About a quarter of U.S. Navy enlisted sailors have or are working toward an academic degree, while many more have civilian certifications and others have valuable soft skills from jobs they held before joining the Navy.1 How can the Navy use these skills to better the fleet? An individual’s skills can be categorized as hard or soft. Hard skills can be easily quantified, such as degrees, certificates, and language proficiency. Soft skills can be described as an aptitude for dealing with people, problem-solving, or communication. Soft skills are characteristics that cannot be measured.
It is becoming more common for people to enlist in the Navy later in life, and these new sailors have degrees, valuable civilian certifications, and, in some cases, management experience. Regardless of whether they enlisted or received a commission, they typically start at the bottom of the naval totem pole. Many times, when they first report to a command, their skills from their “previous lives” are ignored, or they are hesitant to bring them up. However, we have all heard stories of a junior sailor who was tapped to use his expertise as a computer numerical control operator, project manager, or mechanic to save the day.
In the October 2017 edition of the Submarine Force Reserve Component Submarine Note (SUBNote), a front-page article was about a reserve hull maintenance technician (HT1) who assisted Commander, Submarine Force Atlantic (ComSubLant), with cybersecurity and network improvements.2 It may go unstated, but many Navy leaders have preconceived notions of sailors’ ratings and the skills they possess. Imagine telling your division officer, “Don’t worry, sir, HT1 will fix our servers.” However, in this case, HT1 Jose de la Cruz Ramirez had worked as a cybersecurity consultant, had a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and “was less than a year away from completing his Masters in Information Technology.”3 I challenge you to find an information technician with the same experience. If ComSubLant had not reached out to the reserve component, HT1’s valuable skills may not have been used.
Rating modernization as outlined in Navy Administrative Message 196/18 and Sailor 2025 will assist in aligning the needs of the Navy with the career goals of its sailors.4 This initiative will allow the service to leverage the hidden talents of its sailors to improve the readiness of the Navy. Leaders can prepare now by identifying and helping sailors refine their skills and interests. This can be as simple as a divisional leading petty officer talking to every sailor and determining how the command can use his or her skills and education. Alternatively, it could be a formal process that records and tracks sailors’ hard and soft skills.
When I sit down with my sailors for a Career Development Board, I want to know about any degrees or certifications they have or are pursuing, personal interests or hobbies, and jobs they held before the Navy. In these conversations I learn more about sailors than the rating they have. I have seen mechanics who were amazing computer programmers and tech rates who could rebuild an engine. Sailors who do not possess certifications or have not held a job before the Navy should not be excluded. They still have valuable skills, but leaders need to help them realize and polish these talents. Not only will this help advance their personal and professional careers, but these actions also can help with retention.
When I was on active duty on board the USS Pittsburgh (SSN-720), one of my collateral duties was the command’s United Services Military Apprenticeship Program coordinator. I am sure my former shipmates remember how I would go around the boat constantly asking sailors if they had signed up for an apprenticeship or other program to further their educational and personal goals. Many programs are available to help sailors reach their goals and advance their knowledge; however, many sailors are unaware of their existence or do not believe they qualify to participate. Leaders should repeatedly remind sailors of apprenticeships, certifications, degrees, and other programs that are available, and they should help sailors enroll. When we invest time and energy into junior sailors, we build a better force for the future.
There is a common misconception that if sailors earn degrees or certifications, the Navy will lose them to high-paying civilian jobs. I wholeheartedly disagree. As I see it, sailors generally fall into three groups:
1. Those who will serve 20 years (or more)
2. Those who will get out
3. Those who are unsure what to do
The Navy can count on group one for the long run. Degree or not, they are here to stay. There is no changing the minds of group two—they served their time and want to move on. Group three, however, is the most important. If command leaders can show they are interested and invested in the personal and professional development of sailors who are unsure about reenlisting, then we might change their minds. Many times I have seen shipmates get out because they are disgruntled; you hear them say things such as, “Chief never sent me to school,” or “I couldn’t finish that qualification.” If leaders make sailors feel valued and invest time and effort in their development, we can show them the Navy cares and they should stay to build a better future.
In the civilian business world, it is common to see employees leave a company because of bad management and lack of promotion opportunities.5 This was a point brought up in my management classes. Employers are not investing in their employees, and this is hurting companies. We see similarities in commands with low morale that typically have higher personnel losses. Toxic triads lead to disgruntled sailors who start to question if they still want to be part of the Navy. One individual who creates a toxic environment can sway a sailor away from staying in.
How can the Navy combat this? Invest in sailors and use the skills they possess, even if those competencies are not in their trade. At the command level, we can use Sailor 360 to give service members with unique and valuable skills a dais to share their knowledge. A few months ago, Petty Officer First Class Scott Chapman, a reservist who serves as an operations specialist at Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) New London and is a financial planner, gave a great presentation to help sailors understand and plan for retirement. NOSC New London’s Sailor 360 leaders understood and recognized Chapman’s successful civilian career as a financial planner and wanted to employ his background for the benefit of all their sailors.
Sailor 2025’s “detailing marketplace” provides a tool to give sailors the ability to communicate and negotiate orders with future gaining commands. Sailors can use this tool to leverage their hard and soft skills to further their careers and improve the readiness of the fleet. The Navy has the best sailors in the world, and its leaders should recognize and use every ounce of their potential. I guarantee you will be shocked to learn all the hidden abilities of sailors at your command, and I challenge you to reach out and fully employ them.
Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others. –Jack Welch
1. Mark D. Faram, “Don’t Get Left Behind: Sailors without College Degrees May Struggle to Stay Competitive,” Navy Times, 19 March 2017.
2 “Have Cyber Security Concerns? Call a Hull Technician, of Course,” Submarine Force Reserve Component Submarine Note (SUBNote), 2017, 1–5.
3. “Have Cyber Security Concerns? Call a Hull Technician, of Course.”
4. VADM Robert Burke, USN, NAVADMIN 196/18 (Washington, DC: U.S. Navy Bureau of Personnel, 2018); and Burke, Growing to Win: Sailor 2025: Navy’s Strategy for People in our Future Fleet (Washington, DC: U.S. Navy Bureau of Personnel, 2015).
5. Marcel Schwantes, “Why Are Your Employees Quitting? A Study Says It Comes Down to Any of These 6 Reasons,” Inc., 23 October 2017.