ABINGTON, Pa. (AP) — Saying the military needs to do more to compete with corporate America for quality recruits, Defense Secretary Ash Carter opened the door Monday to relaxing some enlistment standards — particularly for high-tech or cybersecurity jobs.
Speaking to students at his former suburban Philadelphia high school, Carter said the military could ease age requirements and bring in older people who are mid-career, or provide student loan repayments to attract students who have finished college.
There are few details so far, but Carter said the military needs to be more flexible in order to recruit and retain quality people.
The idea, largely in line with the civilian approach to recruitment, upends the military's more rigid mindset, which puts a high value on certain standards. It reignites a persistent debate about how the services approve waivers for recruits who have committed lesser crimes, behaved badly, are older than current regulations allow or have other physical issues that prevent them from joining the military.
Carter sees recruitment and retention as major challenges to a military coming out of two wars and facing turmoil around the world.
At Fort Drum, New York, Carter told 10th Mountain Division soldiers that he knows they have many choices as they consider future jobs.
"Are we able to compete, are we able to keep up?" he asked the division soldiers, some of whom are preparing to deploy to southern Afghanistan. He also announced for the first time that some of division soldiers will deploy to Iraq later this summer. About 1,250 will go.
Carter added that the Defense Department needs to be innovative and "to think outside the five-sided box" of the Pentagon.
Specifically, he pointed to cyber jobs as an area where standards could be relaxed. Military leaders have long complained that it is difficult to attract and keep cyber professionals in the services because they can make far more money in private industry.
This is not the first time, however, that the services have looked to reduced restrictions as a way to entice more recruits.
During 2006-07, the military steadily increased the number of bad behavior waivers as the services — particularly the Army and Marine Corps — struggled to meet deployment demands in Iraq and Afghanistan. The services let in more recruits with criminal records, including some with felony convictions, in order to meet recruiting quotas.
And in some cases, the services relaxed age restrictions, allowing older people to enlist or rejoin the military.
But as the wars dragged on and suicides, sexual assaults and other bad behavior by service members spiked, military leaders began to question whether there was a link to the relaxed enlistment standards.
Carter also is considering other changes to help ensure the military attracts the best and brightest, including programs to pay off student debt, improvements to the retirement, promotion and evaluation systems and doing more to allow sabbaticals for service members.
There has been much discussion lately about allowing service members to participate in 401(k)-type programs, because as much as 80 percent of the people who enlist don't stay in service long enough to earn retirement benefits. Carter told the Fort Drum soldiers he is "looking very hard" at that type of program for those who leave before they hit the 20-year retirement mark.
In his speech to more than 1,000 students at Abington Senior High outside Philadelphia, Carter said the military has to work harder to compete with corporate America for highly skilled graduates.
"Because we too often talk about sacrifice alone, which is no small thing, we probably don't spend enough time highlighting the opportunities that exist and the fulfillment one has from achieving excellence and doing it in service to your country," said Carter, a member of Abington's class of 1972. "No one should gloss over the hardships or the dangers of military life, but I do want you to understand how fulfilling and rewarding military life can be also."
Carter also alluded to his lack of military service, telling students, "You don't have to join the military service to serve your country, I didn't."
But he said "the military, and public service as a whole is worthy of your respect, worthy of your support and worth of your consideration."
After visiting his former high school, Carter flew to Fort Drum.
Brigades from the 10th Mountain Division served as anchor units in eastern Afghanistan for much of the war, particularly during the early years when the U.S. had only a smaller force there. For many years they rotated with brigades from the 82nd Airborne Division.
On Tuesday, he will visit Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
The Defense Department has launched a partnership with the institute and the Schultz Family Foundation for a program called Onward to Opportunity, which will provide industry-specific training and job placement assistance for service members and spouses as the troops leave the military.