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Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Speaks at the Syracuse Service Summit on the Value of Service

Thank you Dr. Armstrong for the introduction and thank you to Secretaries O'Keefe and Rostker for the thought-provoking discussion to start our morning. You have both provided extraordinary service to the nation. Secretary Austin sends his regrets for not being able to join you all today for this important forum.

I'd like to start by expressing my gratitude to Syracuse University and the University of Tennessee for hosting this dialogue and to each of you, and the institutions you lead, for engaging in a discussion about service. I'm hopeful that through this dialogue, we will come to a shared understanding of the opportunities and challenges we face as a Nation with respect to national service, and most importantly that we will find avenues for partnership and collaboration to inspire service.

If I may, I'd like to share a bit of my story. Education and service are at the core of who I am. My family emigrated to the U.S. when I was three. My maternal grandfather and my father were both educators at the University level and moved their families to the U.S. because of opportunities in U.S. higher education. After my father passed, my single mother of five children, put herself through law school and eventually married a Marine veteran who lost his sight fighting in Vietnam. My stepdad's blindness didn't stop him, he earned a Masters in Rehabilitation and continued serving as an advocate for veterans and retired from the Federal workforce after serving at the Corporation for National and Community Service. Also dedicated in service to our country, my mother served as professional staff member in the Maryland legislature and U.S. Congress.

My parents' example of service above self-inspired my decision to serve in the U.S. Navy. I attended college as a pathway to a commission and pursued graduate studies following my active service. My wife earned her doctorate in public health as we raised our two children. She now develops and implements public health programs working with school nurses.

I'm humbled to have grown up in a home where service to Nation, and community, was the family business. I learned the American dream is about more than what you achieve and build for yourself, but what you do for others. These are values my wife and I have tried to instill in our two children: our son is a Marine, stationed at Camp Lejeune and our daughter is beginning a doctoral program in physical therapy.

Now my story is unique, as every personal story is, however my story is common and I'm confident each of you has a unique and compelling story of education and service. So that's where I will focus my remarks – in typical DoD fashion with the Bottom-Line Up Front – education and service are linked. My call to action will be for us to join in a national call to service and by doing so increase pathways to higher education and the connectedness between the people we serve and the institutions we are members of.

As has been noted, this year is the 50th anniversary of the All-Volunteer Force. It is also the 75th anniversary of President Truman's executive order that began the process of desegregating the Armed Services, and the enactment of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act that made permanent the inclusion of women as regular members of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force.

These milestones are an opportune time to consider the state of the Total Force, which includes 2.3 million Active and Reserve Service members and more than 900,000 civilian employees of the Department of Defense.

People are extremely important to the senior leadership of the Defense Department. Secretary Austin established three priorities, and one of those priorities is "Taking Care of our People."

The National Defense Strategy recognizes people are critical to our success and calls on the Department to:

  • Attract, retain, and promote a workforce with the skills and abilities we need to creatively solve national security challenges in a complex global environment,
  • Broaden our recruitment pool to reflect all of the United States, including historically marginalized communities, and
  • Promote a diversity of backgrounds and experiences to drive innovative solutions across the enterprise.

These imperatives apply to both military personnel and DoD civilian employees, though the challenges are different.

Difficulties with military recruiting have been widely reported. But this is not the first-time recruiting has been difficult. For instance, in 2007, during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan we faced recruiting difficulties.

Many factors have been blamed for today's recruiting challenges. Reduced interest in military service, lower eligibility rates, a tight labor market, and certainly the impact of the pandemic, which has disrupted so much of American life.

Just last week, writers in the Wall Street Journal blamed "cultural rot," a narrative of victimhood, and a lack of patriotism for the military's recruiting challenges. But I think bemoaning the younger generation is not only disrespectful and cynical, it also misses the opportunity before us. 

I believe young people want to create options and opportunity, and drive impact.

First, the rising generation values education. Roughly two-thirds of young Americans aspire to attain a bachelor's degree. Pay is the top motivator to serve in the military, but the others are to obtain an education and to travel.

In 2021, 70% of high school seniors indicated that they want a career that contributes to society, up from 53% in 1976. This is a generation that wants to engage with the world, not shrink from it.

Furthermore, Generation Z has high expectations for employers—they most seek an organization that cares about employees' wellbeing, is diverse and inclusive of all people, and has ethical leadership.

My perspective is that we face a different challenge: a decreasing connection between Americans—especially younger Americans—and the military. Younger Americans who are not exposed to the unique and compelling stories of service and the pathways to education offered through service. And this is a missed opportunity because the military embraces many of the values these young people seek in life and in a career.

