Commentary

The PCS penalty and the Army family

As the Army reevaluates its talent management systems, it has focused on ways that it can make better promotion and selection decisions. New programs have been created like the Battalion Commander’s Assessment Program (BCAP) and formerly ubiquitous requirements like the Department of the Army Photo have fallen into the trash heap of history. These changes are essential steps towards ensuring that officers are selected for the most critical positions without implicit biases negatively impacting the meritocratic process. However, it is not enough to simply seek out the best and brightest fish in the pond; we need to build a bigger pond and fill it with more fish. Current diversity and inclusion efforts, though laudable, are focused on making sure that those who are best within the system get promoted. Unfortunately, many factors cause talented officers to leave the Army, and they take their experience, skills, and years of government investment with them. One of the factors that drives talent out of the Army is what I call the PCS penalty, or the compounding adverse effects of permanent changes of station (PCS) moves often during a military career. These effects are worse than in past generations and are being exacerbated by the outdated structure of officer professional military education (PME). By recognizing the new realities of the Army, the Army can become more inclusive and retain top talent at lower costs.

The Army has undergone rapid changes within the last 20 years. Amidst the war on terrorism, advances like the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the removal of gender restrictions for serving in combat arms positions, and numerous diversity and inclusion firsts have been the highlight reel of the Total Army Force. Unfortunately, many military policies and systems are anchored in a 1950s-stereotypical family model that is no longer reflective of the force. Family life has shifted across American society, and the military is no different.  A Center for Economic Studies report looked at the rise of dual-income families across the United States and saw that from 1960 to 2000, the number of dual-income families more than doubled to over 60 percent. A 2019 survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics confirmed this, reporting that in 69.9 percent of families, both parents work. Prospects for dual-income families shape both career and family choices. But while two-income households are the norm in many places, the military is ill-suited to adapt.  For the first time in the Army’s history, a majority of officers’ spouses, over 60 percent, are employed or actively seeking employment. If the Army wishes to compete for top talent, it is no longer sufficient to address the needs and career desires of the officer in isolation. The Army needs to focus on the entire family unit, particularly military spouses.

Army families accrue the “PCS Penalty” every time an officer is required to uproot and move their family. Nearly every  military move forces a short period of spouse unemployment (averaging around four to six months), and hectic job-markets around military bases make underemployment a problem for over 40 percent of military spouses. Taking a month off forces the military spouse to forfeit over four times the amount of their lost salary when the value of employee benefits, lost savings/investments, and decreased future earning power are factored in. This shortfall cannot quantitatively factor in additional losses due to job skills atrophy, loss of professional certification/currency, increased difficulty in hiring with gaps in resumés or with employers making assumptions about the prospect of long-term employment, and myriad other negative factors. Since these losses in savings and investment can compound, more frequent moves earlier in an officer’s career are more detrimental to lifetime earnings than later moves.

Within officer’s career timeline, a typical active-duty Army officer will have two to three duty stations as a lieutenant, two to three duty stations as a captain, two to four duty stations as a major, and one duty station as a lieutenant colonel before reaching 20 years of service when they become eligible for retirement. Moves at the start or end of a resident Professional Military Education increase the total number of moves substantially. Let us consider the effects of the PCS penalty on a hypothetical infantry officer. Assuming the officer is in a relationship at their commissioning, the Army will move the officer from their pre-commissioning program to Fort Benning, Georgia, for Infantry Basic Officer Leader’s Course. Upon successful completion of that course and follow-on schooling (typically between seven to 10 months), the family will go to an initial duty station because with only a battalion task force at Benning, there are not many available jobs for lieutenants. Their spouse would likely be unemployed or under-employed while at Fort Benning because of the saturated job market and significant distance to a larger markets like Atlanta. At the infantry officer’s first assignment, the couple can expect a repeat of four to six months of lost income while the spouse actively hunts for a new job. After around three years at their first duty station, the couple will likely move back to Fort Benning, as the officer completes the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course and follow-on schooling for 10 to 11 months. Meanwhile, the spouse will likely suffer another period of four to six months lost salary if they decide to remain in the job market at all. Then the couple will relocate for their next assignment, and, again, it’s time for a four- to six-month transition and job hunt. This process will repeat itself after the infantry officer completes their key-developmental time as a company commander and then moves to the Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In Kansas, the military officer’s spouse is likely to take a full year out of the workforce, since most CGSC students remain at Fort Leavenworth for less than a year. The difficulties of searching for a job that suits this timeline, even within a “military” community are significant. Before long, the year is up, and it’s time to start the process all over again.

