Advancement to master sergeant soon may require going before a promotion board, under a plan the Air Force is considering. (Senior Airman Jessica Lockoski/Air Force)
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Facing the need to get smaller, the Air Force is reviewing how it evaluates and promotes airmen to make sure it retains the best of the best.
Toward that end, the service is considering holding promotion boards for master sergeants as part of the promotions process to make sure it is advancing the best senior enlisted leaders.
The Air Force already holds promotion boards for senior and chief master sergeant. And the Army and Navy hold boards for E-7 through E-9, while the Marine Corps holds boards for promotions to E-6 and higher.
Separately, the Air Force is reviewing the entire enlisted performance report system, which now rates just about all enlisted airmen as top performers even if they are mediocre. In an Aug. 21 message to airmen, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said the Air Force expects to have results of a study into EPRs and the promotion system “in the near future.” He did not specify when that would be.
In a Sept. 4 interview, Lt. Gen. Darrell Jones, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, said he thinks promotion boards would benefit the Air Force. And he thinks other top service leaders are leaning the same way.
“I think we might be looking at promotion boards for master sergeants in the future,” Jones said. “It has great promise. I think within the next six months, we’ll have an idea whether we want to press ahead with this or not.”
If the Air Force does go that way, Jones said it would probably take a year to get boards fully in place. Putting such a large change into place could be logistically difficult because it would mean many more boards than are currently held, he said.
Such a change would likely double the number of enlisted airmen considered by promotion boards each year. In 2013, more than 20,000 airmen were eligible for promotion to master sergeant, meaning promotion boards could have to review roughly that many records every year. In comparison, earlier this year, more than 12,800 master sergeants were eligible for promotion to senior master sergeant, and fewer than 2,000 senior master sergeants were eligible for promotion to chief master sergeant in November 2012.
But if the Air Force thinks it would benefit from E-7 promotion boards, Jones said, it will find a way to make them work.
“It’s not as easy as saying, ‘Hey, that’s a good idea, let’s do it tomorrow,’” Jones said. “When you’re dealing with promotions, when you’re dealing with policy changes, you have to get it right.”
Countering inflated scores
The Air Force has made combating EPR inflation a major issue, but from fiscal 2009 to 2012, the percentage of airmen who received perfect 5s on their EPRs only dropped from 85.3 percent to 83 percent. The issue prompted the Air Force to look into whether airmen were being promoted to master sergeant based on their performance, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said.
“It was very apparent that performance wasn’t a discerning factor in the way that it was designed to be in WAPS [Weighted Airman Promotion System] for people to make master sergeant,” Cody said in an Aug. 28 interview.
In 2013, 3,841 airmen were selected for promotion to master sergeant, 18.71 percent of the 20,528 eligible. That shows a decline in promotions from 2012, when 5,464 — 27.58 percent or 19,809 of those eligible — were selected.
Earlier this year, the Air Force held mock promotion boards for master sergeants involving about 2,100 airmen and compared the results with who was actually promoted, said Master Sgt. Lee Hoover, a spokesman for Cody. The boards used the same criteria used for senior and chief master sergeant promotion boards.
“They look at overall performance and breadth of experience to determine the members readiness for the next rank,” Hoover said in an email.
The results: 10 percent of the airmen not selected for promotion to master sergeant would get promoted by a board process, and another 10 percent of airmen selected for promotion would not advance if they had to go before a board, Cody said.
“That in itself is not that concerning ... but it also illuminated to us the fact that performance, in a way that a board would be able to look at a record and discern amongst those records, clearly could have a different impact on about 20 percent of those records,” Cody said.
Air Force officials are still compiling data from the mock promotion boards and expect to make some recommendations to Welsh “in the coming weeks,” Cody said.
