Alison St. John, KPBS Reporter
Mary Kirby, Program Operations Manager at Fleet and Family Services, Naval Base San Diego
Related Story: Navy Lists Layoffs
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Wednesday, November 30th. Our top story on Midday Edition, a number of career sailors are getting something from the Navy they never expected. A layoff notice. Nation-wide, about 3,000 Navy men and women are being let go. And we don't know how much that might translate to the people, the military personnel here in San Diego. Joining me to talk about why the Navy is doing this, and how the service is preparing for these separations are my guests, KPBS senior metro reporter, Alison St. John. Hi, Alison.
ST. JOHN: Glad to be here, Maureen.
CAVANAUGH: Joining us also, captain Winton Smith, commanding officer of naval base San Diego. Captain Smith, good afternoon.
SMITH: Good afternoon. Pleasure to be here as well.
CAVANAUGH: And Mary Kirby is with us, she's program separations manager at fleet and family support center, naval base San Diego. Hi Mary
KIRBY: Hi, thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Let me start with you, captain Smith, why is the Navy laying off personnel?
SMITH: Well, Maureen, we're in a state -- and this is across the board if you look at the fact that the country is withdrawing from two wars over seas that over the past ten years we have built up for. We're now at a state where to maintain that force structure, it's impossible to do so unless you're able to have a top line in the budget to sustain that force. We need to draw down the numbers. And as a result of that, we've come up with a force shaping tool, if you will, the enlisted retention board.
CAVANAUGH: Right. And they reviewed, I believe, 1,600 files of Navy personnel to see whether or not there were some categories -- 16,000, that is
CAVANAUGH: Some job categories in the Navy that were over staffed. What would those categories be?
SMITH: What they were looking at, for instance, they were looking across the board at all ratings. There wasn't a particular rating that was off the table. But they're looking at it in terms of those ratings that are over-manned.
CAVANAUGH: And what would they be? What kinds of services within the Navy would those particular personnel have?
SMITH: A good example might be, for instance, machinist mates. Machinist mates, when we established that rating, it was primarily for ships with steam propulsion. Now, we've converted with the times to gas turbine engineer technology, nuclear powered technology, and we just can't sustain that same number of machinist mates in the Navy. Another example might be your master at arms. Again, because of the war on terror, there was a focus on having the master at arms. That's the law enforcement element of the military. And we increased the numbers within that rating. Now, this is a situation where we need to draw down in those particular areas, but across the board it's more than just -- it was more than just numbers and over-manned ratings. You're also looking at performance and it was a very thorough review that was conducted
CAVANAUGH: As commanding officer of naval base, San Diego, you've got some good news today
SMITH: Do. As a matter of fact we had -- the enlisted retention board was conducted in two phases. And the first phase was about two weeks ago. And it was at the junior level ranking of the sailors. And I only had two of 14 that I had to let go. And just yesterday was announced that senior level review of which I had ten sailors that were screened and 0 came out on that list. So that is great news. And we're keeping those sailors in the Navy. But I can tell you, that's also reflective of the type of people that are assigned to my command. They're hard chargers. And when you go back into those records of the two individuals that I had to release, it was clear when I sat down with those sailors. And that's the other portion of this is that when their names were released, they were only released to the commanding officers. And the Navy wanted those commanding officers to convey this information to them and to really reaffirm. And that's the important point here, to under score that, reaffirm that people are helping these sailors with the transition to the next chapter of their lives. And we've got many, many tools I'm prepared to go in to talk with you about. Will but it was clear with those sailors when we went into their records that it was obvious this was the reason why they were being released.
SMITH: And that's not a week or two weeks or tomorrow. That's a year from now.
SMITH: So they have some time to prepare for it.
CAVANAUGH: Alison, let me bring you into the conversation, and we just got this news from captain Smith about naval base San Diego. Do we have any idea how many naval personnel in San Diego might be affected by these layoffs?
