The Air Force will hold its first master sergeant evaluation board in May 2015 — but only the top 60 percent of eligible technical sergeants in each career field will meet the board.
In a Dec. 2 interview in his Pentagon office, Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, the Air Force's director of military force management policy, said that the board process will be divided into two phases. The first phase will decide which eligible tech sergeants will go before the board.
Between February and March, all technical sergeants who are eligible for promotion as of the Nov. 30 cutoff date will complete their specialty knowledge tests and promotion fitness examinations. Those test scores will be combined with other weighted factors, such as time in grade, time in service, decorations, and enlisted performance reports, to set their initial score.
The Air Force will then sort the scores by Air Force specialty code and move the top 60 percent of airmen in each career field to the second phase — the actual promotion board.
For small AFSCs with 15 or fewer airmen, all airmen will move on to the evaluation board, as long as they meet the minimum SKT and PFE scores.
The 60 percent cutoff is the only way the master sergeant board differs from the already-existing boards for promotion to senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant, Kelly said. Those boards consider all eligible airmen.
The Air Force is limiting the number of airmen appearing before the master sergeant board because considering all eligible tech sergeants would overwhelm the board and take months to complete. If the board was held in 2014, about 13,600 of the eligible 22,673 tech sergeants would have met the board. That's about 1,200 a little less than the 14,823 master sergeants who were considered for promotion to senior master sergeant earlier this year.
"Just based on volume, we aren't able to hold and conduct an evaluation board of all eligible tech sergeants competing for master sergeant," Kelly said. Considering only the top 60 percent "allows us to have a sizable and workable population for that evaluation board."
The board will otherwise operate in the same way as senior master sergeant and chief master sergeant boards: The board will review the selection folder containing each airman's evaluation brief, EPRs closing out within 10 years of the promotion eligibility cutoff date, and all decorations received over the airman's entire career. Any Article 15 received within two years of the cutoff date and recommended for placement in the selection folder by a commander will also be considered.
The evaluation board will calculate a score for each airman's record, which will replace the weighted EPR points from the first phase in the process. The board score will then be combined with the remaining Weighted Airman Promotion System scores from the first phase to create a final overall score. Those overall scores will then be racked and stacked by AFSC to create an order of merit. Finally, the Air Force will apply the promotion quota to each AFSC's order of merit to decide who will be promoted to master sergeant.
Deployed airmen and those serving in a temporary duty assignment location who are unable to test during the normal cycle will be considered for promotion during a supplemental process, as occurs now.
The master sergeant board is the latest step in a major overhaul of how the Air Force evaluates and promotes its enlisted service members. For years, airmen complained that the old system led to EPR score inflation, to the point where the vast majority of airmen received a so-called "firewall 5" out of five possible points. Critics said this rendered the old system effectively useless at determining different levels of performance.
The Air Force has previously unveiled several other elements of the new enlisted evaluation system, including a new feedback form called the Airman Comprehensive Assessment, the replacement of numerical ratings with a series of prewritten responses describing an airman's duty performance, an increase in the number of EPR points airmen can earn and the beginning of a phasing out of time-in-grade and time-in-service, and other revisions to the Weighted Airman Promotion System.
"The Air Force has looked at and focused on making sure that performance is the key driver, is the primary factor behind any time we want to do an evaluation or a promotion of an airman," Kelly said. "To do that, we came up with a comprehensive plan that is a very deliberate roll-out over a long period of time, 16 months."
Now that the Air Force has finalized its plans for the new master sergeant board, officials are turning their attention to educating airmen, personnelists and supervisors on how it will work.
Kelly said that on Dec. 1, the Air Force's top enlisted leaders — Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody and Chief Master Sgt. Brandy Petzel, the chief of enlisted force policy — began informing theofficer and enlisted chain of command -- command chiefs, wing commanders, MAJCOM commanders and field commanders -- about the new system. That information began trickling down through the chain of command the next two days, Kelly said.
Beginning Dec. 4, the Air Force Personnel Center started using secure, online webinars to educate personnelists at field level Force Support Squadrons, as well as at major commands, on how the new system is different and how it will be put into place.
After that point, Kelly said, commanders and personnelists began a series of face-to-face meetings with airmen to train them on the new system. That could include town hall meetings, roll calls, unit calls, or squadron commander calls. Kelly said that training will not be done via distance learning.
