Longer initial tours for most first sergeants will make it easier for them to serve tours overseas and will cut down on training expenses, special duty manager Chief Master Sgt. Sandy Pfeffer said in a March 12 interview.
Until now, first sergeants served three-year initial tours, and had the option of requesting a second three-year tour, for a maximum tour of six years for master sergeants. Senior master sergeants also had the option of adding another year after their second tour, for a maximum tour of seven years.
But under the new system — announced in a Feb. 25 update to Air Force Instruction 36-2113 — most first sergeants will serve four-year tours, with the option of extending their tours another one or two years. Senior master sergeants will again have the option of adding one more year for a maximum tour of seven years. The changes took effect Feb. 15.
The Air Force made the changes because it realized it was losing talented first sergeants just as they were hitting their stride, Pfeffer said. It often takes a year to 18 months to get a new first shirt trained enough to be considered fully experienced, she said. And under the old system, that didn't leave much time for them to do their jobs before their first three-year tour was up.
"Ultimately, we would get them spun up and we would lose them in a year and a half, two years, because they weren't able to stay for a second tour," because they either chose not to sign up for a second tour or were required to return to their career fields, Pfeffer said. "This really helps us keep our more experienced first sergeants."
Also, the rules governing when someone becomes eligible for an overseas tour conflicted with the old three-year tour schedule, Pfeffer said. Under the old system, a first sergeant would have to decide whether he wanted to request a second tour two years into his first three-year tour. At the same time, new first sergeants at a new base would have to stay there for two years before becoming eligible for an overseas tour. This meant that many who wanted to go overseas had to decide whether to put in for a second tour before knowing if they would spend that time abroad — and in some cases, first shirts opted not to stay in.
But with a four-year initial tour, Pfeffer said, first sergeants can finish their prerequisites for an overseas move before having to make career-changing decisions, and still have plenty of time left as a first sergeant.
"If they didn't elect to do a second tour [under the old system], they didn't have enough time to go overseas," Pfeffer said. "It gives us a bigger population of people for overseas opportunities, special positions within the special duty, and it gives us a bigger population of experienced first sergeants, which is very, very important."
Pfeffer also said that by having more first sergeants serving longer tours, the Air Force will cut down on turnover and the training required to replace those departing. This will save money, she said.
No trouble finding volunteers
But she said the Air Force isn't having trouble finding enough airmen willing to serve as first sergeants, who receive $150 in special duty pay each month. Last October, first sergeants at the First Sergeant Academy for the first time began receiving $75 a month in special duty pay.
First sergeants were one of 10 developmental special duties that the Air Force moved from a volunteer system to a nomination system in 2013. The Air Force had trouble filling some of those jobs because it couldn't find enough volunteers.
Pfeffer said that finding enough volunteers for first sergeant duty isn't a problem. The problem was that career field managers in the volunteers' old jobs often didn't want to "cut them loose," she said.
"In the past, before DSD [became a nomination process], I would get my volunteers, but we would have challenges getting people released to become a first sergeant," Pfeffer said. "In the big scheme of things, those career field managers, they have to make sure that they have airmen they need to execute their Air Force mission. You can't do anything but respect that. But in the same instance, we have to make sure that we're also getting the members we need."
The new system works better, Pfeffer said, because the Air Force's personnel office coordinates with career field managers for all Air Force specialty codes to find out how many airmen they can stand to cut loose. The Air Force then racks and stacks nominees to find which airmen will be the best, and then Pfeffer chooses from the list, making sure not to select more airmen from a particular AFSC than their career field can lose.
Pfeffer came in as the new developmental special duty system was being rolled out. Her predecessor, retired Chief Master Sgt. Rob Frank, who is now the head of the Air Force Sergeants Association, was bringing on about 300 volunteers a year. That wasn't enough, she said, and he was falling short, although the number he needed to bring on fluctuated. He was getting enough volunteers to fill the first sergeant jobs, she said. But career field managers weren't letting some volunteers go, she said.
More details from AFI
Active-duty and Air Force Reserve first sergeants who graduate from the First Sergeant Academy after June 1, 2013, will have a year added to their initial tours, extending them to four years, the AFI said. But active-duty and Reserve first sergeants, who graduated before June 1, 2013, will be grandfathered in and will continue to serve three-year initial tours.
Air National Guard first sergeants' initial tours will remain at least three years.
Master sergeants who are promoted to senior master sergeant while serving as a first sergeant must serve at least two more years after their selection date, under the new rules. But those newly promoted senior master sergeants will serve no longer than eight consecutive years, the AFI said.
Besides the special duty pay first sergeants receive, there are no other benefits, Pfeffer said, and no plans to add other perks to the job. Pfeffer said the Air Force reconsiders all special duty pays each year.
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Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.