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The end of ratings: What's next in the Navy's radical enlisted shake-up

October 2, 2016 (Photo Credit: MC2 Kenneth Abbate/Navy)
"Choose your rate, choose your fate." It's a saying every sailor has heard — and as of late September, it's history.

That's the news as the Navy has eliminated every sailor's rating title in favor of generic rank-specific titles like petty officer 2nd class, a move intended to encourage training across specialties and to help them later transition into the civilian workforce with more skills.

“We’re going to immediately do away with rating titles and address each other by just our rank as the other services do,” said Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Robert Burke in a Sept. 19 interview. “We recognize that’s going to be a large cultural change, it’s not going to happen overnight, but the direction is to start exercising that now.”

The announcement signals a tectonic shift in Navy’s personnel system, where sailors have long identified with their individual occupations — ratings — first and foremost. They're the stuff of murals aboard ship and ink on arms. The magnitude of the move isn’t lost on the Navy’s top leaders, who recognize this move will be unpopular and stress the changes will allow sailors to move easily between related fields and choice more duty stations.

The move ends every enlisted rating, some of them like Gunner's mate, Quartermaster and Boatswain's mate that dated back to the Continental Navy. The Navy has had nearly 700 different rating titles in that time — all of which are now history.

It starts the Navy on the most radical personnel overhaul in a generation, one that will change the way sailors are trained and advanced — it could even end the semi-annual petty officer advancement test.

“We’re going to take a new approach to the enlisted ratings with the idea that we would provide more assignment flexibility, more training opportunities and better civilian credentialing opportunities," Burke said.   

This began with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus’ mandate in January to eliminate the use of the word “man” from rating titles to make the enlisted service more appealing to women. In June, the Marine Corps — also under the Mabus edict — announced they’d take “man” out of 19 occupational titles. The Navy has gone much further. Their more controversial approach will eliminate the rating title every sailor uses and aims to scrap the existing advancement system and start over. 

Burke said this will eliminate conflicts as the Navy moves to a more modern personnel system over the next few years. The promise is that sailors will soon be able to qualify in multiple skills and across today’s traditional rating lines. That will mean they can apply for a wider variety of jobs, duty stations and have more chances to move up the ranks. 

What you need to know about the Navy's sweeping changes:

New titles

For the first time in the Navy’s history — every sailor's title will be the same. For E-3 and below sailors, the only title will be “seaman.”  

Though the title “seaman” still has “man” in it, the working group found no workable alternatives, according to now retired Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens, who was the driving force for these changes.

“We just didn’t have any good substitutes for seaman," Stevens told Navy Times in an interview this summer. "One was mariner, but no one liked that — the other one was sailors, but that was convoluted because we all refer to ourselves as sailors. So we kept it and the secretary agreed.”

Gone in name will be the other non-rated designations — airman, fireman, constructionman and hospitalman. These designations will be converted to codes. 

Now sailors' jobs will be identified by a four-character combination, known as a Navy Occupational Specialty. Consider the three most historic ratings, once abbreviated as GM, BM and QM. They'll now be B320, B400 and B450, respectively.

The service has translated every previous rating and special skill into over 160, four digit alpha-numeric NOS codes. Navy Enlisted Classifications will still fall under an NOS as they did with a rating, to denote skills not common across the rating. 

"Petty officers will be addressed as petty officer and then their name, or petty officer third, second or first class more formally — chief, senior chief and master chief for the senior enlisted,” Burke said. 

For example, Yeoman 2nd Class (SW/EXW) Snuffy Smith will now have the title, Petty Officer 2nd Class (SW/EXW)  Snuffy Smith. When Smith reaches the chief’s mess, he'll be Chief Petty Officer (SW/EXW) Snuffy Smith. 

As seen above, warfare qualifications will continue to be abbreviated in sailor titles. 

“Sailors take great pride in earning those coveted warfare designations and they like to place those behind their ratings because they want people to know they’ve earned them, Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (IDW/SW) Steve Giordano said. “That won’t go away — they will still have those as part of their titles.”

The only exception to the job title rule will be the MCPON. 

Badge of honor

Much about the overhaul remains to be determined. Case in point: ratings badges.

These insignia are for ratings that no longer exist — now they're NOS classifications — and there are a few ideas on what to do. Keep them. Dump them. Replace with something new.
Ratings badge
Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Scott Sears sews on a 3rd class petty officer crow for Hospital Corpsman 3rd class Eric Norris during a Tacking on of the Crow frocking ceremony aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan (LHD 5). Sailors can say farewell to their ratings badges. (SA Zachariah Grabill/Navy)
“It’s definitely our plan to cross that bridge, but it will be one of the last things we’ll do for a couple of reasons — one depends on how we draw the career fields lines and something may fall out, based on that. I just don’t know yet," Burke said.

"We may want to go to something that signifies the new career fields or stay with something for the NOS — or we may want to simply go to something like the anchor, constitution and Eagle," Burke said referring to the insignia on the chest pockets of the blue-and-gray Navy working uniform. "We just want to see where we end up on this journey before we re-badge ourselves, so it’s all open."

