The military needs to increase its benefits, such as some sort of retirement package to those who haven’t served 20 years, and to promote based on performance not seniority, in order to attract and retain the best personnel, the Pentagon chief said Monday.
As those who joined in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks leave the military, the department will have to adjust its benefits and force structure to remain attractive to younger generations, as well as attract the best employees for specific, in-demand careers, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said in remarks at Abington High School in Pennsylvania and Fort Drum, New York.
One initiative he’s “looking very hard right now at” is a blended retirement plan that would let the vast majority of troops who don’t serve 20 years still receive some retirement benefits by contributing to a 401(k)-like system that the government would match.
The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission made recommendations earlier this year that included a retirement plan in which troops would pay into the plan and the government would match a portion of those contributions, much like civilian 401ks.
President Obama sent a letter to Congress on Monday that said he backs the “underlying objectives” of the commission’s recommendation on retirement, as well as 14 other recommendations ranging from health care to education to better collaboration between the Defense Department and VA.
Mr. Obama said his staff was working with members of the commission on specific policy proposals to enact the recommendations, which would be presented to Congress by April 30.
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Of 21 million Americans ages 17 to 21, Mr. Carter said only about one-third are eligible to join the military because of physical and other standards. The military needs to recruit about 250,000 people a year to make up for attrition as older troops leave the service.
Mr. Carter also talked about the need for other changes, including modifications to the promotion structure of the military to give more weight to work performance and less weight to seniority.
“How can we bring in more highly-skilled people and how can we reward those people and promote people not simply on the basis of when they joined but even more and more on the basis of their performance and talent? How can we be that kind of organization?” Mr. Carter said.
Veterans service organizations were supportive of the proposed change in advancement, saying that the military will need to be creative in its recruitment and retention efforts, especially as the economy improves and budget cuts hurt troop morale.
“The selection of the sergeant major of the Army or commandant of the Marine Corps is merit-based. It’s hard to argue against applying that same reasoning to other promotions,” said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars. “It’s going to take some creativity to recruit and retain the best future force, which it appears Secretary Carter has.”
Nora Bensahel, a scholar at American University, predicted any major personnel changes would face some resistance. Still, she said the system will need to change if it is to stay in line with the expectations of today’s workforce.
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“The DOD needs to move to more of a talent management perspective on its personnel system,” she said. “It treats people as interchangeable parts, it’s very much of an industrial era model system set up in 1950s and 1960s. So the system is going to need to change because the world is different today, the environment is different, and the skill sets we need to bring into force are different.”
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior defense fellow at the Brookings Institution, agreed that the rank and promotion structure in the military is “a bit out of whack with society.”
Mr. Carter also said he is looking for ways to recruit those who have excelled in the civilian world midcareer without making them start in the military on the lowest rung as a junior service member. He said giving military service credit for civilian work experience could help recruit highly-skilled employees into specialized military fields, like cybersecurity.
Ms. Bensahel said the military overall is doing well in recruitment, but is falling behind in specific fields like cybersecurity where the military has to compete with high demand and good benefits in the private sector.
Mr. Carter shared several other ideas, such as helping people pay off student loan debt if they come to the military having already gone to college and expanding pilot programs in some services that allow troops to take a break in service to pursue a degree or start a family.
The Navy and Air Force already have small pilot programs that allow troops to essentially pause their career to take a break for one to three years, Ms. Bensahel said. These programs allow members of the military to come back into service at the same point they left and compete for promotions with those who have the same amount of military experience, not those who entered the military in the same year.
Troops who take part in the career intermission program incur an additional service requirement for each year they request off from the military.
Mr. Carter’s two-day domestic trip to promote new initiatives to recruit and retain the most promising people continues Tuesday when he will speak at Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families.