ABINGTON, Pa. — 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 cyber security 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.
According to Pentagon documents and officials, Carter sees recruitment and retention as major challenges to a military coming out of two wars and facing turmoil around the world.
Specifically, the Pentagon pointed to cyber jobs as an area where standards — such as age or minor drug offenses — 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 2006-2007, 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 talked about some of his ideas during his stop at Abington Senior High outside Philadelphia.
In a speech to more than 1,000 students, Carter said the military is going to have 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 that, "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 will travel to Fort Drum, New York, home of the Army's storied 10th Mountain Division, where he will meet with troops.
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.
And 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 their spouses as the troops leave the military.