Navy overhauls enlisted personnel system, upsetting many of its sailors

Saying it’s seeking more inclusion and a broader range of experience within its enlisted ranks, the Navy is moving ahead with the latest in a series of changes to its personnel system, the most visible of which will scrap the job-specific titles sailors have used to identify themselves for the last 241 years.

Effective immediately, all enlisted personnel are being told to stop referring to themselves and one another by their ratings, the titles the Navy and Coast Guard have historically assigned to their non-commissioned officers and senior enlisted leaders based on their primary areas of expertise. There will be no more yeomen, electrician’s mates or quartermasters, per se: Just as in the other DoD services, those sailors will be addressed only by their rank: petty officer first, second or third class, or chief.

Behind the scenes, those sailors’ ratings will be converted to alphanumeric digits called Naval Specialty Codes; the Navy’s intent is to allow each sailor to become qualified in multiple NSCs.

The change also affects junior enlisted personnel: All sailors in the ranks E-1 through E-3 will be called “seamen,” a title that will absorb and eliminate the longstanding titles of fireman, airman, hospitalman and others.

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The changes are not merely cosmetic, said Adm. John Richardson, the chief of naval operations. He said they reflect the Navy’s desire to bring a broader diversity of thought into the missions its people perform and make its personnel system less rigid.

He told an all-hands meeting made up mostly of enlisted personnel at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia that the new system would also give them more opportunities for advancement.

“We’re going to call these operational specialties, and you can earn several depending on your interests and your training,” he said. “So, if you’re someone who would have had a yeoman rate before, you can certainly come up and be trained as an administrative specialist, but you can also be trained to be a personnel specialist and many other things. What does this buy you? It buys you a tremendous amount of flexibility.”

Richardson said that’s because sailors who are cross-certified in multiple NSCs will be able to compete for their next higher-ranking positions — or retention in the Navy — based on any of several different qualifications they hold that might be in demand at any given time, rather than competing within a single rating community.

“It also gives you assignment flexibility,” he said. “So, let’s say you want to go to San Diego and you’re a personnel specialist. If I don’t have any need for that in San Diego, you’d have to find someplace else. Under this system, because you have multiple operational specialties, there may be openings in other operational specialties for which you’re fully qualified. You can pursue your interests, you can broaden your qualifications, and you can use those to get more access to assignments.”

At first, the new NSCs will map closely to the Navy’s existing ratings. But officials say they will continue to refine the qualification criteria behind each of them. In doing so, they said that, wherever possible, they would align them with standards used by civilian agencies and nongovernmental associations organizations so that sailors stand a better chance of transitioning directly to outside employment without having to be re-certified for jobs they already know how to do.

“We’re going to go out to private industry,” Richardson said. “What does the FAA have to say about the steps someone has to go through to work on aircraft in a private airline? We’re going to make sure the certification programs for these occupational specialties are aligned so when we’re finished with our time in the Navy, we’ll be much closer to getting fully certified and working on the outside.”

In a message to the fleet, the Navy stressed the personnel changes they announced on Thursday were only the beginning of what would likely be a multi-year process, and officials have not yet attempted to address all of the implications of the transition to the NSC system.

For instance, the Navy doesn’t have an answer to what the changes will mean for the badges sailors currently wear on their uniforms to designate their rating. Also, the service already has a detailed system of Navy Enlisted Classifications in which sailors earn qualifications as sub-specialties within their rate. Richardson said the NEC system would probably continue to exist, but said the matter was still under consideration.

Even in the Norfolk hall where the CNO announced the changes, there were some clear signs of dissatisfaction in the ranks.

One sailor sent the audience into an eruption of applause when she began a question to Richardson by identifying herself by her new title, Petty Officer Second Class, adding: “I guess I’m not a Boatswain’s Mate anymore, but you can still call me ‘Boats.’”

Service members were more direct in comments on the CNO’s Facebook page, many of them expressing dismay at what they viewed as an abandonment of Navy traditions that signaled accomplishments and pride within individual communities.

“Sir, of all the days I’ve had in the Navy, one of the proudest moments was when I earned the right to put on crossed anchors,” wrote one. “All the messages in the world can’t take away the title that we are so proud of.”

“With all due respect sir… it sounds to me like you have an idea but no plan,” wrote another. “Talk is cheap, and this borders on recklessness. Where are the meat and potatoes of this directive?”

By Sunday evening, more than 44,000 people had signed an online petition at the federal government’s We the People website, asking the Obama Administration to overturn the Navy’s decision and revert to the former rating system. The petition needs about 10,000 more signatures to reach the threshold that would earn an official response from the White House.

It reads, in part: “The oldest rates such as Boatswain Mate and Gunners Mate predate the founding of this country. Being known by your job title was a sense of pride, a sign of accomplishment. The Secretary of the Navy and Chief of Naval Operations just senselessly erased this tradition … current leadership continues to erode the very things that set the Navy apart from the other services.”