When Force Master Chief Chris Detje walked into the recruiter’s office 34 years ago, all he really knew was that he wasn’t ready for college — and the Navy looked pretty cool.
“How about electronics technician?” the recruiter said, when they talked about the kind of jobs Detje might take on. “Work on electronics, radar, that sort of thing.”
That sounded cool too, Detje recalls.
But he was a lot more deliberate recently, leading a team from Bureau of Personnel to talk to some 170 new sailors on the USS John C. Stennis and USS George Washington who had not yet decided on their Navy vocation.
“I shook everyone’s hand and I said: ‘Tell me where you’re from, this is all about you and what you want to do,’” he said.
They were in the Professional Apprenticeship Career Track, a program for sailors who want to explore their options rather than go immediately into specialized training in one of the Navy’s 57 basic occupations.
Most had been in the Navy for about a year.
Detje and his team make a point of asking what sailors have seen so far on their ships.
“I heard a lot about being in the yard,” said Detje, who said he understood any restlessness. “When I went to my first ship, we spent 19 months in Long Beach Naval Shipyard.”
The program sends sailors who haven’t decided on an occupation to spend time on ships to get a feel for different jobs. That can be difficult when your first ship is in a shipyard, as Seaman Matthew Chacon found when he reported to USS George Washington, with many months still to go in Newport News Shipbuilding for a multi-year overhaul and refueling.
In addition to taking on an assignment, the PACT sailors join shipmates from different departments on drills and in berthing spaces, make connections with more experienced sailors — especially leading petty officers and chiefs — and in many cases, quickly decide on a rating to pursue.
“I’m mostly with a lot of other new sailors,” Chacon said. He was assigned to the deck department — the sailors who work topside, in a wide range of missions from standing bridge watches to working on small boat crews or handling lines or tackling maintenance chores.
Other new sailors wouldn’t be able to say much about what Chacon needed to know when deciding on his Navy job. What the young sailor saw his more experienced shipmates doing on the Washington wasn’t helping much either, said Master Chief Petty Officer Doug Stevenson, a member of the Bureau of Personnel team.
“But if you’re in the yard, and see boatswains mates busy painting and think you don’t want to paint, you’ll need to know a lot more about the job,” Stevenson.
“So I’ll say, maybe you might be in a boat crew,” he said, telling the new sailors about shipmates from his last duty on amphibious ship who drove the high-speed rigid inflatable boats launched to chase arms smugglers or rescue a shipmate who’s fallen overboard.
When a member of Bureau of Personnel team sat with Chacon, it took just a few questions to learn he had done clerical work as a civilian, and liked it.
“They suggested YN or PS,” he said — that is, a yeoman’s rating, handling ships’ paperwork, or a personnel specialist.
“I knew I wanted to do something administrative,” he said. “I’m pretty happy.”
Stevenson, a farm boy from Amish country in Pennsylvania, knew he wanted to be in one of the engineering ratings — “on a farm, you have to fix all kinds of things in your machine shop” — and ended up as an electrician’s mate.
“But I had never seen the sea, and I had come from a small place, very homogenous into this big, diverse Navy.”
Making that change is something he often discusses with new sailors.
He draws on his experience at sea, eventually leading a department of 120 sailors with eight different ratings, as well as living with deck department sailors such as boatswains mates and quartermasters and the aviation ratings who keep planes and helicopters repaired, armed and fueled.
“They might say I was an electrician or I was a welder, but then they might say they’d had enough of that, so we’ll look for something else.” Stevenson said
It’s not just what sailors want to do — sometimes they might not have all the qualifications for a particular rating. But old hands like Stevenson knows ways to deal with that.
That was a help for Seaman Zachary Kitchens, also on the Washington, who knew he was interested in an aviation slot. He found shipmates who knew something about those posts, enough so that his top choice was an aviation machinists mate billet working on fighter jets.
For him, sorting out the path through school and the range of likely future posts was a big benefit of his time with the team.
During the team’s two days in Newport News, Stevenson said, he talked to one sailor who wanted to be a legalman — the paralegals who support judge advocate corps officers and help shipmates with basis legal help.
But you need to score well in tests of writing, communication and typing skills, and this sailor needed time to develop these.
The work-around Stevenson knew, and that the sailor thought made sense, was to try for yeoman or personnel specialist, and in those posts, work on getting the additional certifications that would allow a switch to legalman.
“I usually start asking ‘where do you want to go,” Stevenson said. “I’ll ask about hobbies, about the kind of work they like — maybe being outdoors a lot, maybe they like really intricate tasks.”
The first might really like a slot with the Seabees — the sailors who build ports, airfields and other onshore facilities, the other might be more into the work of an aviation electronics technician, keeping radar and avionic gear functions.
For Detje and his team, the goal is to match what the Navy needs and what sailors know and care about.
“We get some amazing youngsters,” he said. “I know I’ve had 31 years in a job I’ve loved. I want them to have a chance for that, too.”
Dave Ress, 757-247-4535, email@example.com