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Nowell: Navy Wants Diverse Recruits In All Career Fields to Lead to More Diverse Leadership

Sailors assigned to the command and control ship USS Mount Whitney (LCC-20) salute while manning the rails as the ship gets underway from Gaeta, Italy, on May 18, 2020. US Navy Photo

The chief of naval personnel said the Navy is looking at not only how much diversity is coming in the front door during recruiting but also what career fields those sailors from underrepresented groups are choosing – with concerns that women and minorities are ending up in communities with few or no opportunities to rise through the ranks to flag officer.

Vice Adm. John Nowell said today that the Task Force One Navy effort to look at diversity and inclusion in the service released an interim report to four-star admirals this week, ahead of the December rollout of the final report.

Among the issues he mentioned during a virtual event cohosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the U.S. Naval Institute were how to get a more diverse group into the Navy in the first place, and then how to set them up to succeed equally to their white and male counterparts without any additional hurdles in their way.

“If you’re not bringing enough diversity in the front door, then it doesn’t matter how good our retention rates are; we cannot keep enough and then get folks to a senior level,” he said.

For example, Nowell said, “for African Americans, about 13 percent of the population is African American. We would like both the officers and in the enlisted to be representative of that. We’re actually much higher than that on the enlisted side, and oh by the way we do see that demographically as you get to petty officer first class, chief, senior chief, master chief, that diverse cohort is doing quite well. On the officer side, we’re simply not bringing enough diversity in the front door. We’re only bringing in, about 8 percent on the officer side is African American, and as you look at what we’re bringing in, we can’t hope to get those numbers” in higher ranks like captain and flag officers.

Nowell said several efforts are already underway to recruit from underrepresented communities. One effort involves reaching out to middle schools through STEM programs – science, technology, engineering and math – to build up skills that students would need to have for a military career and to get kids interested in military service.

Additionally, Nowell described a new Navy ROTC preparatory program to help students that show great promise to be good officers but do not have the academic background to be accepted into colleges and universities with NROTC programs.

About 100 students this year at 20 universities around the country are enrolled in this program: the university agrees to pay the student’s room, board and fees, and if the student can make it through the NROTC prep program then the Navy will offer them a four-year scholarship to complete their education and commission as an officer. Of the 100 students in the prep program, about 70 are “diverse,” Nowell said.

Once interested in becoming an officer, though, Nowell said there’s still more work to do to get women and people of racial and ethnic minorities into jobs with upward mobility.

“How do we continue to ramp up how we bring more folks in? And then also, how do we get them into career fields that have upward mobility? One issue that we have, and we’re working this by community, is that on the officer side, if you are a what we call a restricted line or staff corps officer, right – so a supply corps officer, a civil engineering corps officer, a human resources officer – then you kind of have a glass ceiling when it comes to the flag deck. You’re not going to make, in general, three- or four-star. Most of our three- and four-stars are going to be folks that are ship drivers or aviators or submariners. So we know we also have to do a better job preparing those midshipmen to feel comfortable applying for those communities, and then once in those communities, how – and again, it’s a level playing field for all, we want it to be a level playing field for all – but how do we make sure that, as we look at both administrative screening boards and promotion boards, that we are keeping enough folks as they go through, because it takes us 30 years to build a flag officer.”

Vice Adm. John Nowell, the Navy’s top uniformed personnel officer speaks in January 2020. US Navy Photo

Nowell said he’s working with the heads of each community to address these issues. He made clear that no one would be given a job or promoted simply because they were a woman, or Black, or Hispanic, to make the numbers look better – but he said the Navy needed to ensure that those who grew up in areas with limited access to a good education, for example, did not face ongoing roadblocks during their career in the Navy. The Navy is a meritocracy, he said, but it’s not currently a level playing field for all, and that’s what Task Force One Navy hopes to address in its upcoming report.