America’s Navy is developing a new concept for its vessels that may lead to major changes in commercial and other governmental workplaces across the United States.

According to an article in The Atlantic magazine’s July edition, written by Jerry Useem, the innovative system is being practiced on “a cutting-edge Navy ship where specialization is out, learning never stops, and one sailor does the job of five.”

The question: “Is this the future of work?”

For centuries, employees in workplaces around the world have been encouraged to concentrate on developing a single skill to near perfection.

The Navy innovation is described as “minimal manning — and with it, the replacement of specialized workers with problem-solving generalists.”

The system is reflected in the old instruction to workers, “do more with less.”

By 2020, a 2016 World Economic Forum report predicted, “more than one-third of the desired core skill sets of most occupations” will not have been seen as crucial to the job when the report was published. If that’s the case, the journalist asked, why should anyone take the time to master anything at all?  

“You shouldn’t!” John Sullivan, a prominent Silicon Valley talent adviser told him.

“How deep these implications go depends, ultimately, on how closely employers embrace the concepts behind minimal manning. The Navy, curiously, has pushed the idea forward with an abandon unseen anywhere on land,” Useem wrote.

Within a few years, 35 littoral (“relating to or situated on the shore of the sea or a lake) combat ships will be afloat, along with three minimally manned destroyers of the new Zumwalt class.

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

The answer: The ship’s most futuristic aspect is the crew. The LCS was the first class of Navy ships that, because its insides can be swapped out in port, allows it to set sail as a submarine hunter, minesweeper, or surface combatant, depending on the mission.

The ship was designed to operate with a mere 40 crew members — one fifth the number aboard comparably sized “legacy” ships and a far cry from the 350 aboard a World War II destroyer.

As compared to the 240 years of tradition that have previously been prescribed, the small size of the crews means that each sailor must be like the ship itself: a jack of many trades and not a master of just one.

On most Navy ships, only a boatswain’s mate — the oldest of the Navy’s 60-odd occupations — would be handling the ropes. But none of the three sailors heaving on the on the ship’s ropes is a line-handling professional. One is an information-systems technician. The second is a gunner’s mate. And the third is a chef.

Deloitte consultant Erica Volini projects that 10 years from now, 70-90% of workers will be in so-called hybrid jobs or super jobs — that is, positions combining tasks once performed by people in two or more traditional roles.

If private companies and governmental agencies find that this new concept can produce large amounts of work products with just a fraction of workers, the idea may well catch on for a more abundant future for all Americans.

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