Defense Secretary Ash Carter offered proposals Monday for a major overhaul to the way the military promotes, recruits and provides education benefits to attract a more tech-savvy generation to the future force.

Time in grade may not be the primary consideration for promotion boards in the future force, Carter said. The Defense Department should also allow more recruits to avoid starting out at the lowest rank if they have advanced technical skills, Carter said.

He stressed merit over seniority.

"We have to look at ways to promote people based not just on when they joined, and even more on their performance and talent," Carter said.

The defense secretary also suggested that the military’s rank structure was out of date. He proposed that cyber security civilians thinking of joining the military mid-career could be attracted by allowing them to enlist at a rank reflecting their abilities.

"The military's rank structure still dates back to when Napoleon was invading Europe 200 years ago," Carter said. "There are some good reasons for that, but for certain specialty jobs, like cybersecurity, we need to be looking at ways to bring in more qualified people, even if they're already in the middle of their career, rather than just starting out."

Carter made the proposals in a speech and question-and-answer session with students at his alma mater, Abington High School in suburban Philadelphia.

"As the so-called 9/11 generation begins to leave our ranks, the Defense Department must continue to bring in talented Americans, from your generation and others," Carter said.

"To meet all these challenges, the Defense Department has to think hard about how to attract, inspire and excite people like you," Carter said

Carter noted to the students the higher education benefits under the new GI Bill, which he said amounted to about $284,000.

The students should consider joining the military "if you want to go to college without taking on a mountain of debt," Carter said. In recent surveys, GI Bill benefits have been cited as a major factor in attracting recruits.

Carter also said that the military should consider helping pay off student debts for recruits who have already completed college.

"As college loans get bigger and bigger, for people with certain skills, we need to look at ways to help pay off student loans for people who've already gone to college," Carter said.

 "To get you to join, we need a better understanding of your generation," Carter told the students. The military "has to think hard about how to attract and inspire people like you," he said.

One way to make the military more attractive to a generation with more career choices would be to expand the programs that allow some troops to take a "sabbatical" mid-career for "getting a degree, learning a new skill, or starting a family," Carter said.

"Right now these programs are very small. These programs are good for us and our people, because they help people bring new skills and talents from outside back into the military," Carter said. "We need to look not only at ways we can improve and expand those programs, but also think about completely new ideas to help our people gain new skills and experiences."

Changes to the methods of promotion boards would likely require Congressional approval while expanding sabbaticals would be up to the individual services.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at richard.sisk@military.com