The Future of Work, With the US Navy as Example

I think this is going to get some comments :slightly_smiling_face:

The Future of Work and The US Navy




I think they have pinched our navy’s training manual. All ratings are trained in basic seamanship and a ships cook can be a diver basic or be required to be part of a boarding party. He or she is still a properly trained cook with internationally recognised qualifications.
Littoral warfare still requires specialist skills in hydrography, mine countermeasures and advanced diving techniques and the article skims over the fact that these people would join along with the equipment depending on the mission.

Sounds like the Navy is catching on to the Army’s watercraft. Army Watercraft Engineers learn Electrical, Air-Conditioning & Refrigeration, Welding, Diesel Engines, Fast Rescue Boat handing, First Aid/CPR & AED, and Firefighting. However, Watercraft Engineers get certified in each of these disciplines.

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Sounds like a merchant mariner. If only there was a place set up to train people like that.


You’re a bad, bad man. :rofl::rofl::rofl:

Not sure this is one of Atlantic’s finer moments.

ETA: I take it all back. I somehow missed the second half of the article, where they do indeed balance the picture.

Maybe I’m just having a bad day but did this article really need to be written? It tells us there is a new way to look at staffing then specifically picks an example that seems to be failing when you look at actual performance (except for the invention of a monkey fist slingshot). You certainly can structure your argument to praise or damn experts and also the “generalists”. Does either group own the best traits (or the worst) mentioned in the article? Maybe he’s been working with pseudo-experts. (refer to the BS thread).

I’m not sure what jobs of the future will favor generalists but i’m thinking he should have picked a more hipster app developer type thing rather operating a ship.

In the end are we any closer to answers to his own questions:

Can a few brilliant, quick-thinking generalists really replace a fleet of specialists? Is the value of true expertise in serious decline?


It sounds like any situation where a good idea is pushed too far. Reduced manning - good. Gutted manning - no good. The LCS platform might have needed a few more hands. Maybe a mix of generalists and experts. Over time and with trial and error (without a fear of rebuke from grandstanding congressmen) an optimum could be worked out.

I know that’s not the point of the article which was to say workers of the future should be more flexible. What the article didn’t expressly say was that management should make changes boldly but also thoughtfully in that the changes are results driven and not ideology driven.

The article implies LCS manning was ideology driven with a hope that the desired results would follow - not a good model for any business.


This is not new. I served in small ships in my navy over many years and my best cook was an electrician, my best helmsman was also an electrician, my cook was happy to handle berthing lines, I had engineers and cooks leading the watch on deck, handling small boats, boarding target vessels etc.

What’s new?

Warships have traditionally had large crews in order to fully man the ship in action with people on standby to do damage control, first aid, reliefs for lookouts etc and so the level of specialisation in many aspects was increased. There was also an expectation of higher lever self maintenance.

The larger the ship, the higher the degree of specialisation. Large ships carry doctors and dentists and their supporting lower ranks. Small ships don’t. So we had the cook stitching up deep cuts (and that’s another funny story) and co-opted sailors assisting the (real) doctor performing an appendectomy mid-Pacific.

But we don’t tend to have cooks coding top secret messages in the Comcentre or seamen having a crack at the main engine control system. And the cook himself would draw the line at an appendectomy. It took enough tots of rum to get him to stitch a sailor’s eyebrow. Nothing new there either.


There is a lot in that article. Basically it’s about how organizations large and small, in the case the Navy as a whole and a ship’s crew, solves problems.

The example used was adapting to reduced crewing on complex ships. That example is a poor fit here because we can’t see the forest for the trees. The article mentions this, “The Curse of Expertise.”

Many very expensive and visible problems arose in the LCS program because the Navy tried to rush the process. Not enough time for the organization to learn.

As if in the space race the U.S. had skipped Mercury and Gemini and tried to land a man on the moon on the first mission.

