Pentagon pay experts and economists have combed through fresh data on the educational attainment and the job demands of career enlistees and confirmed a disturbing pay gap with civilian peers working in the private sector.
Defense officials aren’t prepared yet to release the data, or to say how wide the pay gap might be. But their analyses, so far, not only justify the Senate’s call for a special pay raise in October for enlisted grades E-5 through E-7, but they indicate that such a raise might not be big enough, or touch enough of the enlisted force.
Dr. Curtis Gilroy, director of the Pentagon’s 9th Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation, said the traditional practice of comparing pay of enlisted members with the pay of same-age civilians who graduated from high school "may not be as relevant as it once was."
In the same interview, Navy Capt. Elliott Bloxom, director of military compensation for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, said only a "smattering" of recruits have college experience, and even fewer have college degrees when they enter service. But by mid-career, many enlisted have gone well beyond a high school education.
"By 15 years of service," said Bloxom, "most have some college or a degree. Yet they’re still being compared against pay of high school graduates."
That enlisted members are gaining more education over time than civilian high school peers is "extremely significant," said Gilroy. His economists are still poring over the data "to see if, in fact, we should be comparing … a portion of the enlisted (pay) table to the ‘some college’ population, in which case we are comparing to a higher earnings profile. From E-5 and above, this may be a significant finding."
Another factor that could justify higher pay levels for career enlisted, said Bloxom, "is the change in responsibilities and leadership" since downsizing. So, not only is the enlisted force better educated today, but it is being asked to do more with its educational skills, Bloxom said.
By law, the Defense Department every four years must conduct a comprehensive review of military compensation. The 9th QRMC, which began last November, is more low key than the previous eight.
Gilroy, its director, continues to serve as chief of special projects for the under secretary of Defense for personnel. He has only two staffers, both economists, working on QRMC issues full time. But he also has support contracts with RAND and other defense think tanks, and works closely with Bloxom and his compensation staff.
This 9th QRMC, Gilroy said, will produce smaller, more timely reports on various pay topics as they arise throughout this year. Its first report, for example, addressed criticism from the director of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board over Defense Department plans to open the new military Thrift Savings Plan to drilling reservists.
The board dropped its objections after RAND analysts, hired by the QRMC, began sharing preliminary data showing that reserve TSP participation would be easier to manage and would involve bigger reserve investments than the board had indicated.
Other issues under QRMC study include enhancements to the Montgomery GI Bill, the adequacy of military overseas allowances, and improving and consolidating special pay for deployments.
But the enlisted pay issue rose to the top of the QRMC agenda as Gilroy and staff looked at fresh information on enlisted educational attainments and compared it with earnings data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Voices of enlisted members are strong amid QRMC deliberations, reflecting another change, said Gilroy. A senior enlisted from each branch of service is on the QRMC’s 20-member working group. The top enlisted from each service is on QRMC’s advisory panel, which is headed by Navy Vice Adm. Patricia Tracey, deputy assistant secretary of defense.
Though QRMC results so far support the Senate’s call for a mid-grade enlisted pay raise in October, Bloxom said the Defense Department prefers House language which merely directs that the enlisted pay issue be studied. The Senate’s proposal, to raise pay by $31 a month for E-5s, $49 for E-6s and $56 for E-7s, could undo some of the pay table reforms that took effect with the July 1 raise, he said.
The study called for by the House wouldn’t take long to complete either.
"We’re not talking about a 10-year study," said Gilroy. "We’re talking about just several more months … so we do it right."
Both Gilroy and Bloxom said enlisted people should be encouraged that the Defense Department is focusing attention on enlisted pay. But both also cautioned that any significant raise in enlisted basic pay would be very expensive.
"We’re talking billions to do anything meaningful," Bloxom said.
"It’s something that has to be worked very carefully with the administration and Congress," he added. "It will get visibility, but where it goes after that becomes not just a department problem but broader than that."
Enlisted people, he said, need to temper "their expectations along those lines."
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