Pentagon to Overhaul Personnel System to Improve Recruiting, Retention

Talking to Army Recruiter

The Pentagon will soon complete a special three-month review designed to inspire Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps leaders to find innovative ways to change an antiquated personnel system and keep talented service members as part of the military for longer periods of time.

The review, slated to finish by Aug. 18, is examining ways to improve retention, identify and promote the highest-performing military members, provide more career flexibility and keep pace with fast-changing technological trends.

"We have a personnel system that is antiquated and has not evolved in 70 years. The rules have outlived their purpose. There is a desperate need on the military and civilian side," Brad Carson, acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said June 9 at a "Force of the Future" event hosted by Defense One near Washington, D.C.

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The Pentagon review is, among other things, looking at ways to examine and implement Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's Force of the Future initiative, unveiled in a speech this past March. Carter's effort is also aimed at attracting and retaining the best and brightest young minds in today's increasingly high-tech workforce.

"We want to enable the Department of Defense to have the conversation in a better way. How do we identify the top 10 percent of our officers and enlisted people? How do we do that today? The answer is we can't," Carson explained.

Prototype personnel system

Carson said the ongoing review will lead to a new prototype personnel system that will be implemented over the coming year.

"The private sector is responding to colossal changes in the environment much more quickly than we are. The world has changed in the last 20 years," Carson said.  "Everything has become information enabled. We have to recognize that too and do something about it."

The Pentagon review is geared toward inspiring the services to experiment with new plans and programs to overhaul the way members of the military are recruited, evaluated, promoted and retained.

"We will submit a final report to the secretary of defense for his review later this summer, which will provide recommendations that help transform our civilian and military personnel systems into talent management systems," said Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, Pentagon spokesman.

With this in mind, participants attending the June 9 event pointed out that, within 10 years, 98 percent of the military will be comprised of "millennials."

Competing with the private sector

"We've got another challenge also just over the horizon, actually because of good news in our economy. As our growing economy creates more civilian jobs, which is a good thing obviously, we're going to have to work harder to compete to keep bringing in America's best and brightest to our military," Carter said several months ago.

"And when it comes to recruiting some of the most highly skilled parts of our force, like cybersecurity specialists, who are also in high demand in corporate America, we'll have to be even more creative, because we're going to need a lot more of them in the years to come," he added.

There are already a handful of service-specific personnel changes in place with the Army and Navy, Carson explained -- developments that are informing the ongoing review.

"Let them [the services] experiment with different approaches regarding how to handle these issues. This is a way to capture them and let other services know best practices," he said.

The multi-pronged effort will require congressional involvement as the Pentagon tries to more fully migrate from a more rigid time-based system to one that is competency and talent based, Carson said.

Reforming or removing the current "up or out" system that requires officers who are not promoted to leave the military in many instances is a key focus on the effort.

Reforms would allow officers skipped over for promotion to remain for longer periods of time. This could be of particular help for military members working in high-tech areas such as cyber, where skills sets would likely continue to improve with age, Carson explained.

"People at the tip of the spear are going to be in high-tech jobs where you get better over time and you do not deteriorate," Carson said.

At the same time, Roy Wallace, assistant deputy chief of staff, G-1, U.S. Army, said their service must balance the needs of front-line infantry soldiers serving on forward bases in war zones with the requisite high-tech computer skills needed for the future.  

Infantry skills, while themselves increasingly high-tech, may nevertheless require less technically minded people and rely less upon developments in the cyber arena for years to come compared with other specialties, he explained.

"You don't want to disenfranchise the centerpiece of your formation [infantry soldiers]," Wallace said.

As part of their effort to retain high-performing members, both the Army and the Navy have programs allowing service members to temporarily take time away from their service while retaining an overall long-term career path with the military.

The Army has a pilot program designed to accomplish this and the Navy hopes to expand its Career Intermission Program, an effort that allows sailors and naval officers to spend several years in a private-sector assignment before returning to the Navy.

Civilian workforce

Paige Hinkle-Bowles, deputy assistant secretary of defense, civilian personnel policy, said the Pentagon also plans to reform its current system for managing the career paths of its civilian employees.

"We will do a better job of linking individuals to a performance plan linked to the organization's mission. We want to have a system to recognize our highest performers," she said.

Hinkle-Bowles said encouraging military veterans to return to DoD as civilian members of the workforce is a key part of the focus of the civilian effort, called "new beginnings."

At the event, Carson emphasized that a new approach will need to avoid merely analyzing quotas and numbers but rather zero in on talent, quality, performance and needed skills.

"We have an approach that is entirely quantitative. We don't think in terms of quality. It is about the quality of those recruits -- not an excuse to ignore the way the world has changed."

-- Kris Osborn can be reached at

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