"We certainly encourage face-to-face communication," Kelly said.
As the Air Force began to draw down, Kelly said it became increasingly crucial to ensure it was promoting the right airmen.
"The smaller the force becomes, the more important it is to make sure that we're really identifying our best-performing airmen and using performance as that driver," Kelly said.
So last year, Air Force leaders started working on how to reform the enlisted evaluation and promotion process.
Kelly said that both Air Force leadership and airmen agreed that performance needed to be the most important factor in the enlisted evaluation and promotion system.
"Our airmen over time [...] saw all the firewall 5s and the system not having an easy way to delineate between top performers and other performers within an organization," Kelly said. "And the feedback we got from them was that they wanted a way to make sure that they could delineate. If somebody is performing at a high level, they want to be recognized as that."
Air Force leadership began deliberately studying the old system to see how it could be reformed, without entirely throwing out the parts that worked.
"This is not something you want to just jump into," Kelly said. "You want to have some review. As we started this project, Gen. [Mark] Welsh, the chief of staff, gave Chief Cody and our enlisted board of directors the charge to begin looking at that, and asked A1 to do the same."
Part of the process included holding a mock master sergeant evaluation board to study how it would work, comparing it to the actual results, and applying lessons learned, Kelly said. The Air Force also conducted modeling of the potential new point values to see how the new WAPS would affect promotion results.
"It's been lots of months of study, starting in 2013, all the way through this year and culminating in 2016 when it's finally finished," Kelly said. "All that study and all the previous work helps us make sure that we're launching a pretty good product. But I don't think that we would ever say that you don't take some feedback ... through each of these processes."
That's one reason why the Air Force is extending the phase-out of time-in-grade and time-in-service points through a three-year period, Kelly said. After each year, the Air Force will study to see how it's working to see if there are any unintended consequences or if any adjustments need to be made.
Some airmen have expressed concern in comments online that the new system will lead to supervisors steering promotions to their favorite airmen, regardless of who is truly performing at the highest level.
Kelly said that the Air Force trains its commanders on its core values of integrity, service and excellence that seek to prevent that kind of favoritism.
But the transparency provided by the new feedback form, called the Airman Comprehensive Assessment, will also reassure airmen that decisions are not being made based on favoritism, Kelly said. That feedback form, which went into effect July 1 and was the first element of the new system the Air Force rolled out, is "the cornerstone of the entire changes to the system," he said.
Under the feedback form process, an airman and his supervisor will have a detailed two-way conversation about what the airman's performance goals and expectations will be for the coming year. When evaluation time comes around, Kelly said, "there shouldn't be a lot of surprise for the airmen in terms of what they get."
And the feedback form is visible up the supervisor's chain of command, including first sergeants, squadron commanders, group commanders and wing commanders, Kelly said.
"There should be a very auditable trail for the entire chain of command to see and look at what's going on for this particular airman's performance, and there shouldn't be a surprise that, I suddenly picked out my favorite out of a hat," Kelly said. "It should be very linked to how they're doing performance-wise. And it should be clear and evident up through the whole chain. So there's some checks and balances in there."
The Air Force is also moving to a system of static closeout dates that coincide with promotion eligibility cutoff dates, which will mean airmen in the same rank will be evaluated at the same time.
But once the static closeout date shift is completed, airmen who have a permanent change-of-station move within 120 days before their rank's static closeout date will not be evaluated by their new supervisor, Kelly said. Those airmen will instead have their evaluations completed by their old supervisor.
Kelly said the Air Force is rolling out the new system piecemeal, because in many cases, one aspect builds on another. And the Air Force wants airmen to have time to absorb and understand each change as it is put into place.
"We've purposely tried not let them look ahead," Kelly said. "We've really wanted our airmen to focus on the task at hand. So our airmen who are going to test in January, February or March, we want them to understand what the new point values are, and focus on testing and focus on performance and understanding the new evaluation system for how the WAPS model is going to be used. We don't want them, right now, too focused on the future pieces, which are going to be how we're going to implement the forced distribution."
Forced distribution amounts will be unveiled in summer 2015, he said. They will be first put in place in November 2015, which is the closeout date for tech sergeants competing for promotion to master sergeant.