Pentagon to Escalate War for Talent

By Sandra I. Erwin

A wide-ranging personnel reform proposal unveiled by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter could put the Pentagon in a better position to compete with the private sector for talent.

The proposals that Carter announced Nov. 18 would be the most far reaching personnel reforms the Pentagon has seen since the United States eliminated the draft and moved to an all-volunteer force more than 40 years ago.

Under a project that Carter dubbed “Force of the Future,” the Defense Department will seek to “harness the best talent America has to offer,” he said in a speech at George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs.

Carter launched the effort in April out of concern that the military is struggling to recruit and retain top talent at a time when commanders need people with specialized skills in areas that also are in high demand in the private sector — international affairs, foreign languages, cyber security and all manner of information technology. 

The reforms appear to be particularly motivated by recent struggles in the Army to recruit qualified soldiers and to retain its most skilled officers. These challenges are seen as a bellwether for potentially long-term recruiting and retention troubles. 

The “Force of the Future” review is being led by Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Brad Carson, who enlisted more than 150 subject matter experts from the military services and academia. The group reviewed over 100 studies and commission reports on civilian and military personnel issues, talent management, and private sector human resources practices.

According to a senior defense official, Carter was insistent that the Pentagon move away from an industrial-age personnel system where human resources is about “soul annihilating box checking,” in favor of “best practices” that are followed in the private sector but haven’t made their way to the Defense Department.

A key goal is to increase the flow of personnel and ideas between the public and private sector. There should be "on ramps" for private sector talent to come into the Defense Department to help tackle tough technical projects, Carter said.

“That’s why we’re creating the Defense Digital Service, which will bring in talent from America’s technology community to work for a specific period of time, or for a specific project, to apply a more innovative and agile approach to solving DoD’s complex IT problems.” This approach was used by the White House to fix the website.

Carter also wants to offer "off ramps" for military service members to “connect with ideas and innovators outside the Pentagon.” This means having the option to take sabbaticals. DoD will ask Congress to lift the pilot restrictions on the existing “career intermission program” that lets service members take a sabbatical for a few years while they are starting a family, exploring different career opportunities or pursuing a degree without having to leave the military. The current programs are not widely used because officers fear they will not be promoted. Carter will push the services to encourage these sabbaticals. 

“We’ve always been mindful that the military is a profession of arms. It’s not a business,” Carter said. “The key to doing this successfully is leveraging tradition and change. While the military cannot and should not replicate all aspects of the private sector, we can and should borrow best practices, technologies, and personnel management techniques in commonsense ways.”

With only a year left in the Obama administration, it is unclear what, if any, of these reforms will have a chance to take hold before Carter leaves office. The senior defense official said time is of the essence. “We’re all in a hurry,” he said. “Progress will be measured in weeks, not months.”

In a Nov. 18 memo, Carter set a Dec. 15 deadline for the military services to submit their plans for how they will implement these reforms. “The secretary wants to do things he can put his stamp on,” the official said. “This is really his vision.”

One of the proposals includes creating an online job matching system for service members to “shop around” as they would on LinkedIn. They would be able to search for jobs using data that has not typically been captured by the department. 

Carter also will launch a comprehensive compensation study. Today, everyone is paid the same based on rank, time and grade, the defense official said. “That’s not how leading companies do that.” 
Benefits also will be reviewed. Some of the most controversial proposals involve maternity and paternity leave policies. According to the official, these recommendations are still being debated. 

Carter said the Pentagon is updating and modernizing retirement benefits. He believes this is essential to attract young people to join the military. Today, troops have to serve 20 years before getting any retirement benefits, but 80 percent don’t serve that long, which means they leave with no retirement benefits at all. “Starting in the next few years, we’ll be able to offer a portable 401k-like plan, which all who serve can take with them whenever they move on — whatever’s next in life,” Carter said.

These reforms are only the beginning, said Carter. “So stay tuned in the coming months. We’re taking a serious look at making some commonsense reforms to our officer promotion system. We’re also looking at ways to improve how we manage our civilian personnel.”

Other initiatives proposed under “Force of the Future” include:
• College internship programs that would increase the likelihood of participants receiving full-time jobs in the Department of Defense. 
• Entrepreneur-in-residence program to embed up to three entrepreneurs in different parts of the department to work on special projects sponsored by senior leaders. 
• The designation of a “chief recruiting officer” within the office of the secretary of defense to lead executive recruitment throughout the department and to function as an executive headhunter. 
• Expansion of the secretary of defense “corporate fellows” program that assigns service members to work at top U.S. corporations and bring back what they learn. 

Topics: Defense Department, Civilian Workforce, Defense Watch, DOD Budget, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy

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