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Accessing Talent: The Foundation of a U.S. Army Officer Corps Strategy

Authored by Colonel Casey Wardynski, Colonel David S. Lyle, Dr. Michael J. Colarusso. | February 2010

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Once the Army accesses a cohort of officers, it must live with them throughout a 30-year career span. This is because, unlike most enterprises, the Army cannot buy talent from elsewhere to fill shortfalls at its mid and upper-level ranks. The Officer Corps embodies a unique profession whose culture and core warfighting abilities take years to develop. This means that each new officer cohort represents far more than the Army’s latest crop of junior leaders; they are the feedstock for its future field grade and general officers. As a group, they must therefore possess the depth and breadth of talent needed not just to lead platoon-sized formations, but to meet future operational and strategic leadership demands as well.

Accessing the right officer talent directly improves the efficiency and productivity of the Officer Corps by shortening developmental time and reducing rework and retraining costs. Hand-in-hand with these efficiencies, improvements in talent acquisition provide greater flexibility to employ officers against uncertain future requirements. Accessing the right talent today also burnishes the Army’s reputation, creating a virtuous cycle that makes it easier to attract talented young people tomorrow. It also increases the likelihood of retaining talent, particularly when sound accessions programs are linked to targeted retention initiatives.

Accessing the “right” talent means more than accessing the correct number of officers to fill existing billets. It means acquiring the proper breadth and depth of talent, the diverse skills, knowledge and behaviors actually in demand across the Army’s organizations, both now and in the future. It also means recalibrating notions of “fairness.” While the Army must afford equal opportunities to all, the fairest accessions behavior it can engage in is commissioning new officers with the talent needed to fight and win wars at the lowest cost in American lives and taxpayer dollars. Focusing a share of accessions efforts toward desired ethnographic or demographic groupings can be tremendously beneficial, provided these efforts are not at the expense of talent considerations.

The good news is that across virtually all ethnographic and demographic segments in the United States, the current generation of accessions-age young people is far larger, far more diverse, better educated, smokes less, drinks less, and generally enjoys greater well-being than the one preceding it. Now more than ever before, the Army can pursue diversity in its Officer Corps without putting talent at risk, provided its accessions effort rests upon sound theoretical principles.

First, the Army must understand the market place in which it competes. In an all-volunteer force, the prospect pool ultimately determines the scope and tempo of Army talent accessions. The physical demands and risks associated with Army service means that at some point the pool of willing prospects will begin to dwindle. Therefore, understanding the shocks that shift the labor supply curve, and how each military age generation will respond to these shocks, is central to understanding the talent market in which the Army competes for officers.

Second, the Army must know how to communicate with prospects and understand how they may respond to information. The Millennial Generation comprises the bulk of today’s officer prospect market, and the Information Age has profoundly shaped their view of the military. These young people have much less direct exposure to the military than previous generations of young people, most of whom had vicarious contact with millions of World War II or Cold War-era service veterans. In the absence of such direct connections, they must rely on popular culture, movies, television, or the internet for information regarding Army officer service.

If the Army fails to provide accurate and easily assimilated information about officership, prospect impressions may be unduly shaped by the wealth of incomplete, dated, or skewed information available from thousands of media sources. Getting talented young people interested in the Army and overcoming its negative perceptions relative to the other services therefore requires innovative marketing. Today’s military-age young people are consumers of data, live on the internet, play virtual games, develop virtual networks, and have lived most of their life in relative economic prosperity. Successfully framing the Army for them requires an approach that makes the Army more engaging, informative, socially based, and interactive.

Successful talent accessions set the table for a potent Officer Corps strategy. In all other areas (employing, developing, and retaining officer talent), the Army faces a zero-sum game—if it employs talent in one area, it is unavailable elsewhere. By committing the right talent and resources to its officer accessions effort, however, the Army can increase overall talent levels without detracting from its productivity elsewhere. In the long run, this is a positive sum game, one where the capabilities of the Officer Corps are driven upward by human capital acquired from outside the Army.