Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Why the military needs unorthodox career tracks — now
Why the military needs unorthodox career tracks — now

Why the military needs unorthodox career tracks — now

My career has been anything but traditional. It has included stints in academia, a start-up, a Fortune 500 company, a foreign policy think tank — even four years as an operative working against Russian military intelligence.

I have always felt that movement (laterally or otherwise) was important career-wise, and that meant often finding myself moving from one industry and career to another. Accepting a commission through the Navy’s Direct Commission program and then serving in the Navy Reserve seemed to be the culmination of an utterly eclectic and non-traditional career. But, as I watch my military officer peers struggle with navigating the best way to serve to their golden 20-year mark, I have to wonder: Are rigid career tracks still the best means to develop military leaders who need to use cutting edge technology?

One of the early career lessons I learned in the private sector, was that career development was not tied to a promotion. Not every programmer became a manager, director and then a chief technology officer, with the inverse true as well. While a non-traditional career path such as mine is embraced and encouraged in the private sector, can the concept of a non-linear career be applied to the officer corps of the U.S. military? The biggest impediment to such an approach is the “up or out” policy that requiresofficers must promote or be discharged.

Under current rules, officers have two chances to be reviewed by a promotion board and move up to the next rank. Being passed over both times results in separation.

The first board generally occurs between nine and 11 years of service which, for a Navy surface warfare officer, generally means two division officer tours and one or two department head tours, and comes with tremendous experience. Aware that a singular path may not be diverse enough, the SWO community has a four-track career path. The SWO community also includes expanded maternity leave, graduate degrees and even a sabbatical program. Still, one of the defined paths are the safest bet to a promotion.

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