If the United States were attacked again, the way it was at Pearl Harbor or on Sept. 11, would you step forward to serve in the military? If you’ve climbed any distance up the career ladder, the answer is probably no, because the military hires people almost exclusively at entry level, and signing up could severely diminish your pay and status.
But what does that mean for the defense of our nation?
The world is changing rapidly, with technology at the forefront. It once was possible to hire military personnel young and teach them to be experts in a single skill over a 20- to 30-year career. But today this approach isolates the military from society, limiting its expertise with cutting-edge technology and reducing the diversity of its thinking.
Plus, in the past, people were our main source of power projection and had to be physically present at the battlefield in a fight. But this, too, has changed. Now we use missiles and drones to fight from a distance when possible. The need for skills beyond physical prowess has multiplied.
The breakneck advance of technology is producing commensurate change in the threats we face. How can we keep up? The answer is to be just as innovative with our human resources strategy as we are with our weapons and tactics. We need new ways to recruit the best talent to defend our nation. The key is to modernize our core concept of an all-volunteer force to include lateral hiring.
When the all-volunteer force was formed in the 1970s, its structure reflected the common career arcs of the day, where many workers served a single employer their entire careers. Now, workers change jobs every few years, updating and improving their skills to stay current. The military hasn’t kept pace.
Suppose you could enlist at a rank reflecting your management experience or mastery of a valuable, high-level skill? And for a limited number of years? Would that make you more likely to answer the call to serve in an emergency? For large numbers of patriotic Americans, I think it would.
There are many advantages to this approach. Although boot camp or officer candidate school would still be required to acclimate enlistees to the unique culture of the military, lateral hiring would significantly reduce the time needed to “create” effective leaders. It would also ease budgetary pressures by enabling the United States to maintain a smaller standing military, since it would be much easier to rapidly increase numbers across all ranks in a crisis. There would still be career military members, but they would be fewer and less likely to have served continuously. Instead, they would move more freely between the military and private industry.
The biggest impediment would be cultural. Some will say that lateral hiring would dilute the quality and prestige of the services, or that competition with “outsiders” for promotions would be unfair to those working their way up the ranks. But the imperative to maintain technological dominance begs for cross-discipline, integrated careers. Every company in the world does lateral hiring, and their employees accept new leaders as a matter of course. It may be difficult to give up the traditional military career ladder, but there is much more to be gained by seeking greater diversity in skills, experience and ideas.
Renee J. Squier is head of diversity, inclusion and women’s policy for the U.S. Navy. The views expressed here are her own.
Special to The Washington Post