Find Meaning as an Undesignated Sailor

Seaman Julian Davis, U.S. Navy

Undesignated sailors have no mission to motivate or inspire them. They do what they are ordered with all the purpose of the cuckoo in a clock. The ship may appreciate having them, but they are treated as spare parts, unnecessary to the ship’s overall purpose. The Navy can fix this problem, and sailors who have lost hope can start seeing themselves as undesignated instead of what they currently are: broken sailors.

Robert Feldman’s book Social Psychology: Theories, Research, and Application explains five key dimensions of professional satisfaction:

1.  Skill variety : the degree to which the job requires different skills underlying the activities that are part of the job.

2.  Task identity : the degree to which an individual produces a whole, identifiable unit of work (versus completion of a small unit which is not an identifiable final product).

3.  Task significance : the degree to which the job has an influence over others.

4.  Autonomy : the degree to which an individual holding a job is able to schedule his or her activities and decide on the particular procedures to be employed.

5.   Feedback : the extent to which clear, precise information about the effectiveness of performance is conveyed.

       Many Navy jobs lack skill variety, especially for undesignated sailors who are assigned a division and learn duties within it only to perform a given job day in and day out. Because of their undesignated status, such sailors lack task identity, any sense of how their work relates to their command or the Navy as a whole. “I just do what the chain of command tells me to do,” they often feel. “I don’t know why. I just do it.”

The sorts of menial duties often assigned undesignated sailors provide little sense of the work’s significance, and come with little or no autonomy. A lack of clear direction in how to perform these duties often ends with little or no feedback in how well they were performed.

Clearly, an undesignated rating is not a path to satisfaction.

The Navy can fix some of this through changes to the Surface Warfare Officers School Command Unit's (SWOSU) enlisted program. At present, E-SWOSU is little more than a brochure, giving a superficial understanding of how a ship runs. To make it more substantial, at the end, allow each undesignated sailor to intern in various divisions before giving them their final exam. This will give them early skill variety.

An improved E-SWOSU also will allow undesignated sailors to gain task identity. These sailors will understand how their jobs relate to the ship as a whole because for the first time they will have done many of them. A practice similar to this proposal is already in place: Every enlisted sailor works as a food service attendant (FSA)—a juniuor culinary specialist—at one time or another. Apply the FSA system to each part of the ship for undesignated sailors. Give them the chance to learn by doing.

To solve the third problem of task significance, do away with airman-PACT, surface-PACT, and engineering-PACT for undesignated sailors. In the Navy I envision, all undesignated sailors should be free to choose the rate they want. Many feel trapped because they are assigned to a division before they have the chance to learn about it. An engineer will never see the sun. A topsider will never appreciate what it’s like to fire an engine.

This also will improve their sense of autonomy, as they will be in control of their learning. Some rates will be more popular than others so there will be competition, but that works to everyone’s advantage. Undesignated sailors will be more motivated to work hard if their effort leads to positive results for their careers.

Finally, if every undesignated sailor tries several different jobs in the ship, each will get feedback from enlisted leaders and officers—and perhaps even be invited to join a division after showing aptitude for some jobs. The strength of the Navy is that every sailor is a link in the chain, a part of the team, but that strength turns to weakness for undesignated sailors who often become little more than mindless drones.

Currently, only 1 in 5 undesignated sailors will reenlist. Change the system so that they will no longer experience their enlistments like prison sentences. Improved job satisfaction will bring better retention rates. Sailors who have experienced more in the Navy will be more likely to stay because they’ll have a variety of skills and sense of accomplishment. Many came for adventure in the first place. My dream is for undesignated sailors to become stronger—the "unbroken" sailors.


Seaman Davis serves on board the USS Rushmore (LSD-47). 

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