Vacancies will be filled
The potential changes to the promotion and evaluation systems come as the Air Force is getting smaller. The service expects to cut about 1,860 airmen by October 2014 to meet its congressionally authorized active-duty end strength of 327,600, but the service may have to make even deeper personnel reductions if defense spending cuts known as sequestration last beyond this fiscal year.
But the promotion boards are not intended to reduce the number of technical sergeants selected to advance to master sergeant, Cody said.
“We will promote to Air Force vacancies regardless of what system we use to select people to be a master sergeant,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of vacancies and authorizations we have for master sergeants based on the size of the force. Certainly, we’ll promote to those ranks.”
In April, Cody told airmen at Joint Base Andrews, Md., that those selected for master sergeant under the current promotion system are the right people for the job.
“I am 100 percent confident every master sergeant sitting in this room today deserves to be a master sergeant in the United States Air Force,” Cody said at the April 12 airman’s call. “And I don’t want anybody thinking who was just promoted to master sergeant, that we somehow think we got it wrong with you, because we don’t. But we do want to ensure we are promoting those with the highest potential.”
Boards 'more manageable' now
Former Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Binnicker, who held that position between 1986 and 1990, said he wanted to put master sergeant promotion boards in place decades ago, but until recently, the Air Force has been too large to make it work.
“In the past, people were concerned about the sheer numbers of technical sergeants eligible, and that they would get an insurmountable number of people to do the boards,” Binnicker said. “Now that the Air Force is [roughly] half the size it was when I was chief, it’s a more manageable number.”
There are now 264,000 enlisted airmen in the Air Force, and according to the Air Force Association’s magazine, there were 435,188 enlisted airmen in 1990.
Binnicker said he thinks the Air Force is promoting the right people under the current system — but not at the right time. He thinks that today, there are technical sergeants who should be promoted earlier who are getting passed over their first time, and technical sergeants who could use more seasoning getting promoted their first time up.
“I think [the Air Force is contemplating a change to promotion boards] because we’re getting smaller, and we want to make sure we promote the best performers first,” Binnicker said. “There are some good performers now who are being passed over before being selected. We have so few mediocre people that it’s difficult to differentiate between excellence.”
He agrees with a Rand study and other critics that the current promotion system favors technical sergeants who are good test takers, and that promotion boards would fix that problem by making the process more subjective.
But Binnicker said he doubts a colonel or chief master sergeant sitting on a board could use it to push his unqualified “favorite son” for promotion. First, Binnicker said it would be unlikely a technical sergeant would be reviewed by a promotion board made up of officials he knows personally. And second, he said, if one member of a promotion board issues a score that differs greatly from the other members, the board will take another look at the candidate’s records and reconcile those differences.
Binnicker said the board would only review the candidate’s written records and supervisory statements. Bringing the candidate in personally to answer questions from the board would be too expensive and time-consuming, he said.
Binnicker said moving to a promotion board system would not result in lower promotion rates, and he said he thinks no job series should be exempted from promotion boards.
What airmen think
When Air Force Times asked readers what they think about promotion boards for master sergeants, most who responded were in favor of the idea.
“The cream would rise to the top because typically, in the Air Force, the E-8s and E-9s, they get boarded, and I’m not saying they’re all perfect, but you really have a weeding process where only the very best get promoted because it’s a whole person concept: You have to work hard to get the performance ratings,” said an Air Force fire chief stationed in Europe, who asked not to be identified.
Right now, the technical sergeants selected to advance to master sergeant are the best test takers, not necessarily the best leaders, the fire chief said. When master sergeants arrive at his fire department, he has no idea what their capabilities are, despite the fact that they are expected to lead between 30 and 70 people and run key programs.
“If I line up 10 master sergeants, one is good,” he said. “They lack leadership skills, management, technical skills — everything you think a senior [noncommissioned officer] could do. The biggest thing that a guy can do for me is solve his own problems. I find that these guys, they can’t think outside the box, they can’t solve problems, they can’t organize. Honestly, one of my work-arounds is if the guy can’t do it, I will get a lower-ranking guy that has the talent and abilities to do it and move that guy out of the way because I have a mission to take care of.”
