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ANNAPOLIS (Reuters) - U.S. Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on Wednesday announced a doubling of paid maternity leave and other sweeping changes aimed at creating a more flexible and healthy work environment, and convincing more women to stay in the Navy longer.
"The goal is to have a far more flexible career path (and) to be more family-friendly," Mabus told reporters after a speech outlining the initiative at the U.S. Naval Academy.
"We must evolve to meet the needs of the future battle space and the needs of our people, or we can - and we will - lose," Mabus told over 4,000 midshipman, or students at the university. "We're operating under a personnel system that was designed 30 or 40 years ago that just doesn't meet the needs of today."
The changes, some of which require approval by Congress, include scrapping some hated online training, adopting gender-neutral job standards, new unisex uniforms, expanded hours for daycare centers and fitness centers on bases, and more opportunities for sailors and marines to take time off for school or other reasons without ruining their careers.
Mabus said he also planned to revamp the Navy's system of twice-a-year "pass-fail" fitness tests and adopt more spot checks and measures aimed at evaluating "health, not shape."
To help bridge what he called a "civil-military divide," Mabus said would add 30 slots for sailors to participate in graduate programs at Harvard and other civilian institutions.
The Navy would also partner with Fortune 500 companies to host naval officers and broaden their professional experience.
And it would change its career advancement system to reward leaders and emphasize achievement over pre-set "wickets."
The Navy would also provide more lean proteins, vegetables and other healthy food choices at bases and on ships in coming years, with fleetwide introduction seen by 2017, he said.
Mabus said he backed setting gender-neutal standards for all Navy jobs and opening them to women to compete equally with men for those positions. "Do not lower standards in any regard," Mabus said in answer to a question, drawing thunderous applause.
Amanda Jackson, 20, a third-year student majoring in quantitative economics, said she had planned to start a family after serving the five years required after her studies, but the changes could entice her to stay in the Navy longer.
"It's very important that this change is being made," she said. "It's accepting a new realm of possibilities for women. It means that you don't have to give up your family."
Navy reservist Steve Taylor, management consultant with PricewaterhouseCoopers, said the changes mirrored similar efforts underway across the private sector as companies struggled to recruit, retain and promote the best talent.
"It's a fight for the best talent," he said. "These are the sort of things that were missing in the Navy that I served in."
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by David Gregorio