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Report: Career intermission program needs evaluation

October 30, 2015 (Photo Credit: Photo illustration by John Harman; Photos: Getty Images/Stock, Navy)

In the six years since its inception, nearly 100 sailors have been accepted into the Navy's career intermission program, taking up to three years off to spend time on education or their personal lives, but a new report questions the value of the Defense Department-wide initiative.

First authorized by Congress in 2009, the Career Intermission Pilot Program has been extended through 2019, but a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office found that, across the DoD, the program is underused, and the services who have admitted participants have not come up with a framework for measuring CIP's effectiveness. The report comes as the Navy moves to greatly expand the number of billets and eligibility for them, in a bid to make the program more popular.

Fewer than half of the total billets authorized — 40 for each of the four services — have been used in past years, according to the report, though the program has been extended far beyond its initial 2012 pilot.

There's also the issue of an evaluation framework, to see what troops do with their time off, how they perform when they return and whether they stay in after they've paid back their service obligations.

"We appreciate the GAO's review and analysis of the Career Intermission Program and will work with the Department of Defense to develop measures of effectiveness in evaluating the program," said chief of naval personnel spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Nate Christensen, whose office oversees the Navy's program.

The study, conducted from March to October of this year, focused heavily on the Navy, as it was the only service that had gotten participants through the program and back to work at the time.

Researchers reviewed the Navy's process for promoting and implementing the program, as well as officials with the enlisted and surface warfare, aviation and submarine officer communities, to evaluate the effectiveness of the program in retaining talent through email surveys.

Navy leading the way

As of October, there are 40 sailors enrolled in CIP, according to chief of naval personnel spokeswoman Lt. Jessica Anderson, with 12 more approved and waiting to start.

That brings the total to 99 participants since 2009, with 47 having returned to active duty. Not all of those 47 have stay in the Navy, Anderson added.

Participants can take up to three years off of active duty, with 1/15 of their monthly basic pay and a fully funded permanent change-of-station move, if necessary.

When they return, their year groups will be reset to line them up with others who have the same amount of active duty, so that the time off doesn't hurt their advancement chances.

The Navy started with three participants in 2009 and grew to 13 by June 2015 — well below the allowed 40, but still more than the other services: the Army admitted its first round of nine in 2014, the Marine Corps accepted three for its first round of applications in 2014, and the Air Force just opened its applications in July.

The GAO report called for the services to look at their selection criteria to determine whether their own restrictions were keeping the numbers low, or whether it's something else.

They found that the military's culture of rigid career paths played a role, as well as financial constraints — 1/15 of base pay is prohibitively expensive to a single service member with no other income, and could be even tougher for a married one who is the primary earner.

Others say that commanders, particularly in operational jobs, discourage CIP participation. 

"Part of that’s a fear of the unknown," Lt. Cmdr. Ben Kohlmann told Navy Times in August. "It remains to be seen if the culture will truly embrace it, or they’ll just wait out the [Navy Secretary Ray Mabus' tenure], as the bureaucracy tends to do with things it’s not sure of."

"In order to continue to recruit and retain the very best, we need modern personnel policies and retention tools — like CIP — that offer flexibility and choice," Christensen said.

The GAO report concluded that the services need to come up with a plan for evaluating the effectiveness of their programs, as starting next June, they will be required to report their findings to Congress.

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