Enlisted Marines are made in boot camp. Marine officers, The Basic School.

Long days and harsh instructors give sharp lessons in what it means to be a Marine and forge a bond shared by all Marines, regardless of when they joined. Marines past and present remember the day they were handed the coveted eagle, globe and anchor emblem and welcomed into the fold.

But the Corps is now considering forgoing that historic initiation for potential Marines with highly sought-after skills.

The idea for lateral entry, laid out in Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger’s new Talent Management 2030 document, could see those “exceptionally talented Americans” forgo entry level training and join the Marine Corps as lieutenant colonels or gunnery sergeants.

“How does that line up to a culture of a Marine Corps at roughly 180,000 Marines that go through this exacting training that makes us all one in the same ― uniformity in what we do?” Lt. Gen. David Ottignon, deputy commandant for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, told reporters Nov. 22.

In 2019 the Marine Corps rejected making a similar move under former Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, instead opting to allow those cyber experts to join a Marine Corps Cyber Auxiliary unit.

“If anybody wants to join, you can sign up,” Neller said in 2019. “You can have purple hair, too, but no [Eagle, Globe and Anchor].”

Ottignon said the Corps is still studying the best method to introduce lateral entry in the Marine Corps, but stressed the need to fill certain roles in the Marine Corps.

Berger said the Corps may use lateral entry for jobs outside the cyber field as well, saying that the Corps will look at bringing in trained and experienced aviation mechanics from the civilian world into the ranks.

To lead or not to lead?

Marines who made it though boot camp may find it hard to take orders from someone who was able to skip the entry level training milestone, regardless of what rank is on their collar.

Marines who would join the Corps via lateral entry without going through entry level training would likely not be put into leadership positions.

Keeping lateral entry Marines out of leadership positions may help prevent cultural pushback or outright insubordination, Kate Kuzminski, the director of the military, veterans and society program at the Center for a New American Security told Marine Corps Times on Tuesday.

“You certain wouldn’t want a Marine coming in leading other Marines,” Kuzminski said. “They’re coming in for their technical expertise and they’re solving a specific problem.”

But that may be easier on the cybersecurity side of the house than the aviation side, she added.

“Aviation mechanics are more integrated with the more traditional model right. So yeah, I think for the sake of credibility of that individual within our unit, (normal entry training) does matter,” she said.

The pay problem

The Corps would allow specially skilled civilians to enter at an elevated rank and pay to make the job more attractive to those who can ask for higher wages in the civilian world.

But, senior Rand economist Beth Asch said the military pay system that gives extra for years in service may push some of that talent out the door early.

“Let’s say you’re allowed to come in as an O-5, you’re still coming in with one year of service so you are in a different place financially than other O-5s,” Asch said.

A lieutenant colonel with fewer than two years of service would make $3,341.70 a month less in base pay than a Marine with the equivalent rank with more than 16 years of service. That lieutenant colonel would even make less than a captain with just four years of service.

A study by Rand, which Asch co-authored, found that moving to a pay scale that emphasizes time in grade rather than time in service would make lateral entry a more competitive option than the current pay system.

Asch did note that the Corps could find alternative methods to make up for the pay disparity, including awarding time in service based on skills and qualifications.

Even if the Corps finds a way to make up for the internal pay disparity, it still has an uphill battle when it comes to fighting against corporate pay for similar roles.

“We know there is exquisite talent out there,” Ottignon said. “So how do you attract that talent to serve in the United States Military, in the United States Marine Corps?”

The Corps does not necessarily want people who are solely motivated by salary and should leave them to large companies, Kuzminksi said.

The Marine Corps “should get out of the business of competing with the private sector for compensation,” Kuzminski said.

“Finances certainly do play a part in people’s decision, to join, but really focusing on the unique mission set and the of or the pace of the work, and really highlighting, this is a way to critically fill a mission,” would prove more fruitful for the Marine Corps, she said.

The Corps already uses this recruitment method to fill its combat arms ranks, Kuzminski noted, looking for people who want to fill a role, rather than simply out paying any competition.

The pay disparity may be a detriment, but Berger said the Corps needs to find a way to introduce that talent.

“Unless we find a means to quickly infuse expertise into the force ― at the right ranks ― I am concerned that advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, among other fields where the speed of technological change is exponential, will force us into a reactive posture,” Berger said in the talent management document.

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