In this entire scenario, the infantry officer’s spouse can expect to lose between two to six years of lost salary during the first half of the officer’s 20-year career. For a spouse averaging a modest salary of $50,000 a year, this equates to a loss between $100,000 and $300,000 in income and between $400,000 to $1.2 million in lost lifetime earnings. The penalty becomes more significant if the spouse has a higher salary, an advanced degree, or a career-specific license. Difficulties in transferring professional licenses between states have very real consequences for income and earnings as gaps waiting for licenses to be transferred can be significant (in addition to the difficulty of job searching in the first place.)  While the Army has a program to help cover the costs of transferring licenses and credentials, the Army cannot control how long the process takes.

Similarly, other Army programs may inadvertently delay a spouse from re-entering the job market. For example, if the Army family has small children, but the wait time for placement into an on-post Child Development Center is long, the family faces a stark choice. It can either pay more for civilian childcare services despite the typically lower quality, or the spouse is forced out of the job market until care becomes available. This reality flies in the face of the Army Family Covenant that seeks to expand family services and ensure affordable childcare was available so that soldiers could focus on the Army mission.

The loss of lifetime earnings not only hurts a family’s savings account and impedes the accrual of wealth and assets, it simultaneously grows stress and resentment. The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University and Blue Star Families found that in 2019, the top military family concerns were time apart and spouse employment. A separate study from the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation found eight of every ten military spouses cited unemployment and underemployment as a key cause of marital stress. According to the study, 81 percent of spouses reported that they had discussed leaving the service with their service member, and spouse-employment was one of the top driving factors.

The added stress that the PCS Penalty places on families has not been overlooked by the Army’s senior leadership. In fact, then-Secretary of the Army, and former-Secretary of Defense, Dr. Mark Esper advocated for fewer PCS moves because “changing duty stations too often hurts families.” As the Army re-looks at talent management, professional military education is the most frequent driver of an involuntary PCS move. Reforming the PME system could offer the Army a way to support spouse careers and therefore retain more top talent. These reforms would need to be focused on minimizing disruption to Army families and build flexibility within the system to support smoother transitions.

The PCS Penalty could be reduced by half, for example, by expanding satellite locations for the Command and General Staff College. The mid-career mark is where many talented officers leave the force. It represents an important decision point. Officers at this point in their career have completed their initial service obligations, and their continued service has earned the full benefits of the G.I. Bill. Additionally, officers can leave the service before 20-years and still retain some retirement benefits with the new Blended Retirement System.

Expanding satellite-CGSC locations and thoughtfully placing them at key installations can reduce costs for both the Army and Army families. Fort Bragg, for example, has the highest number of service members of any Army post, but no satellite location. Placing a satellite location there would allow any officer PCS-ing from or to Fort Bragg to do a single move rather than two PCSs within a year span. The costs of establishing new satellite locations are not astronomical, either. Since these classroom-only courses do not need significant infrastructure additions to the existing education centers, the cost can be made up for by reducing the number of expensive PCS moves the Army has to conduct. At around $6,700 per move, it is easy to see how cutting the number of PCSs every year would cover the cost of new locations.

This model would be a departure from the Leavenworth-centered idea of what CGSC is and should be. There are clear trade-offs, but creative thinking can mitigate many of these. For example, the curriculum at Leavenworth is more customizable for students. Existing CGSC satellite locations typically either teach just the common-core portion or the advanced operations course, but few electives. Additional satellite locations would need to expand their elective options (in person or virtually). The selection of satellite locations would have to balance student preferences, availability of faculty, and other factors to optimize a satellite focused CGSC. Finally, some argue that there are intangible, social benefits from centralizing CGSC at Leavenworth. Senior officers have described their time at CGSC, away from the hectic pace of military lives, as “the best year of their lives. This argument may be less salient for the current generation of officers and future students given the proliferation of and students’ likely familiarity with a variety of digital platforms. Eliminating even one PCS move could mean a difference in up to $200,000 in lifetime earnings for a military spouse, but beyond the dollars and cents, reducing the career and family stresses incentivize officers to stay in uniform. Reducing  military family moves would allow spouses to develop closer career and more personal ties in their communities, which has been shown to increase resilience and reduce stress. Families’ financial well-being is better supported through fewer gaps in employment. These and other more intangible factors increase overall satisfaction with the Army and, in the end, produce a larger, more experienced, and more inclusive talent pool because fewer officers self-select out. This larger population can now include families that have dual-incomes and varying backgrounds rather than the narrow fields that can conform to the current Army structure.

The simple facts of the matter are that our Army looks, feels, and acts differently than it did 60, 40, or even 20 years ago. The officer corps is no longer composed of imagined 1950s-style nuclear families who all live on post and in which spouses do not have independent careers. Considerations for spousal career stability and employment prospects must become a more central factor in Army’s decisions and structures if it hopes to retain top talent and maintain readiness.

This piece first appeared in the Army War College’s War Room Journal.

MAJ Paul M Kearney is an active-duty Army Strategist and Wargaming Strategist at the Center for Army Analysis. He holds degrees from the United States Military Academy, King’s College London, and Georgetown University. You can follow him @GStrategerist on Twitter. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Editor’s note: This is an op-ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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