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Numerical EPR scores gone; time-in-grade, service on way out

Jul. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
CMSAF and AF/A1 Testify before the HAC-Personnel
'Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that we have a system that is able to document performance, first and foremost,' Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody said in describing plans to overhaul the enlisted promotion and evaluation system. (Scott Ash / Air Force)
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Beginning next year, you won’t get numerical ratings on your enlisted performance report.

And within a few years — possibly by 2018 — promotion points for your time-in-grade and time-in-service will also be history.

The Air Force on July 31 officially announced the most sweeping overhaul to how it evaluates and promotes enlisted airmen in decades. Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said in an interview that some of the changes are intended to correct the inflation of enlisted performance report scores that, over time, resulted in the vast majority receiving a so-called “firewall 5” out of five possible points.

Cody said these changes are crucial as the Air Force shrinks to its smallest size since 1947. The overhaul will help the Air Force be sure it’s promoting the right people at the right time, he said.

“Now, more than ever, we need to make sure that we have a system that is able to document performance, first and foremost,” Cody said. “If we can’t somehow document performance in the right way to make sure that it counts — and it really doesn’t count [currently], when you talk about inflation — we’re not doing our airmen a service, and we’re not doing the Air Force a service. There hasn’t been anything this comprehensive [to reform the enlisted evaluation and performance system] in nearly 45 years.”

Some of the changes will start rolling out in August, and the last changes are expected to begin by March 2016.

Instead of assigning airmen a score on a 5-point scale, supervisors will assess their performance by choosing from a series of prewritten responses on the revised EPR form — which Cody described as “word pictures” — that best describe an airman’s duty performance.

When promotion time comes around, commanders will take the eligible airmen’s EPRs and slot them into one of five categories, the top of which will be for airmen who are most highly recommended for promotion.

The top two categories will have a forced distribution, or quotas, so only a certain percentage of eligible airmen will end up with recommendations. Cody said the percentages for noncommissioned officers’ categories have not yet been set.

Senior NCOs will similarly have stratification restrictions detailing what percentage of eligible airmen can be put in their categories by senior raters. It is likely that 10 percent of master sergeants and 20 percent of senior master sergeants will end up in the top tier and be most highly recommended for promotion, Cody said.

These quotas will limit the number of top promotion recommendations that unit commanders can give, according to a letter signed by Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Cody and released July 31.

There will be no restrictions on the performance assessment portion of the new EPR, meaning that a supervisor could conceivably give all of his airmen the highest- level “word picture.”

But because commanders will only be able to recommend a certain number of airmen for promotion, they will have to make choices. Airmen will receive points based on their promotion recommendation, not the performance assessment portion.

Phasing out longevity points

Cody also said that beginning in 2015, the Air Force is going to phase out awarding airmen points for how long they’ve been in the service and in their current grade. Airmen now receive half a point for each month in their current grade, and either one-sixth or one-twelfth of a point for each month time-in-service, depending on their rank.

The Air Force plans to gradually draw down those point values over three years, Cody said. It hasn’t yet settled on exactly how that drawdown will take shape. One possibility could be shrinking the time-in-grade point value from half a point for each month to a quarter point per month, and then an eighth of a point. But Cody said those interim point values could end up being different.

The Air Force will analyze the new system each year to make sure there aren’t any unintended consequences, and will adjust if there are.

More changes

Other changes:

■The Air Force in August will release a new performance report specially designed for current chief master sergeants as part of the Command Chief Screening Board process, replacing the current nomination process. The chief EPR will be used first for this year’s command chief board in September, and will be fully put into place in 2015.

■The Air Force next year will, for the first time, hold a promotion board for aspiring master sergeants, similar to those held for promotion to senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant. Cody said only the top 60 percent of eligible technical sergeants will go before the master sergeant board, meaning that board is likely to consider roughly as many airmen as the senior master sergeant board considers. If the boards were held in 2014, that would mean about 13,600 of the 22,673 eligible tech sergeants would go before the board. That’s fewer than the 14,823 master sergeants who were considered for promotion to senior master sergeant earlier this year.

Last year, the Air Force held mock master sergeant promotion boards for about 2,100 airmen and compared the results with who was actually promoted. About 10 percent of airmen not selected for promotion to master sergeant under the standard process would have been picked under the board, and about 10 percent who were selected for promotion would not have been under the board.

Cody said that doesn’t necessarily mean the Air Force is promoting the wrong people to master sergeant, but said the boards will help the Air Force promote the most deserving airmen first.

“This is the evolution of how we choose people to be senior NCOs,” Cody said. “Now it’s time to evolve the process by which we select them, so we get the order right.”

■Beginning in November, the Air Force will start closing out EPRs for the same ranks at the same time throughout the year — at the promotion eligibility cutoff date — instead of staggering EPRs throughout the year. Under the current system, some airmen’s EPRs may close out at the beginning of the year, and others’ may close out shortly before the promotion cutoff date. Cody said that meant airmen were being evaluated on different time periods.

“It was all over the place,” Cody said. “This standardizes it for everybody. It makes sense to get everybody synced.”

■Beginning with next year’s promotion cycles for staff, technical and master sergeant, the Air Force will only give points for their last three EPRs, instead of the last five, to emphasize their recent performance.

■A July 31 release from the Air Force said the changes will be incorporated into the Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard. Senior Master Sgt. Lee Hoover, Cody’s spokesman, said the Guard and reserve will start to roll out the chief’s EPR next May, and then enact the other programs over a two-year schedule.

Some readers who commented online appeared cautiously optimistic about the new system. But several expressed concern about switching to a quota system. Former airman Aaron Mounts wrote that a quota system will hurt airmen in elite units such as the Thunderbirds and Air Force Honor Guard.

“The Thunderbirds consists of the ‘best of the best,’ so even their average airmen are more than a cut above the average in regular units,” Mounts wrote.

Others worried that the commanders who slot airmen into those categories may end up favoring those they know, and disadvantaging those they don’t know.

“Working in a squadron where we have over 200 airmen means the [commander] can’t accurately make a tough choice on who is [most highly] recommended to promote,” airman Crystal Sutton wrote on Air Force Times’ Facebook page. “This again will be the ‘good ol’ boy’ system.”

The first step toward overhauling the enlisted evaluation system came in June, when the Air Force unveiled a new feedback form called the Airman Comprehensive Assessment.

That form, which went into effect July 1, is intended to improve communication between supervisors and their airmen. The Air Force hopes the feedback form will allow supervisors to start conversations with airmen about problems they are facing that could hurt their performance and their careers, and help airmen find ways to solve those problems.■

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