ST. JOHN: We do not. And in fact, the fact that captain Smith himself is unable to find out quite how San Diego commands will be affected, your command I believe is fewer than a thousand people
SMITH: That's correct, Alison. I have 450 active duty members
ST. JOHN: So if you have 60, 70,000 active duty Navy in San Diego, there's obviously a lot of other commands that could be affected. And when I called the national office site in Washington, they were also remarkably cherry about giving me any numbers for San Diego or nationally. The figures that are being put out are, like, 3,000
ST. JOHN: Which the Navy right now has a force of 325,000 of so let's opinion 1%. However it does seem odd it's so difficult to find out what the numbers are. Interesting, the chief of Navy personnel put out an explanation for this process in April when they formed the retention board and said that coupled with a shift back to sea, and development of our key areas such as ballistic missiles, cyber, and defense has enlist -- and strengthened to rebalance the force. It does sound like what you're saying, Captain Wilson, that it's a lot to do with particular logical changes, and that the skills the Navy needs maybe are different skills from what it used to need
SMITH: That's correct. The over-manning that we're talking about, it was estimated at 103%. This rebalancing proves our advancement rates for those that stay in. It also increases opportunity for those sailors performing to receive in-rate reenlistment quotas. We're only talking about the ERB talking mostly oaf-manned ratings
ST. JOHN: And I guess the question is whether in San Diego we have those kinds of ratings.
SMITH: Yeah. But I think why it may be difficult in obtaining the overvalue number for the metro area is because the Navy wants to ensure that its leaders, the leaders that have a covenant with those sailors on the deck plate, they want that information to come directly from them to insure that they know they're being cared for.
ST. JOHN: But it could be up to 600 people, if 1% of San Diego's active duty were on this list
SMITH: Right. But just in my conversation with a couple of the commanding officers around the base yesterday, many of them told me that they had 1 or 2.
CAVANAUGH: 1 or 2
SMITH: 1 or 2 in the command.
CAVANAUGH: Beyond the numbers itself. Because I'm sure we will find out what they are in the days and weeks to come, isn't this an unusual thing for the Navy to do, Alison? Career military personnel don't necessarily expect to receive a separation notice. They're in it for 10, 12, 14 years. They're going for their 20 years.
ST. JOHN: Trying to get the pension; is that right.
ST. JOHN: So this is an unusual move
ST. JOHN: Absolutely. And I've heard from some people who said the Navy does not lay off perm. That's not what they do. In this case, what they're doing is not retaining people. The contract is not being renewed. But in this tough economic time, so many people have chosen the Navy or the military because it did have more security. And they are hoping to support their families with a level of security that doesn't exist very much in the private sector. So there are some pretty upset responses that you can find on the web from people saying I have 14 years in the Navy, if I'm forced out, I lose my retirement, I receive an involuntary explanation pray or join the reserves. How is either option equitible for me or anyone else in my shoes? Isn't it about making room for junior personnel to advance? This is all about saving money. So when you look at it from the personnel level, those who are affected, of course, have a lot of questions about this. Because they joined because of the security.
CAVANAUGH: Are the Marines doing anything similar, Alison? Do you know?
ST. JOHN: Well, the Marines have got to down size from 202,000 to 186,000. But that's been on the books for a while. And that won't go in effect until the mission in Afghanistan is complete. So there is no overt talk about weeding people out of the Marines right now.
CAVANAUGH: Now, San Diego is so heavily dependent on the military for a nice big section of sustaining its economy. I'm wondering what kind of effect, a downsizing of this, let's say it's several hundred people who are not retained by the Navy in San Diego. Would that have any noticeable effect on our economy do you think?