But in 2005, having assured itself that “optimal manning works,” the Navy decided to skip the experimentation and move straight to construction. From this point on, whenever the Navy tried to study the feasibility of minimal manning, its analysis was colored by the fact that—on these ships, at least—it had to work.

Another point from my long naval career. Whenever new warships are built, the promise is to reduce manning, run a bigger ship on a smaller crew.

But the bunks available are always full. There’s never enough to take the non-essential trainees who need seatime and experience before they are let loose on a minimum/optimally manned ship where their expertise has to stack up without backup. These ships are a constriction on the training pipeline.

Taking trainees to sea works. They need the space to be accommodated and the expertise to supervise and train them in the real job.

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Putting aside for the moment the “how it’s implemented aspect” (clearly important) but regarding the generalist vs experts aspect… Perhaps it’s because I see good merchant officers, deck and engine, as the epitome of generalists, in fact “expert” at it (expert generalists?) that I’m not seeing much of a point here. Or am I being naive and practitioners of all professions may think likewise of themselves?

The list of traits representational of the generalist as tested for in a lab seem an odd way to staff a crew. Yet if an expert doesn’t have some of those same qualities I don’t see how they could be seen as a true expert.

But if those traits represent a mindset and they are combined with technical skills and knowledge doesn’t this produce true expertise? Maybe I’m reading it too closely but it seems like the article sets up experts in a certain way (blinded by their knowledge, not thinking outside the box) just so they can make a negative comparison.

Do any of you believe that faced with the same problem of getting a mooring line ashore you and your crew would be stymied? Would your expertise and past experience get in the way? If we are nothing else we are problem solvers. One the other hand someone who tested high on alphabetizing words while adding numbers may come up with the slingshot or he may be counting the number of welds on the deck beams.

Experts, generalists, as the French say viva la differénce.

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I was there when container ship mariners solved the problem of how to operate a PCTC.

There is a trick to it, you have to follow the steps in sequence.

To shift a ramp it’s as follows:

  1. unlock the pins
  2. shift the ramp position
  3. lock the pins.

As it turns out many mariners solve this problem by going first to step two. Which can lead to tens of thousands of dollars of damage and off-hire time.

It was cycle of bend watertight/gastight equipment, go off hire, repair, rinse and repeat. For two or three years.

Meanwhile the whole time Capt Blowhard running around proclaiming how using written procedures was all bullshit.

That article reminds me of this quote:

I divide my officers into four groups. There are clever, diligent, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and diligent — their place is the General Staff. The next lot are stupid and lazy — they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the intellectual clarity and the composure necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is stupid and diligent — he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always cause only mischief.


It is not surprising that the US Navy is adopting the do more with less mantra of the corporate world. After all the management of the US Navy aspires to get a job in the corporate world and make much more money than serving in the military pays. I have read a lot of their resumes and it is hard to tell the difference between them and a corporate climber, they speak the same bullshit. Once corporate management cut everything to the bone except for CEO salaries and executive bonuses, stock options etc., they had to look further for cost savings and they became “multinational”. They moved their factories to countries that had cheaper labor and moved their money to offshore bank accounts. They hate paying taxes in the country they live in and despise paying decent wages that will support a family. Most do not even know or care if the labor has a family, you are just a resource, like raw steel, cement etc., they call you human but actually you are just a resource to be bought at the lowest price possible legally.The idea of everyone being a generalist is great, it broadens ones knowledge but if one of these billionaire CEOs needs heart surgery tell them there is a perfectly good general surgeon available cheap in Cambodia and that is where he/she must go. See what they think about the generalist idea then.


Aside from changes in Navy manning there are some interesting items in that article in general.

For example this pertains to the discussion about relevance of celestial today:

Because in these environments, expertise can become an obstacle. That was the finding of a 2015 study carried out by the Yale researchers Matthew Fisher and Frank Keil, titled “The Curse of Expertise.” The more we invest in building and embellishing a system of knowledge, they found, the more averse we become to unbuilding it.

