Defense Secretary Unveils New Proposals to Expand Talent Pipeline

By Sandra I. Erwin

A rigid military promotion system, red tape in federal hiring and limited options to share ideas with the private sector are putting the Pentagon at a competitive disadvantage in the war for talent, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.

So as the Senate prepares to vote on a 2017 policy bill for the Defense Department, Carter is putting forth a package of new personnel and business reforms that he believes will bolster the Pentagon’s ability to retain and bring in fresh talent.

These proposals are part of a broad “force of the future” initiative launched last year to help position the military and civilian workforce to deal with emerging challenges, such as a looming shortage of skilled experts in cybersecurity and other key technical disciplines.

At the center of the new package of reforms are changes to the officer promotion system that would allow the military services more flexibility to reward selected officers with career opportunities without jeopardizing their promotion.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act adopts some of Carter’s proposals, but not the ones viewed as the most contentious, such as granting “overall flexibility” to the military services to manage promotions.

Carter is seeking congressional support to rewrite federal laws to allow Defense Department civilian employees to take temporary jobs in the private sector, and conversely have corporate executives reciprocate by working for the government. The Pentagon already has a “secretary of defense corporate fellows” exchange program for military mid-grade officers but Carter wants to extend it to civilians. This would require legislative language so employees on the federal payroll could still be paid during their exchange program.

The Defense Department already is allowed to exchange workers with academic institutions and non-profits. Its ability to set up similar arrangements with for-profit companies is restricted to information-technology career fields. Carter wants to broaden that program to other sectors.  

“Generations change, technologies change, labor markets change,” Carter said June 9 in a speech at the Pentagon.

Carter has turned over the lead responsibility for “force of the future” to Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Peter Levine, who replaced Brad Carson. Carson resigned in March under heavy criticism for advocating aggressive personnel reforms.

The initiative started by Carson carries on. Carter said he is particularly focused on “giving the services room to make commonsense improvements” to the officer promotion system.
The current “up-or-out” system — where an officer has to advance or retire — is too rigid and in some cases undermines the military’s ability to keep people with highly needed skills, Carter said.

“DoD can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.”

The “up-or-out” system is governed by the 36-year-old Defense Officer Personnel Management Act. It provides little incentive for officers to focus, specialize or try something different from a traditional career path, “even if doing so would benefit DoD and make our force more effective,” he said. Those who deviate from strict career paths may be penalized by not being selected for promotion.

“We’re seeking to change DOPMA” so the services can reward superior performance, Carter said. He also wants authority for the services to be able to temporarily defer when officers are considered for promotion. “We can’t have a system that inadvertently almost kicks out a Rhodes Scholar just because the calendar tells us to.”

A senior defense official said there is no evidence of systemic voluntary departures of military officers because of the promotion system. “We only have anecdotal evidence,” said the official, who briefed reporters after Carter made these announcements. “The concern is not that people may leave the military because of these things, it’s more that they will avoid opportunities because they know that to advance they need to stay on a strict path.” He noted that surveys of U.S. officers across the board consistently show that promotion issues ranks among the highest cause of dissatisfaction, he said. “People suffer because they have to remain in lockstep with their colleagues to be promotable.”

The changes Carter is seeking to the “up-or-out” system are not in the SASC bill, nor is the authority to deviate from seniority requirements in placing officers approved for promotion into new slots.

Other reforms sought by Carter would affect “lateral entry,” a mechanism now in place so civilian doctors can join the military at officers’ ranks commensurate with their skill and experience. In other specialized fields, there is no way for the services to recruit skilled civilians who want to serve in uniform without having them start at the lowest ranks. Obviously, no civilian job would qualify someone to lead military forces in the battlefield, and only years of training and experience in the military can do that, Carter noted. “However, this can be problematic in some very specific areas, such as cyber and other scientific and technical fields, where jobs are not only high-skill, but also hard-to-fill, rapidly changing, and in high demand by the private sector.” DoD civilians can fill some gaps in expertise, but “some missions have to be done by someone who has the legal protections we afford our military personnel.”

A network or encryption expert from a tech company should be eligible for lateral entry, Carter said. “We need a way to harness their expertise and put it to use.” The lateral entry authority is included in the SASC version of the NDAA.

Also on Carter’s reform agenda are changes to hiring rules so the Pentagon can compete for cream-of-the-crop college graduates. “This is going to be huge,” he said. “I can’t emphasize that enough.” Right now, if a Defense Department recruiter meets an undergrad student, a grad student, or a recent graduate who’s a perfect candidate for a particular job opening, they have to send them to the USAJOBS website. That requires an arduous process of creating an online resume, uploading transcripts and other documents that takes up to 160 days, in addition to however long it takes to get a security clearance.

“In today’s job market, if you’re a computer science or other STEM major graduating from Stanford or MIT or the University of Texas, you’re not going to wait three more months after you applied for us to make you an offer. By the time we get around to it, chances are you’ll have gotten another offer already.” This is “easy to fix,” Carter said. “Being able to make a tentative offer to an exceptional candidate coming out of school isn’t unique in government — the intelligence community has been able to do it for decades.”

The Pentagon, additionally, wants to create a new two-way talent exchange program with the private sector, Carter said. “Right now we have very few such programs, with very limited scope. If we want to send a civilian from the Defense Logistics Agency or Transportation Command to spend six months at a place like Amazon or FedEx to see what we might be able to learn, there’s no formal mechanism for that. And the same goes for the opposite direction.” The plan is to create program — that would comply with government ethics rules — to temporarily exchange civilian employees and “best practices” with key corporations.

Photo: Defense Dept.

Topics: Cyber, Cybersecurity, Defense Department, Civilian Workforce, DOD Leadership, DOD Policy, Interagency Issues

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