post.

Moran said his staff and experts from around the personnel world were in touch with Snodgrass and his team and were offering input, but would not be encouraging sailors to take the survey, “so as not to infringe on the independence and democratic nature of the effort.”

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