Millennial Cadet Asks Defense Secretary About 'Less Hierarchal,' More 'Casual' Work Environment

A millennial asked the secretary of Defense today if the Defense Department could go in the direction of corporations that are wooing the younger generation with a more "casual" work structure.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke at West Point for a "fireside chat" speech followed by a short Q&A from the audience.

A member of the class of 2017 asked Carter, "As a younger generation of millenials enters the work force, American corporations are shifting towards a less hierarchal and more flat and casual organizational structure. What is the Department of Defense doing to stay competitive in this new work environment?"

Carter told the cadet it was "a good question," as "we've got to stay competitive."

"And it gets to attracting and recruiting people. And it means we're going to have to keep thinking and keep changing about how we manage people. Let me give you a few examples of things that we're doing now that -- where we're taking lessons from the private sector that I think we can apply to us in order to better bring in their best practices," Carter said.

"I'll give you a couple of examples. One, I have a major effort department-wide to reach out to the technology sector, so that we can increase the pace at which we innovate technologically. If you think about the vehicles that you'll be driving, the armored vehicles that you'll be driving, a lot of these things are decades old, right?" he continued.

"And that doesn't mean they don't have any value, but we need to constantly upgrade your equipment. And if we're -- we operate programs on 10-year time scales and the technology world is changing every year, guess what? We're going to fall behind. So we've got to be defter. That's a big push."

The secretary said they also want to "draw in some of what you're calling exactly right, flatter, more mobile institutions."

"Now, I want to be careful because as I said, you are the profession of arms. And I can't put a newspaper ad in for a colonel in the, you know, air defense artillery, right?" Carter said. "You have to -- you get them through the Army. So there's a certain amount of our profession which is a profession and can only come about that way. But that doesn't mean we can't learn things."

An example, he said, was "finding ways to send more of you out in the course of your career, out to the private sector so you can see how they do things and bring back the best of those practices."

"Just recently, I changed our -- our policies in a number of ways on family programs -- things like maternity and paternity leave. Now, that may seem in the future to you all, but there will come a time if you decide to have a family where it's a pretty big deal," he said.

"And I want to be competitive at that time, so you don't have to feel that you have to choose. Sometimes it's going to be tough for you, but I don't want to make it impossible for you to have a family that you'd like, and also continue to serve us. So where I can make that easier, consistent with readiness, I want to do that."

Carter said the department is concentrating on making "a lot of changes of those kinds" in "the way we promote people and how we give you opportunities along the way, so we're not so rigid about, say, you have to punch this ticket and then punch that ticket, and then punch that ticket."

"And you find that all you're doing is punching tickets. And that's not really giving you the opportunity to grow in the way that we need you to grow," he added.

"We're thinking about how to change your career path. So I think we do need to keep thinking about the career path. You'll always be the profession of arms. We're not Wal-Mart. You know, we're not Google. We're the United States military. But that doesn't mean we can't change and adapt. And we have to because I need good people like you. And once I get you, I've got to keep you."