Navy pushes major shakeup to military personnel system

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Navy Secretary Ray Mabus announced a sweeping series of reforms to the Navy and Marine Corps’ personnel system Wednesday, saying the military’s talent management practices need to become much more flexible if it plans to recruit from a 21st century workforce. The changes range from how servicemembers are promoted to how they’re clothed and tested for physical fitness.

Some of the changes Mabus announced Wednesday are within the department’s power to implement unilaterally; others would require congressional approval.

Of the initiatives in the latter category, perhaps the most significant shift would be an end to the military’s current “up-or-out” approach to officer promotion. Mabus said officers should advance to their next rank based on merit and not just because it’s their turn, so the department is drafting legislation that would do away with current practices which require officers to either be promoted according to a rigid schedule or leave the service entirely.

“Within the limits of the law, we will emphasize broader milestone achievements as the foundation for promotion eligibility,” he told midshipmen in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy. “Doing this increases competition and opportunity, allowing the best to rise to the top regardless of when they were commissioned. As a long-term solution, we are drafting a legislative proposal to eliminate officer management by year group. This allows those who are not ready for promotion to continue to serve in the same paygrade for longer, or to let those who are ready to advance through the system faster. A golden path of inflexible career wickets, year groups and promotion zones will no longer determine your success. Your performance will decide your timeline for promotion and leadership assignments.”

Similar changes are coming as soon as this year for the Navy’s enlisted sailors. The service will significantly expand and rename a program that lets commanders select their best-performing members for accelerated promotion. Mabus said the newly- rechristened Meritorious Advancement Program also will incorporate more input from the junior officer department heads and division officers who work most directly with those sailors.

“The commanding officer will make the final decision on who to promote, but you’ll have a larger say on which sailors should be promoted and which ones we separate because they’re not doing the job,” he said.

To remain competitive with private employers, the Navy and Marine Corps also must give members more control over their own careers and make their personnel system more flexible, Mabus said.

So the department will propose legislation that would double the current maternity leave allowance to twelve weeks, allow many more new sailors and marines to attend graduate school immediately after graduation from the Naval Academy and significantly expand a pilot program that lets members take temporary detours from military service for short stints in the private sector.

The Navy’s existing Career Intermission Program is limited by law to 40 officers per year. The new proposal would expand it to 400.

“We’re also submitting follow-on proposals that allow participants to consider a menu of compensation, health care, and timing options tailored to their needs,” Mabus said. “And there may come a time you wish to broaden your professional experience, which is why we will partner with Fortune 500 CEOs to create the Secretary of the Navy Industry Tour. Starting this fall, commanders will have the authority to send their best-qualified officers to work at America’s top firms. When these officers return to the fleet, they’ll bring industry’s best practices with them.”

The Navy is also asking Congress for permission to change its bonus system so that extra cash incentives can be given to narrowly-targeted specialties that are in high demand rather than across entire career fields.

“By granting department leaders the flexibility to match pay incentives with individual skillsets and talent levels, we can better compensate and retain officers and enlisted,” he said.

Among the initiatives that don’t require legislative action, several reflect Mabus’ view that many of the military’s rigid standards and practices no longer make sense for a 21st century workforce.

He said the Navy and Marine Corps will continue to demand their members be physically fit, but will alter their approaches to measuring fitness.

The current physical fitness assessment will be completely “revamped,” Mabus said. Rather than relying on body mass index as the main indicator of whether a servicemember is fit to serve, the Navy will shift to an approach that it says will “evaluate health, not shape,” and supplement the regularly-scheduled physical readiness batteries of push-ups, pull-ups and running that now happen twice-a-year with random spot checks.

“Right now, we measure your neck and your waist, and if you’re out of spec, you don’t even get to take the physical readiness test,” Mabus said. “That doesn’t make much sense. We’re going to use better measures, but everybody’s going to take the test. We also don’t want people training for the test. You ought to see the Pentagon right before the PRTs: everybody’s out running a whole lot more all of a sudden. So we’re just going to show up and tell people, ‘Hey, today’s your day. Go do a PRT.'”

Those readiness tests determine whether an individual sailor or marine is eligible to continue military service in any capacity, but Mabus also said he would ensure that the additional standards required to enter specialized fields within the Navy department are fair and gender agnostic.

By the end of this fiscal year, all of the military services will need to open all of their specialties to women unless they can offer a good reason not to do so. Mabus said his working assumption is that each of them will open to women, barring evidence showing that gender, in and of itself, is a barrier to the occupation.

“My notion is we need neutral standards, and if you pass, you pass,” he said. “I don’t care what shape you are, I don’t care what gender you are, I don’t care what color you are. If you pass the standards, you can do whatever job that is. We have high standards: for Navy SEALs, 80 percent of men can’t pass. So keep the standards. Do not lower the standards, do not lower readiness, do not lower fighting ability. But we need to make sure the physical standards have something to do with the job.”

More generally, Mabus said the Navy and Marine Corps need more women in their ranks — not for reasons of political correctness, but because the composition of the military ought to reflect the makeup of the country it serves.

The Navy Department has already made some inroads toward recruiting more women. The academy class that graduated a year ago was 25 percent female. By comparison, women make up just 16 percent of currently-serving Navy officers. In the Marine Corps, it’s 6 percent.

Mabus said he also wants gender neutrality to be reflected in the clothing servicemembers wear every day, so he’s ordered that both the Navy and Marine Corps to transition away from different uniforms for different sexes, noting that the Army has already done so for many of its uniforms.

The services will introduce their new gender-agnostic apparel at the Naval Academy’s graduation ceremony next week.

“Uniformity is about ending the way we segregate women by requiring them to wear different clothes,” he said, “Rather than highlighting differences in our ranks, we will incorporate everyone as full participants. We are trending towards uniforms that don’t divide us as male or female, but rather unite us as sailors or marines. We’ve conducted a thorough review and both services have already initiated the transition.

The Naval Academy is about leadership and commencements are about new beginnings. I look forward to seeing not male and female officer candidates, but new United States Navy and Marine Corps officers.”

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