Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter recently called for the services to find new ways to “attract, inspire, and excite people,” especially those with advanced technical skills. Inspiration and excitement are crucial for all service members and are influenced—positively and negatively—by leadership and several other quality-of-life issues. Attracting and retaining people with unique skills, especially those in the burgeoning cyber workforce, presents a different but related set of challenges. The services compete with the civilian sector for these high-demand skills, so recruiting and keeping the best candidates often comes down to compensation.
One of Secretary Carter’s ideas for tackling the recruiting challenge is to access some enlisted candidates directly into mid-career paygrades. This strategy might attract and later retain technicians, but it would entail an unnecessary shift in military culture. Moreover, the suggestion assumes these skills are needed in uniform. Some are more suitable to civilian service, which provides the mid-career placement, career on- and off-ramps, and faster advancement the Secretary envisions.
Secretary Carter’s suggestion also perpetuates the misperception we only value and compensate people based on rank. That is wrong and dangerous. It also ignores the value of military experience and leadership development in that environment. Furthermore, that strategy would unfairly harm other communities; manpower in some paygrades is limited by statute, so each advanced placement in one field necessarily dictates fewer opportunities and leaders in another.
Using the assumption military service is appropriate, solutions other than advanced rank upon enlistment should be considered.
The first option is to continue present enlistment policies while augmenting a technician’s base salary with substantial specialty pay. This is the easiest method to implement and would work equally well in the enlisted and officer communities, both of which already target in-demand skills with monthly and career bonuses.
Another option is to develop in each service a second, parallel enlisted rank structure. The Army for years had specialist ranks through paygrade E-9, with pay identical to their corresponding non-technical ranks but with limited authority. The Army still has E-4 specialists and corporals. Expanded across the services, this would enable technical experts to compete for promotion as a cohort while less technical, more leadership-focused members compete in their own group. This approach would present a significant cultural transformation in the services and would create two classes of military professionals, both serious drawbacks. In the officer ranks, corresponding staff-corps communities could be expanded with candidates accessed at advanced ranks, similar to physicians and attorneys.
The warrant officer ranks present another opportunity. The Army warrant officer community is specifically targeted toward technical specialists whereas the higher commissioned ranks offer a path toward command. The Army, unlike the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard, accepts candidates with or without prior enlisted experience. The Air Force has not had a warrant officer program in decades. Moving technical specialties, perhaps very specific subspecialties in limited career fields, would provide higher compensation and status to attract qualified candidates. This would solve one of the problems the Navy attempted to overcome with the now-canceled Flying Warrant Officer Pilot Program, specifically, to develop technical specialists “unencumbered by the career progression requirements of the [unrestricted line] officer” (NAVADMIN 192/13). This too would entail a substantial cultural shift for the Sea Services.
The easiest and least culturally disruptive strategy is to access technical specialists under existing policies and compensate them appropriately using bonuses standardized across the services based on specific qualifications. This would provide the financial incentive necessary to attract and retain advanced technicians who would progress based on both technical and leadership abilities, maintaining parity for all service members. This strategy offers several advantages: It could be implemented without major changes to existing policies, it could be quickly adjusted to meet shifting personnel needs, and it does not require congressional action.
In determining how to attract technical specialists, we must decide if we want leaders or technicians. We need both, in most cases individuals need to be both, and existing personnel policies support both. If we assume military service is required, we need mechanisms to attract in-demand skills without needlessly dismantling beneficial elements of military culture. The first step is to recognize the issue is most often one of compensation, not rank.