The Navy's leaders underestimated the backlash from eliminating job titles, the service's top officer acknowledged recently, but vowed to learn from the error as the service implements wide ranging changes to the training and advancement system.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson took responsibility for the uproar, which began in late September after he announced the service was scrapping all its enlisted ratings, but did not indicate that the service was changing course.
"I underestimated how fiercely loyal people were to their rating, I've gotten a fair amount of feedback on that," Richardson said Tuesday during an all-hands call Dec. 6 at Naval Air Station Fallon in Nevada.
"I tell you, in the Navy we are members of many tribes. So first and foremost, we are members of the Navy tribe. that's our principal tribe. But what other tribes are we part of? Rates; warfare specialty; Command. ... So we kind of [underestimated] the loyalty with which people affiliated themselves with that rating tribe. So as we go forward, we'll learn."
The rapid cancellation of the centuries-old tradition generated an overwhelmingly negative response from sailors. But in the end, Richardson judged it was better to move quickly and make adjustments rather than spend months kicking ideas around and developing a full implementation plan, he told sailors.
"I wanted to do just enough study to make sure we weren't going to run into any brick walls and then we'll go through this together, we'll learn together and we'll adjust," he said. "We'll do this in measured ways, we'll have your feedback and input the whole way, and I think we'll get it right that way."
The idea behind canning the ratings system was to comply with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus's order to make ratings "gender neutral" by taking the "man" out of some such as "fire controlman." But the move coincided with a larger strategy to combine groups of ratings with overlapping skills into broader career fields, opening up sailors' career opportunities.
The Navy is still committed to giving sailors broader career options through cross training, he said.
"Take for example a Seabee construction mechanic: 65 percent of what you learned to be construction mechanic is what you need to be a construction electrician," he explained.
"So we'll take advantage of all that overlap. We'll identify what you need to learn to be an electrician and qualify you, then you'll qualify for the construction mechanic job or the construction electrician job."
That means that sailors up for orders would have more choice in duty stations and orders because billets will be less constrained by specific rates. The Navy will know exactly what additional skills that sailor will need to adequately fill the billet, Richardson said.
Richardson also discussed tuition assistance, which is a benefit that covers 100 percent of sailors' tuition costs for up to 16 credits per year, which equates to about one semester of college for a full-time student. A sailor asked about potential increases to the benefit, but Richardson said it was unlikely because those increases would need to come out of another program.
Still, he reiterated, the Navy won't try to cut the program as it has in the past.
"As a service we are completely committed to tuition assistance," he said.
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.