Gen. Berger Could Revolutionize Marines' Career Paths. Here's What He Wants to Change

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Cpl. Fabaino E. Tornberg, left, a machine gunner, and Sgt. Rodrigue Maxius, right, a rifleman, pins chevrons on Cpl. Gregory Opinski, a machine gunner, all with Kilo Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, during his promotion to corporal aboard the dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43), on April 1, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Devin Nichols)
Cpl. Fabaino E. Tornberg, left, a machine gunner, and Sgt. Rodrigue Maxius, right, a rifleman, pins chevrons on Cpl. Gregory Opinski, a machine gunner, all with Kilo Company, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, during his promotion to corporal aboard the dock landing ship USS Fort McHenry (LSD 43), on April 1, 2015. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Devin Nichols)

The Marine Corps' top general wants to reward top performers, push promotion authority down to unit-level leaders, offer more job flexibility, and allow people to stay in uniform past the 20-year mark -- moves that could drastically shake up the service's career system.

Leaders know their Marines better than those setting policy in Washington, D.C., or Quantico, Virginia, Commandant Gen. David Berger told Military.com in a recent interview, and they should be more involved in helping retain the right talent.

"Many of us grew up in different timeframes where we were really focused as commanders and senior enlisted leaders on who we were keeping," he said. "We need to put that focus back in place."

Leaders are currently responsible for writing their Marines' performance evaluations, or fitness reports -- the most important factor in determining whether someone will pin on the next rank. But Berger said he'll examine how else they can be involved in selecting who should go, who should stay, and what jobs Marines should be doing.

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"Can I get their insights to say, 'OK, Berger is a good fit for this, not a good fit for that,' or 'We really need to keep him, time for him to go,'" the commandant said. "[We need] a way to really draw on the people that know them first-hand and closest."

Berger put it candidly in the planning guidance he released to the force last week: There are major shortcomings in the performance evaluation system that must be addressed, he wrote. That includes a growing lack of faith in the Corps' ability to identity Marines' skills, performance and future potential.

"The essence of all manpower systems is to encourage those you need and want to stay, and separate [those] who are not performing to standards," he added. "Our current system lacks the authorities and tools to accomplish that simple outcome in anything but a blunt way."

Too many Marines are getting promoted based on time and experience, he said, rather than talent, performance or potential. They're also stuck in career fields that are set early in their careers, forcing Marines to accept a job they might dislike or leave.

"Even talented, high-performing officers have changing interests over time," Berger said.

The Marine Corps is also letting go of some of its most valuable leaders when they're forced out at the 20-year mark.

"[We cut] careers off ... when workers have decades of productivity left in them," Berger said. "These polices ... throw away talent at the point it is most productive and highly trained, and discourage performers who would like to continue serving."

There’s a need for more incentives for those who "learn, think and innovate," according to the planning guidance. That means bonuses and other rewards should target individual Marines rather than whole military occupational specialties or communities, he added. That's an antiquated model that could be rewarding poor performers.

"We should use money like a focused weapon, and aim it at the exact individual we need," Berger said. "Currently, we target people via a mass fires approach, instead of more selective targeting."

Leaders need to be given the chance to identify Marines' unique skills and help them move into jobs for which they're well-suited, the commandant wrote, such as becoming instructors, commanders, staff officers, mentors or special technicians. And he reiterated that building a stronger Marine Corps might mean trimming end-strength "in favor of quality," a concept he has defended as the service faces badly needed training and equipment upgrades.

Berger is also pushing for better parental-leave policies, including a year off for new moms, a move advocates say will go a long way in helping the male-dominated service attract and retain women.

Some of the big personnel moves Berger is after might require congressional approval, and he said he'll request that lawmakers give the service more modern tools to compete in today's economy.

In the meantime though, he said leaders will consider several changes to the fitness-report process, including allowing Marines an opportunity to assess their own performances; giving officers and senior enlisted personnel the chance to identity their Marines' future potential; helping lead Marines with special skills into jobs like training, planning, mentoring or those that require technical expertise; and rewarding academic performance.

"We must and will remedy these shortfalls," Berger said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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