Navy Secretary Ray Mabus defended his controversial and unpopular decision to stop identifying sailors by their job titles, saying the move will help sailors get promoted and find jobs once they leave the service.

Changing the ratings structure will make sailors less stove-piped in their communities, Mabus said Wednesday at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. The changes were in answer to Mabus' edict to strip the word "man" from all job titles. The Navy went much farther than the Marine Corps in fulfilling this directive.

"We've got several different specialties for working on aircraft," he said. "We've got structural mechanics; we've got people who work on avionics; we've got people who work on the engines. They can only promote through their narrow communities. We're losing people because they can't promote."

Video: Navy Secretary Ray Mabus defends controversial new policy

Navy Secretary Ray Mabus defended his controversial and unpopular decision to stop identifying sailors by their job titles, saying the move will help sailors get promoted and find jobs once they leave the service.
Video by Benjamin Din/Medill News Service

Now the Navy is giving sailors a choice on how their career progresses, he said.

"So what we’re going to try to do is put a lot of these specialties that are close to each other together so that while you’re a specialist in one thing, you could also train and become a specialist in three or four other areas so that you could promote in one if you can’t promote in the other," Mabus said.

The Navy also plans to train its aircraft maintainers and medical personnel to civilian standards so that they can more easily attain professional certifications valuable for jobs after the service.

One of the most cherished job titles going away is "corpsman," but Mabus said change was necessary.

"It’s not a historic title," he said. "It only came in after World War II. One of the problems people have been having transitioning out of the Navy is that while the Navy and Marines know what ‘corpsman’ means, not many other people do."

That’s why the title is being changed to something more akin to 'medic' or medical technician," Mabus said. Training those sailors to emergency medical technician or nursing standards will also help their job prospects in the civilian world.

SECNAV'S SEA CHANGES

Mabus is the longest serving Navy secretary since Josephus Daniels, who served from 1913 to 1921 and is famous – or infamous – for banning alcohol aboard Navy vessels, prompting sailors to refer to coffee as a "cup of Joe" in his honor.

During his seven years on the job, Mabus has also upended longstanding Navy traditions by championing gender neutrality in the Navy and Marine Corps, His decision to drop job titles has proven so unpopular with rank and file sailors that a petition to the White House asking president Obama to restore ratings has received more than 70,000 signatures since Sept. 29. 

One retired flag officer told Navy Times he wished Mabus and Navy military leadership had explained why they decided dropping the titles was necessary instead of presenting it as a fait accompli.

"My questions are: Why now, and was this merely an attempt by SECNAV in a political year to rush an important personnel initiative to the forefront for some sort of political or personal legacy gain?" said the flag officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as undermining the Navy's senior leaders.


Mabus said that dropping the job titles is meant to "quit segregating women," who have been historically required to wear different uniforms than their male peers. Mabus has systematically set out to change that. 

"Can you imagine if we asked another group to wear different kind of uniform?" he said.

Mabus' decision came months after he issued a directive that the Navy and Marine Corps remove the word "man" from job titles as part of the Defense Department's decision to open all jobs to women. The Marines ultimately removed the word "man" from 19 military occupational specialties, but the service kept some names with historical significance, such as "rifleman" and "mortarman."

Mabus has openly clashed with the Marine Corps over opening the infantry and other combat jobs to women that previously had been restricted to men only. In September 2015, he publicly criticized a nine-month Marine Corps gender integration study which found that teams of male and female Marines did not perform as well as male-only teams and that female Marines were more likely to be injured than their male counterparts.

"One thing I'll say about the Marines: Sometimes Marines are more hesitant than anybody else to make some of these changes," Mabus told Navy Times in January. "Once the decision is made, though, Marines move out faster than anybody I've ever seen."

In April, Mabus assured Marines at Camp Pendleton, California, that the physical standards for the most demanding jobs in the Marine Corps would not be lowered to allow women into combat jobs. For example, the grueling 84-day Infantry Officer Course was not going to become easier for women to ensure that female Marines could pass, he said.

Recently, a female Marine made it to the end of the first phase of Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command training -- another rigorous and physically demanding training curriculum – but did score high enough to allow her to advance to the second part of the assessment and selection process.

On Wednesday, Mabus was asked when a woman might become a Navy SEAL.

"I don't know, and I don't think that's the important thing," he replied. "I think the important thing is that it's open and the standards are the same."