This with regards to mooring ops with tugs, engine, bow thruster, lines, the limits of keeping track of it all:

hitting the limits of working memory—basically, raw processing power—which is an important aspect of “fluid intelligence" and peaks in your early 20s

And this:

This is distinct from “crystallized intelligence”—the accumulated facts and know-how on your hard drive—which peaks in your 50s. In a setting where the possession of know-how is trumped by the ability to acquire it quickly, as in Hambrick’s game, fluid intelligence is paramount

When I first started sailing there were captains out there that changed very little from the day they started sailing to the day they retired. Given the rate of change in technology today that is no longer practical.

Working on ships isn’t rocket science. From a mess hand (McDonalds table cleaner) to master (Walmart middle manager) it’s all the same. Fill out a form when there wasn’t a form before but what skill does that take? Much less.

Automation is removing the experience from the job. Now all we need to be able to do is follow an SMS check sheet. Thus the end of experts (experience and knowledge) and favoring of generalists (checklist followers).

That’s the ideal direction of industry these days - removing the pesky skilled folks and replacing them with checklist following ignorants who can be paid with fish heads and replaced as quickly as a roll of toilet paper.

I wouldn’t count us old bastards out yet. We are still capable of critical thought.
What I have seen is the attempt to cover all situations with rules. This is impossible and it stifles common sense and initiative. Admiral King put it best in his instructions to his fleet commanders when he said give your captains are general idea of what you want to achieve and let them fight their own ship.

My point really was about technological change. Can’t just plop an ECDIS on the bridge an expect the mates to figure out how to use it.

Same is true as it turns out with weather routing software, a significant percentage of mariners will not understand its limitations without training. It’s user-friendly, once it’s up and running spending more time seems unnecessary.

The classic case is the phenomena of the “radar assisted collision”. Rather than wait for everyone to figure out the cure was the classes were made mandatory and changes to the rules were made.

Another example is fatigue, until I took the class I just assumed it was just a matter of toughening it out, just like everyone else at the time. Turns out that doesn’t work.

You’ve confused skill with simplistic operation. Learning to use an ECDIS user interface specific to a manufacturer isn’t a skill anymore than learning to use a new cell phone app.

In the past the job of navigator was part specialized skill, part artistry with years of experience required to be effective. A good navigator could predict the weather and use the seas to reduce transit times. He had to have a gut for figuring where the ship was when the sky’s were overcast. I won’t belabor any other points because I think you’d agree the job required more than a sextant and a book of tables.

Today a navigator plots on ECDIS with a GPS and routing from a weather service. He follows simple rules and checklists. Mastery of that job takes weeks, maybe a month if you’re slow.

The job of engineers and ABs is heading the way of check lists and flow charts. The art is going away. Move cargo? Use the ship’s crane and follow the checklist. Repair an engine? Get the manufacturer’s manual and follow the flowchart. This means anyone can become an effective mariner quickly - and replaced just as quickly.

A well designed system can be operated by rule following dummies. The problem with LCS is that the system was rushed and wasn’t designed well enough.

I agree with you that it’s useful to look at the system as a whole. But I don’t agree that shipping has turned into a smooth running almost flawless operation. For one everything that’s wrong about shipping has to be resolved on the ship. For another going to sea constantly throws up the unexpected.

Question is how to increase the chances the operation will not break when things go wrong?

My first time as mate was sailing C/M on an Aleutian Freighter. It required what would be considered old time standard seamanship skills.

But the thing is it was obvious what was needed. For example transiting the Inside Passage at night with the wind and rain with a crappy little radar it was obvious what had to be done. Have to figure out which way do I need to steer this thing. Same is true working on deck, handling the ship in a tight spot or steering through heavy seas in the Gulf of Alaska.

By contrast sailing as master on a deep-sea vessel really only one skill is required. That is the ability to avoid having to use any of those skills. That requires making hundreds of small decision every day over many months or years. It’s not always obvious what the right move is. The more decison that are made right the less chance the system will break.