We have a problem of awareness, or lack thereof. Fewer youth are considering military service, and when they do, they tell us the risks of military service are top of mind. With fewer young people in this country having a direct connection to military service, their ideas about military life are likely shaped by negative stories in the media, and entertainment rather than reality.

Military service itself is a family business, with about 75% of enlistees having a family history of service. In contrast, only 13% of younger Americans have a parent who served in the military, down from 40% in 1995. And only 8% of young Americans agree or strongly agree that people in the U.S. military "share a lot in common with me."

The people who are closest to military service are most likely to seek it out. In contrast, it's hard to aspire to something that you don't know about or can't see yourself in. That is another reason why our Total Force needs to reflect the nation we defend.

Simultaneously, trust in institutions is dropping. As recently as 2018, 74% of American adults had a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the military as an institution. By 2022, confidence had dropped to 64%. Among youth ages 16 to 21, the share with a very favorable impression of the military dropped from 46% in 2018 to 35% in 2022.

But it's also not exclusive to the military. Trust is declining across the board in institutions, including the presidency, the legislative branch, public schools, the health care system, religious organizations, newspapers, business, and the criminal justice system. Confidence in the higher education system has also dropped. In 2020, more than two-thirds of Americans said colleges had a positive effect on the nation. By 2022, barely half agreed.

So yes, we have a significant challenge. We must find better ways to connect with younger Americans and to show them the opportunities available through military service, and that these opportunities do not preempt getting a college education or having a life outside the military.

Those opportunities in the military are significant. The military is making profound investments in human capital that benefit individuals and society well after their service concludes.

Each year, the Department of Defense spends more than $3 billion on programs that leverage higher education and professional development to expand the capacity of our workforce. This sum includes our investment in the Military Service Academies and ROTC, for which institutions of higher education, including many of those that you lead, are our essential partners.

What is less known is that the Defense Department spends half a billion dollars every year on tuition assistance and similar programs to help current Service members earn certificates, certifications, and college degrees to advance both their military careers and their own personal development.

Our investment in educating and training health care providers—again, much of which is in partnership with institutions like yours— is nearing half a billion dollars a year.

And the investments I've discussed do not include the post-9/11 GI Bill, which has provided educational benefits for 800,000 veterans and their families since its inception in 2009.

With such a significant investment in the human capital of service members, it's no surprise that the unemployment rate for veterans is a full percentage point below that for non-veterans. This is a story that we need to tell better. The skills learned on the job and the educational benefits that Service members receive during and after service lead to fulfilling and successful careers.

But DoD's recruitment challenges are not only reserved for uniformed personnel. The U.S. military relies heavily on its civilian workforce—the largest of any Federal agency. We need cybersecurity, health care, finance, and procurement talent, and we often have difficulties filling these crucial positions.

For example, more than one quarter of the civilian medical provider positions at military Medical Treatment Facilities are unfilled. We are unable to hire and retain individuals for those crucial jobs that contribute directly to the health, wellness, and readiness of our Service members and military family members.

To meet these challenges, we must also leverage all of America's people, especially as the rising generation is the most diverse ever. We are not where we need to be, though we are making slow progress. We must do more to ensure that every service member has pathways of opportunity.

Among military officers, 9% are Black, 9% are Hispanic, and 6% are Asian Americans, all underrepresented compared to the general population. And the most underrepresented group is women. 17% of enlisted service members are women, and nearly 20% of officers.

Any organization taking on tough problems needs to confront those problems from many perspectives. The Department and the military services routinely deal with ambiguity and risk as we confront some of the most complex challenges and threats facing our nation. I'd venture to say we are the best in the world at assessing and mitigating national security risk, and that DoD is a great place to develop capabilities that are valued across many sectors.

We absolutely need a workforce that grapples with these problems from diverse perspectives, and if we have that, that means we'll have people who think differently, have a variety of backgrounds and skills and life experience, and who feel empowered to speak up and contribute because they believe their peers and superiors will take them seriously and value their contributions, and oh, by the way, they are highly likely to be demographically different.

The Department of Defense is working to meet these challenges, and we have unparalleled opportunities.

We have established the Department's first-ever DEIA strategic plan, named a Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, and established the DoD 2040 Task Force to test solutions to broadening our talent pipeline.

We've reviewed and updated our recruiting content to make sure it represents the diversity of America.

We've updated hairstyle and grooming policies to promote equity.

We removed photographs from promotion board packets and have monitored the demographics of promotion board outcomes.

And we are developing unconscious bias training for the Force.