ST. JOHN: Well, every person counts, and several hundred would add -- I think this is sort of a little bit of the writing on the wall. Because we've seen so much build-up of our dependence on the federal military budget, which has really benefited San Diego's academy. And now we have to start looking at how will it affect San Diego when things like this start to happen? It's like a crack in the armor. It's a bit of a worrying sign because of course San Diego in the past has suffered back in the late 80s, early 90s, when there was a big draw-down on military spending. So you got to wonder what this will cause
CAVANAUGH: And we're hearing about more military downsizing to come from Congress. Let me bring back Mary kirby into our conversation because captain Smith mentioned the fact that there is a great deal of attention being given to those personnel who will be separated from the service or not retained. And while it doesn't seem that naval base San Diego is going to have to deal with too much of that, what kinds of programs is the Navy introducing to handle people who are leaving the Navy? They don't want to leave the Navy. They're going to go out into the civilian job force. What do they need to learn?
KIRBY: The fleet is family support center has been in existence since 1979. And we have a very advanced plan and program to help transitioning service members. We have all of those programs in tact. Sitting down with people and understanding, finding federal employment. Because this will be a real opportunity for some of these individuals to leave active duty service but still stay working for the Department of Defense. And also job fairs and understanding civilian resumes. Then there's a lot of support within each command. Each command has a career counselor there to talk to you about the benefits and resources available to you as well as the command leadership. But the Navy has launched several programs that are worldwide to help specifically those affected by an ERB transition. And that includes the shipmates to work mates which is a very exciting partnership between a lot of major Navy commands organizations that employ hundreds of civilian employees, GS employee, that want to hire these specific sailors. So they're having a shipmates to work mates job fair traveling road show, and it is coming in December and will come again next year. Fleet and families is working with them to partner and raise awareness of that.
CAVANAUGH: What about benefits that Navy personnel receive now, health benefits, housing, things of that nature? What happens next September when some sailors and naval personnel have to leave the service?
KIRBY: There will be a transition. So as there is for every sailor that leaves the Navy, there's a certain period of transition in your healthcare, and a certain period of transition for you to plan your next step if you're in military housing. So that in tact period is going to stay there. Then there's also some extra benefits for them as well. There's a program called the credentialing opportunities online, or cool. We love acronyms. And COOL benefit it is are being extended to sailors who are separating for ERB. This helps you get free credentialing for different professions that civilians have exams for, project management, IT support, things of that nature. So there's some extra benefits in addition to the standard transition benefits that will be afforded.
CAVANAUGH: That sounds like you've been thinking about this. Captain Wilson, you I know have compared this round round of layoffs to the ones that Alison mentioned, downsizing the Navy went through in the early '90s. How is this different?
SMITH: It's different because this time, it's actually well thought out. There's -- each of the commanding officers have been provided talking points with detailed packaging, with lots of information to share with the sailors. You can truly see that in this instance, we have really thought this through. Just mentioning, if I could piggyback on with what Mary brought up about the COOL program, here's another good examine. You were asking earlier about some of those ratings. If you had a hall technician, these are your Navy welders, could take your qualifications that they've learned in the Navy, and now we can convert those over to a civilian certification. That is very appealing to industry, especially when you're talking about a location like San Diego that's looking for welders to support the ship building industry.
SMITH: So this is perfect for it, I think.
CAVANAUGH: We're pretty much out of time. But my last question, captain Smith is basically how -- what does this do to morale? Is this something that everybody is nervous about or they're waiting for the next shoe to fall? Or what does this do to overall morale of not only your command but the Navy in general?
SMITH: I think that the Navy as a whole has been very up front with the information and with its messages and themes and what the enlisted retention board is all about. So the cards have been laid out on the table. What it really does is it allows the sailors to know what they're expected to do when it comes to performance and what they need to accomplish. As a whole, I think that five years from now, you're going to have a pretty resilient force with the right qualifications, the right skill set. All of those sailors will have opportunities to go on and have increased promotion opportunities and to do things in the Navy. So I think as a whole, it's going to balance out pretty well.
CAVANAUGH: And in the next couple weeks, we should know those numbers, Alison for San Diego?
ST. JOHN: We'll see if they emerge.