Military services seeking innovative ways to attract highly skilled recruits


Military personnel salute Air Force One, with President Obama aboard, before its departure from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., on July 17. (Jose Luis Magana/AP)
Walter Pincus
Reporter August 4

The military services are looking at innovative ways to change their personnel systems to boost the recruitment and retention of skilled people. The services are considering steps such as starting people at higher ranks and providing career paths that might include going in and out of the service.

On Thursday, the National Defense Panel — co-chaired by former defense secretary William Perry and retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid — delivered its review of the Defense Department’s 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review and picked up on that idea.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

Among its recommendations: “Implementing a
continuum-of-service model that allows service members to move fluidly between components and between the military, private sector, civil service and other employment.”

A day earlier, the Air Force released a report titled “A Call to the Future,” which described today’s traditional military personnel model of 20 years of continual service as “a 20th century construct that is not widely replicated in the private sector.”

It talked of a possible new approach noting that “breaks in service — or transitions between full and part-time — need not be punitive in the advancement of our future airmen.”

Maj. Gen. David W. Allvin, director of strategic planning in the office of the Air Force deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, expanded on that in a New York Times interview.

“What if you entered the Air Force knowing you could serve for a few years, then go to work for an innovative tech company, and then return to the Air Force?” he said. “We could enter into partnerships with cutting-edge companies and allow our workforce the opportunity of a more flexible retirement system that allows you to do two different jobs and still get to a 20-year retirement. It might take 35 years, but you would get here.”

Another route in the Air Force’s “Call to the Future” report described “a career development model that provides those in specialized career fields with incentives and promotion opportunities on par with those in more mainstream disciplines.”

The Defense Department has long had a few special programs to attract people who might otherwise not enlist for military service.

Doctors have always been a special category. More recently, programs have been developed for foreign health-care workers and language and cultural specialists who have visas and work permits. Their time in service, which could be a mixture of four years active duty and four years in the reserves, would also lead to U.S. citizenship.

One of the least publicized of such programs has existed for years with military bands, which recognized the need to recruit experienced musicians and start them at a higher rank.

Take, for example, the U.S. Marine Band, “The President’s Own.” Its Web site recently advertised for a bassoonist. The notice says the “playing ability and expertise required are equivalent to those of any major professional musical organization.”

The auditions, which will take place Nov. 1 in the John Philip Sousa Band Hall at Marine Barracks in Washington, “are conducted much like those of major symphony orchestras,” the Web site says.

The person chosen will have the standard four-year enlistment, but unlike most other recruits it will be “for duty with the U.S. Marine Band only.”

More important, the Web site says, “ ‘The President’s Own’ musicians are permanently assigned and may not be transferred to any other unit or location. Upon enlistment, new members are appointed to the rank of Staff Sergeant (pay grade E-6) in the U.S. Marine Corps and receive all pay and benefits commensurate with that grade.”

What about basic training? The band’s Web site’s answer: “Unlike other Marine Corps musical units [and the rest of the Marine Corps], ‘The President’s Own’ has no secondary combat role, and its members are exempt from all such training. ‘The President’s Own’ musicians report to Washington fully trained to perform their primary duties in the accomplishment of the band’s unique musical mission. Therefore, there is no requirement for ‘The President’s Own’ musicians to undergo recruit training.”

The Army Band — “Pershing’s Own” — as well as the Air Force Band and the Navy Band have similar programs, though they require their specially skilled recruits to take basic training before coming to Washington to join their respective organizations.

The recent talk about new pay and career paths is not just an exercise. Budgetary pressures have focused increased attention on rising Pentagon personnel costs, which have forced cuts in training — and thus readiness — and even delayed weapon modernization programs.

The Military Compensation and Retirement Modernization Commission, appointed in 2013 to come up with new approaches, recently released an interim report identifying 65 special and incentive-pay categories within the services along with more than 40 health-benefit programs and more than 200 programs and benefits administered by eight federal agencies that support military, veteran, retiree and family member quality of life.

The commission is exploring whether this compensation system could provide valued benefits to service members as well as the job flexibility needed to recruit and retain highly skilled people.

The panel’s recommendations are due by Feb. 1. They are to be made public at the same time they are sent to President Obama and Congress.

Here’s a public discussion worth having.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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