We hear a lot of rhetoric about diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility. But the bottom line is that DEIA is an imperative for modern organizations, and one that is a readiness enabler for the military.

Our DEI efforts generate unit cohesion, which is critical for our Forces to train and fight as one, and to deter and defeat adversaries.

Just this month, the Department hired its first ever Chief Talent Management Officer, Brynt Parmeter, who is with us today. For too long, and despite our integrated Total Force, we have treated talent management in siloes for military and civilian personnel.

For the first time, we have a leader charged with conducting a comprehensive review of DoD's talent management framework, which includes talent acquisition, workforce development, and the workforce strategy that stitches it all together. We know, for example, that we have invested less in our civilian workforce—from recruiting to professional development and training to retention, than we have in our uniformed Force. That must change.

We must be competitive on pay, on recruiting, on time to hire. We are working to reduce our time-to-hire from 89 days to 30 days.

We already have some important tools, including direct-hire authority for recent graduates, which provides an easier pathway to hire the next generation of public servants.

The Department is building a brand-new primary prevention workforce, which will focus on integrated prevention of harmful behaviors, such as sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, and suicide.

In addition to the comprehensive review of talent management, we are also reviewing the workforce pipeline in key areas. One critical need is for civilian health care providers who work in military Medical Treatment Facilities. As I said earlier, just over one-quarter of these positions are vacant.

Last year, Secretary Austin created an Independent Review Committee on Suicide Prevention and Response. Many of the recommendations of the Committee are focused on building the behavioral health workforce.

The Department is evaluating the feasibility of ways to expand that civilian workforce pipeline. For example, individuals who have finished their undergraduate studies could work as behavioral health case managers at military clinics, doing the essential nonclinical work that helps ensure Service members get the care and follow up they need. Then, the Department could expand scholarship, education, and residency programs to train and license new behavioral health providers in exchange for a service commitment at a military clinic.

Increasingly, we recognize that effective talent management must address the full career lifecycle, and it must accommodate the evolving workforce, which increasingly expects flexibility.

The Space Force, for example, has developed a proposal for a new personnel system that would allow Guardians to seamlessly transition between full-time and part-time military service, in lieu of a traditional reserve component.

The Army has used new authorities to allow new officers who have hard-to-find critical skills and experience to enter military service at an advanced rank.

The Marine Corps has developed a new talent management plan that envisions Marines leaving military service to work in the private sector and then subsequently returning to uniformed service to contribute their newfound skills to the military mission.

And for those who seek a career that contributes to society, DoD civilians and military Service members get to work on critical missions in defense of their nation every day. Many involve some of the most exciting areas, including cybersecurity, space, energy, climate, and advanced technologies.

DoD and the military services offer that, but many younger Americans don't know it.

It's time for a call to service to the nation. The service we need to highlight includes military service; public service, such as our civil service employees at DoD; and national service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps.

I would ask all of you to help propagate and amplify this call to service and encourage the students at your institutions to consider some form of national or community service.

I believe higher education is an ideal partner to share this message.

Military service is a bridge between high school and college, and it also is a potential bridge between college and work. Too often, the military is falsely seen as an alternative to college, or a last-resort option. We need to reframe that narrative so that Americans understand that military service is a pathway to greater education.

We could use your help. I ask you to share with your students the opportunities that the Defense Department offers in both military and civilian service, and to share that we need a multitude of skills and passions, from technology to language to health care and beyond. That we have a compelling and critical mission, and that military and public service are ways to give back and be fulfilled, ways to help others and defend the nation.

If we want to remain the world's premier military force, we need to evolve and see ourselves through the lens of the future generation. For a generation that values options, opportunity and wants to drive impact, I believe pursuing some form of public service will enable them to achieve their goals.

And I think something the Department could offer to higher education is stronger partnerships that help provide and finance students for colleges and universities while also building our military and civilian workforce pipeline.

I have an additional request for all of you. I'm curious about the military and public service experience of our participants. Would you raise your hand if you have served in the military? Thank you for being part of the history of the All-Volunteer Force.

Now, for those of you who have served in public service of some kind, such as a government employee, or as an elected official, or as a member of a governmental advisory committee or board, please raise your hand. Thank you for your commitment to service.

My ask for all of you who have participated in military service or public service is to share your unique service story with those in your community, and especially young people.

I'd also ask that rather than sharing stories of institutions, we'd share unique and personal stories. Sharing personal stories of service is an important way we can build awareness, interest, and trust in our institutions, and inspire young people to pursue education and opportunities to serve their communities and our nation.

Thank you for allowing me to share my perspective this morning with you all.  Now, I'd like to hear your thoughts and ideas.