Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announces the major personnel proposals.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announces the major personnel proposals. Cliff Owen/AP

Carter Proposes 'Huge' Pentagon Personnel System Overhaul

Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday unveiled major proposals that would reform the military's "up or out" promotion system and allow civilian recruiters to bypass the traditional federal hiring process.

The Pentagon is seeking major personnel changes to better attract and retain a talented workforce on both the military and civilian sides. Specifically, Defense wants more flexibility to promote exceptional service members more quickly through the ranks, and the ability to bypass the traditional federal hiring system to directly hire some civilians and allow civilians greater opportunity to move laterally into military jobs.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday announced his latest proposals to provide the department’s civilian employees and service members with more work-life flexibility and greater opportunity for advancement. 

For service members, the initiatives focus on making promotions more accessible and merit-based. Carter said he is working closely with Congress to allow the military services to adjust the “lineal numbers” assigned to officers based on seniority for promotions to better reflect performance rather than tenure.

“It’s a key part of good talent management,” Carter said during a speech in Washington, D.C., unveiling the next tranche of reforms the department will pursue as part of its Force of the Future initiative. “And it’ll help us recognize and incentivize the very best performers – not to mention make promotion even more merit-based than it already is.”

The "up or out" promotion system isn’t "broken," Carter said, but he wants to give leaders more flexibility to craft a workforce that fits the department’s needs and isn’t one-size-fits-all. The Defense secretary also wants to give the services the ability to temporarily defer promotions for officers so they can pursue educational opportunities, advanced training or a stint in the private sector, without taking a step back in their military career. “If the services can allow those warriors temporarily to defer their promotion boards, it will help ensure that officers and their personnel managers who pursue less traditional career paths for them won’t be harmed for it, and give them time to meet all of DOPMA’s promotion requirements before they’re considered for promotion.”

Carter was referring to the Defense Officer Personnel Management Act, which lawmakers would have to amend for the changes to the military promotion system to take effect.

On the civilian side, the Defense secretary said those workers deserve paid parental leave to care for a new child. "Parental leave is fully paid for military personnel, and the same should be true for their civilian colleagues, Carter said. “This is important for retaining civilian talent, especially since we want to retain people who are experienced, but not at the end of their career – which is exactly the time people are having families,” he said. 

The Pentagon also is seeking direct-hire authority from Congress to hire individuals for civilian jobs on the spot on college campuses. "Make no mistake: this is going to be huge," Carter said, noting that this would allow the department to bypass the often lengthy federal hiring process, which centers on candidates applying for jobs through the USAJOBS Web portal.

“This has the potential to be a real game-changer for us,” said Carter. “Our civilian recruiters will be able to go to campus job fairs, do some interviews, and if they find someone who’s the right fit, they can make a tentative offer on the spot, pending security clearance – potentially cutting down those 90 days to zero.” 

Other efforts that Defense is pursuing include:

  • Making it easier for the department to hire civilians into some military jobs at the appropriate rank based on skill set (what’s known as “lateral entry”). This could apply to many cyber-related jobs, for instance.
  • Moving to an all-digital military personnel recruiting system.
  • Leveraging existing authority to directly hire more “highly-qualified experts” across the department.
  • Expanding DoD’s scholarship-for-service program for STEM graduates.