The U.S. Navy’s enlisted occupational system was the product of more than 200 years of careful evolution. In 1775, only a few different jobs above the ordinary level of seaman were offered. These included boatswain’s mate, quartermaster, gunner’s mate, master-at-arms, cook, armorer, and coxswain. Over the centuries, this list grew and adapted to accommodate change, and a sailor’s rating became an enormous source of pride.
In September, Secretary of the Navy (SecNav) Raymond “Ray” Mabus Jr. handed down a mandate that immediately and totally erased this entire system.
This announcement was met with widespread hostility, and a petition to the White House, demanding that the policy be reversed, garnered far more than the 100,000 signatures required to elicit a presidential response. Sailors are upset. Many suspect the SecNav’s actions are motivated by political correctness rather than by the needs of either the Navy or its sailors. Further, sailors clearly wonder what role uniformed leadership played in this perceived betrayal.
This anger is exacerbated by the fact that so little is known regarding the process that produced this change. It seems those who were involved in this transformation conducted their proceedings in virtual secrecy. Now, many players in the process are not commenting; others left office; and the few who are speaking deliver murky and conflicting explanations.
The following is known. In July, a working group led by former Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (MCPON) Michael D. Stevens was formed to “identify personnel policies, management programs and information technology systems that might require modifications over the years and months ahead, including changes to recruiting, detailing, advancements, training and personnel and pay processes.”
At some point during these proceedings, the MCPON introduced what he described as an issue of significant concern of the SecNav: i.e., how to do away with the word “man,” attached to a number of existing rates. Ultimately, several options —ranging from simply changing the word “man” to either “specialist” or “technician,” to a complete revision of the entire system, which would include elimination of the rate structure—were developed.
On 29 September, the Navy announced it would “modernize all rating titles for sailors with the establishment of a new classification system that will move toward occupational specialty codes similar to how the other services categorize skill sets.”
What this may mean in the long term is as of yet undefined, and questions on this topic generally are met with a promise that it will all be worked out and implemented over the course of years and with much fleet involvement.
At the moment of announcement, however, one decision was made both clear and immediately effective: “modernize all rating titles” eliminates the rates loved by sailors for more than 200 years.
Since then, it is being amorphously advertised that a new system will allow a greater flexibility in training and detailing, as well as increase sailors’ opportunities when they transition out of the service. These arguments seem specious. Sailors already are assigned Navy Enlisted Classifications (NECs), which do exactly what the proposed new Navy Occupational Specialties (NOSs) will. Likewise, NECs are used in the detailing process. As for the civilian job world, it is unclear how calling a former operations specialist an information specialist will result in the increased hiring opportunities.
Why is this larger “plan” not yet fleshed out? If it is so important, why the rush? Why the timing? Why not have an open discussion? Can anyone blame sailors for suspecting that this is all smoke and mirrors designed to cover a politically motivated elimination of the word “man”?
As is, correct or not, it appears that the SecNav was fishing for a single result with dynamite.
In 1995, a group of admirals was directed by a 39-year-old political appointee to enact a structural program change to which they all were deeply opposed. The admirals remained silent and left the room, evidently cowed. Later, when asked why they had not pushed back, one said, “In six months she’ll be gone, and we’ll all still be here.”
They were right. In the end, there was no change. Perhaps this is a lesson to be remembered now.
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three of them: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62).