Last year, the U.S. Military Academy applied its first-ever market-based branching model to the cadet branching process. This year, despite the pandemic presenting its own challenges, West Point continues to improve its market-based branching approach in an effort to align cadets with the branches where their talents best fit the unique demands of the job.
Class of 2021 cadets will be assigned to a branch based on their preferences and how each branch commandant rates them. After conducting cadet interviews and sifting through cadet talent resumes, the commandants will order cadets into one of three categories: “Most Preferred,” “Preferred” and “Least Preferred.” Moreover, within those three categories in the rating system, cadets are ranked from the highest to the lowest, based on their standing within the Order of Merit List (OML).
The goal of this branching marketplace, where both cadets and branches influence outcomes, is to encourage more interaction and communication between cadets and branches before both sides submit their final preferences. Marketplace interaction helps shape cadet preferences for branches and how branches rate cadets.
Under the old branching system, cadets received their branches based purely on their preferences for branches and their position on the OML; branches had no ability to directly influence branch assignments. The new market-based approach empowers branch commandants to directly influence who is assigned to their branch.
“As we’ve seen through the interactions and interview process, empowering the branch commandants to vote on cadets and their files, based on each branch’s specific talent priorities, better aligns talent for their specific branch,” Col. Al Boyer, director of the Department of Military Instruction, said. “Cadets are being allowed to showcase their talents and increase their understanding of which branches they may be more successful in. I view this as a positive outcome for the Army with likely increases in job satisfaction, retention and, ultimately, better warfighting.”
The market-based branching approach also helps cadets learn more about their talents through a four-year process that begins with the Talent Assessment Battery (TAB): a suite of cognitive and non-cognitive tests that assess a cadet’s talents relative to his or her peers. Cadets take the TAB at the start of their first year at West Point and take a similar assessment at the start of their third year, Boyer said.
The TAB takes approximately three hours to complete and is comprised of several industry-standard assessments such as portions of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) analytical test, the Neuroticism-Extraversion-Openness—Five Factor Inventory (NEO-FFI) and Angela Duckworth’s Grit test, among others.
Earlier this year, the Army reached out to leading researchers at MIT and Boston College to implement a new mechanism that improves how cadets match branches after both sides of the market submit preferences. This mechanism improves branching for cadets who are willing to take on a Branch of Choice Active Duty Service Obligation (BRADSO), Boyer said.
Cadets who volunteer to BRADSO increase their chances of getting their desired branch; however, cadets who receive a branch for which they volunteer to BRADSO must serve three additional years along with the five years cadets are required to serve after graduating from West Point.
Last year, cadets had to think carefully about whether to volunteer to BRADSO. Depending on their ratings from branch commandants and their placement on the OML, some cadets who volunteered to BRADSO could have been required to serve an additional three years even if they still would have received the same branch if they had not volunteered to BRADSO.
This year’s mechanism is designed so that cadets are only required to serve an additional three years if they need to volunteer to BRADSO to receive their branch of choice, as explained by the Talent Based Branching Program Manager, Lt. Col. Riley Post. Additionally, cadets should be honest when submitting preferences for branches, instead of “gaming the system.” Cadets who do not receive their most preferred branch will have just as much opportunity to receive their next most preferred branch, Post said.
A key question the Army considered when designing this year’s mechanism was how much influence to give cadets who are willing to BRADSO. If every cadet who volunteers to BRADSO can gain priority, or “jump” above, every cadet who did not volunteer to BRADSO, then that could improve Army retention through more cadets serving an additional three years, but it could also result in more cadets being assigned to branches that do not prefer them.
To address this concern, Post explained that cadets rated “Least Preferred” will always rank below cadets rated “Preferred” and “Most Preferred,” regardless of their willingness to BRADSO. Also, the ability to “jump” branch rating categories is limited to only 35% of each branch’s allocations.
Ultimately, the market-based branching approach only works when cadets and branches interact well to help cadets determine where they can best serve the Army.
The market-based branching approach is designed to work toward the best interest of the cadet. It also gives the branches a vote instead of relying exclusively on the OML where, in the past, the top cadet got the branch they voted for and the bottom cadet got what was left, Post said. Furthermore, it is essential for branch commandants to have some say in where cadets go.
For example, Post explained, it would be counter-productive if employees who work for Google could pick any job within the company, and Google had no say in how their workers would be employed. Branches should have a say in the selection process in order to maximize the efficiency of their branch. If done correctly, this process should improve job performance, leadership productivity and junior officer retention.
Post said the Army is working on improving Talent Based Branching for future cadets by working on the interview process and improving the methods branches use to pick cadets. The Talent Based Branching Program used HireVue this year: an online, on-demand interview platform that allows all cadets to interview with their branch of choice.
“Refining that process is going to be important for the way this goes forward in the future, you have to understand that the biggest change with all of this isn’t the mechanism. The biggest change is that branches have ways to pick cadets,” Post said. “Before, branches never had to pick cadets. So now you’ve got 1,000 West Point cadets and add some 3,000 ROTC cadets that they have to try to pick. So, we’re trying to give them efficient tools for doing that.”
Post added how significant good data is when branches are going through their selection process. Concentrating on efficiency and fairness is the key to empowering branches to make good decisions in their hiring.
“The mechanism is an effective and useful tool, it helps clear the market, but the mechanism is not going to solve the problem of branches picking cadets poorly,” Post Said. “The mechanism facilitates a market, but a market is only as good as the information that’s exchanged in it.”