Should the Air Force implement promotion boards for master sergeant, the boards need to be able to take enough time to adequately evaluate each candidate, said Tech Sgt. Scott Mendoza, who is stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash.
“When the board reviews the records for E-8 and E-9, it’s a very quick process because they deal with I don’t know how many thousands of packages,” Mendoza said. “They don’t have time to review all those records in depth.”
To give master sergeant promotion boards more time to review each package, Mendoza proposes that tech sergeants be required to meet a minimum test score to be eligible to go before the boards, which he thinks should be held locally instead of at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph.
“If these boards are held locally, to where the wing commander could be made promotion authority — if that’s the right word or not — but I think that would less complicate the process,” he said.
If master sergeant promotion boards become a reality, the boards should give added weight to what candidates have done above and beyond their job, such as special duties, Tech Sgt. Amanda Cable said.
“I know rank-specific limits people to some of the job titles they can hold, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t venture out to learn the responsibilities to show that they are proactive about taking on the new rank and taking on the new challenges that come with it,” said Cable, who is stationed at a NATO base in Geilenkirchen, Germany.
Cable is unsure if time in grade and time in service should count toward promotion to master sergeant.
“I’ve seen some pretty sharp senior airmen that I’d rather have on my team than some tech sergeants,” she said.
HOW BOARDS WORK
The 1958 Military Pay Act allowed the Air Force to begin boarding for promotions to senior master sergeant that year, followed by boards for chief master sergeant in 1959, said Col. Dawn Keasley, chief of the Military Force Policy Division. The service has never held promotion boards for other ranks.
The first boards were held at the command level, but now they are all held at the Air Force Personnel Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Keasley said in an email. Boards are made up of two chief master sergeants and a colonel with a general officer serving as board president.
“The basis of what the promotion board members reviewed to select the best qualified SNCOs [senior noncommissioned officers] for promotion has remained consistent,” Keasley said. “Those factors are demonstrated leadership and supervisory ability, performance evaluations, professional competence, job responsibility, breadth of experience, specific achievements, education and commander’s recommendations.”
Under the current system, technical sergeants are selected for master sergeant based on a weighted score that includes enlisted performance report scores, decorations, time in grade, time in service and scores on the Promotion Fitness Exam — which is based on the Professional Development Guide that all E-6s use — and the Skills Knowledge Test, which is based on an airman’s Air Force Specialty Code.
Because tests vary by AFSC, test scores carry different weights depending on AFSC, according to a Rand study that looked into Air Force enlisted force management.
“Suppose an AFSC has a difficult SKT or a difficult version of the PFE,” the 2007 study says. “Tests that are more difficult lead to a wider range of test scores. Within an AFSC, this tends to favor good testers by placing more weight (variation) on testing and less weight on longevity and the other WAPS factors.
“Better testers tend to have less TIG [time in grade]. Members with good EPR scores and high TIG necessarily have a record of poor testing. Therefore, in AFSCs with difficult tests, promoted airmen tend to have less TIS [time in service] when they sew on each grade.”
TIPS TO ACE A BOARD
When formerBinnicker sat on promotion boards between 1981 and 1985, he said he primarily looked at what a candidate’s supervisor had to say about his performance, and whether the candidate had completed required schooling.
Extracurricular activities are nice to have, Binnicker said, but he also didn’t hold a lack of extracurricular activities against a candidate because he recognized not everybody has the same opportunities. And, he said, if a candidate’s report says little about actual performance and much about extracurricular activities, “that sends a loud signal to me that person is more concerned about extra activities than doing his or her job.”
So what should someone do to improve his chances of acing a promotion board? “Make sure that performance is in front of everything you do and that your performance reports reflect that,” Binnicker said. “That’s how you do it. Demonstrate that before your supervisor every day.”