In the meantime, sailors can hold off on having their dress blues and whites sleeves resown. 

Flexible careers

Sailors will soon be able to qualify for more skills and even advance in multiple NOS quotas. To get there, the Navy is reviewing how to redraw the community lines that distinguish skills by specialty.

"Today we have 12 career fields that group the [over 90] Navy enlisted ratings we have today,” Burke said. “Most sailors will be hard pressed to tell you what they are because they are outdated for the most part.”

“We want to redraw those career field lines with two major objectives,” Burke said. “First, we’ll regroup the now Navy Occupational Specialties so that the training and experience is similar between the career fields. If we do that right, we’ll be able to pinpoint additional training or experience that a sailor needs to move into a different, but related NOS.”

These have been grouped into broad categories like aviation, surface engineering and nuclear power.  These would become broader career fields that group sailors by skill type.

“Maybe there’s a field we’d call aviation maintenance,” Burke explained. "We’d like to get to the point in the first step where we can move sailors between types of engines, and then maybe move between engines and airframes and into avionics, too — then possibly move between maintaining combat systems on an aircraft to combat systems on a ship.” 

As the Navy designs and fields newer ships, Burke said more commonality between systems will make these kinds of leaps more possible.

Burke says they'll achieve that through modular training via the new Ready Relevant Learning system that is coming online this year for every career field in the Navy, providing constant training throughout a sailor's career. It can be used to qualify sailors as they advance in a given skill set — or to give them new skills to cross them into a related field.  

“You might have to go to a brick and mortar schoolhouse for a couple weeks, but it will be at a fleet concentration area so you are not going to have to leave home,” Burke said. “You might only need enough training that could be accomplished through an app on a smart device, or through a distance learning course — or even by acquiring an additional certification at your current shop or at your squadron.” 

But acquiring the new NOS won’t require you to go back through another “A” school, he said. What will happen is the Navy will simply look at your existing skills and design a custom program to fill in the gaps. 

“If you complete those requirements, you could shift into a different NOS,” Burke said.  “And that shift will bring with it an increase in assignment options, more detailing flexibility  — more homeports to choose from, more types of platforms." 

It could even put more money in your pocket. 

“It will open up more timing options — maybe move into an NOS that has special or incentive pay or even a re-enlistment bonus.”

The new system allows sailors to hold onto your old skills, and learn new ones that allow you to move between different billets. 

“Then, unlike today, where you cross-rate and you don’t go back,” Burke said. “Our idea is the lines between NOSs will be blurry and will allow you to move back and forth.”

Advancement changes

For now, the advancement system will be organized by NOS. But how it works may be radically changing in coming years. It could mean instant promotions and the end of the test.

The Navy currently advances to vacancies in given career fields Navy-wide twice a year, where sailors are ranked by rating based on their performance, occupational knowledge and more. The biggest way to gauge their knowledge is via the semiannual petty officer test. The new system will rank them by NOS.

As the Navy improves it’s information systems, the twice a year system could get dumped. Instead, advancements will happen year-round, anytime vacancies occur. As part of this, MCPON Stevens had advocated for dumping the advancement test and going to a new, points-based system similar to those used by the Army and Marine Corps. 

The Navy is still working through proposals to change the advancement system under NOS, such as getting rid of the tests. 

““I think that’s one possibility we’re looking at,” he said. "But we’re just getting started in deciding where we need to go with the advancement exams."

“With this ability to move back and forth between multiple Navy Occupational Specialties, we have to really think through what that does. Will you have to meet the requirements to advance in all of [the skills you have qualified in] or just one and how that would impact assignments?" 

Burke stressed that any changes to the advancement system will be announced well in advance of their implementation and for now, sailors will advance along the new NOS lines. 

"So if any sailor out there is wondering if they have to do anything different in preparing for their next exam, the answer to that is no, not yet, and we’ll give you adequate time to prepare when it does happen. We’re very sensitive to the need to do that very methodically."  

Earning certifications

One thing is certain: civilian certifications will play an even greater role in sailors career paths. 

Right now, the Navy operates a web site that for more than a decade has helped sailors acquire civilian certifications for the Navy skills they hold. It’s called Navy Credentialing Opportunities Online. The Navy plans to take that a step further and incorporate certifications into career paths so qualified personnel will readily attain the credential via their training.

“We can draw these lines intelligently to describe our occupations in a way that make sense for [civilian] certifications,” Burke said. “For example, an air traffic controller would be tied into a path so that when they leave the Navy, they leave with the appropriate level of an FAA air traffic control certification."

Aviation maintenance sailors could work towards the coveted FAA Airframes and Powerplants certifications. Surface engineers and deck sailors could net themselves Coast Guard licenses. 

Many of these valuable and time-consuming certifications that sailors had to get on their own time will now be part of their careers in the future. Moving up the ranks could depend on getting them.

“If an advancement exam does exist in the future it could also serve to help qualify sailors for a certification as well,” Burke said. "It depends on what your certification will be — some are federal, but most of them are state level certifications and no two look exactly the same — but we are now heading down this road.”

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