Promotion quotas are on the way. And beginning this November, they're going to put a stake through the heart of the so-called "firewall 5."
The quotas — or as the Air Force calls them, "forced distribution" — will be one of the final elements to be put in place in the service's massive overhaul of its enlisted promotion process, which has been in the works for three years. They will set limits on how many airmen can be recommended as "promote now" or "must promote" on their enlisted performance reports — and get the corresponding EPR points.
"This has been coming for a long time, and I think is really in line with what airmen have been asking for and wanting," Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, director of military force management policy, said. "Which is, I want my performance to be what I get judged on and measured on. And in the previous system, we didn't always have that ability."
The Air Force's old enlisted promotion system was heavily criticized by airmen for out-of-control grade inflation that came with its five-point numerical rating system. There were no limits on how many airmen could get the maximum: five out of five points. As a result nearly everyone got a 5 rating.
As more and more raters gave their airmen 5s on their EPR, the firewall 5 became a common occurrence received by some 90 percent of airmen. And this meant the old EPR was effectively useless at trying to differentiate between levels of performance.
"My entire career, it's been a dialogue" about the problem of rating inflation, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force James Cody said in an interview at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. on June 12. "We had a system that, if it could have been implemented properly, might have worked. But we had literally decades of data to indicate we weren't [implementing it properly]. So this system puts us right where we need to be."
Under the new system, Kelly said in a June 12 interview at the Pentagon, the numerical ratings are gone — and firewall 5s will be impossible.
"All these changes are about performance," said Kelly. "We're trying to make sure that performance is the primary driver, whenever we're going to evaluate or select an airman for promotion."
Only the top 5 percent, at most, of senior airmen, staff sergeants and technical sergeants who are up for promotion to the next rank will be deemed "promote now" and get the full 250 EPR points.
"This is a significant advantage," Kelly said. "If you get one of these 'promote nows,' you're going to have a very good chance of getting promoted, unless you don't score very well at all on your testing."
The quotas for the next tier of airmen — who will be deemed "must promote" and will get 220 out of 250 EPR points — will differ based on their rank. Kelly said that up to 15percent of senior airmen who are eligible for promotion to staff sergeant can receive a "must promote" rating, and up to 10 percent of staff sergeants and tech sergeants up for promotion to technical and master sergeant can get that rating, and the accompanying 220 points.
The next three ratings — "promote," "not ready now" and "do not promote" — will each earn airmen 200, 150 and 50 points, respectively. But there will be no limit on how many airmen can get those ratings.
Tech sergeants will be the first to encounter forced distribution quotas when their EPRs close out Nov.30. Senior airmen and staff sergeants will follow when their EPRs next close out on March 31, 2016, and Jan. 31, 2016, respectively.
To educate airmen on how this new system is going to work, top Air Force leadership has launched a worldwide briefing tour. Three teams of six or seven experts, including Chief Master Sgt. Brandy Petzel, the chief of enlisted force policy, and occasionally personnel chief Lt. Gen. Samuel Cox, will tour at least 91 Air Force facilities around the world through the end of July, and the first two briefings were held June 11 and 12 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Bolling.
Kelly said that under the new system, NCOs will receive an annual assessment of their performance done by their immediate supervisor they work for on a daily basis, and a separate, promotion recommendation done by a senior rater, such as a squadron commander or higher.
Kelly said that it's important for the squadron commanders to be the one to make promotion recommendations, and not the immediate supervisors, because they see how airmen are performing across the entire organization; whereas an immediate supervisor in a maintenance or security forces squadron "only sees a little slice of airmen" in that squadron, Kelly said.
"They have two or three airmen that work for them. The commander, having purview over the entire group, sees all those different airmen, and has the responsibility we've given them to [compare airmen and] judge performance across that entire unit," he said.
Kelly said that immediate supervisors will be providing feedback up to commanders to help them make the best decisions on who should be promoted.
"Yes, they may not see that airman as much as everybody else does, but they get that feedback," Kelly said. "Their responsibility is to judge that across the entire spectrum of performance and identify those airmen who are performing at the highest levels in the entirety of the organization, not just in the little slices of the organization."
Kelly said that commanders with at least 11 promotion-eligible airmen in their unit will be deemed large units, and will be able to make their own choices on which airmen should get the top two promotion recommendations. Units with 10 or fewer eligible airmen will be combined with other small units as part of an Enlisted Forced Distribution Panel, and the promotion recommendations will be handed out to airmen in multiple units.
Squadron commanders of units with fewer than 11 promotion-eligible airmen don't have to nominate every eligible airman to the Enlisted Forced Distribution Panel; only the ones they think merit consideration for the top ratings.
Commanders make that decision based on those airmen's performance as evaluated by their supervisor, and how the commanders themselves view the airmen, Kelly said.
Such a panel will be made up of the squadron commanders of units sending airmen for consideration and the senior rater, which would likely be the wing commander, Kelly said. A senior enlisted adviser, typically the wing command chief or senior enlisted leader, would also advise the panel. The panel would consider up to the three most recent EPRs of an airman, as well as a short history of the airman's job — called a selection brief — and bases produced by the Air Force Personnel Center.
"That panel is going to decide who should get those recommendations," Kelly said. "Each senior rater will run that panel, but it will be an assessment of the performance of those airmen and who of those airmen, based on their performance, is most deserving of those ratings. It should primarily be an assessment based on performance, because they're only going to look at EPRs and their selection briefs. That's all they can see. Other information they may have in their folder won't be considered. We're expecting them to make value judgments based on their performance."
Elements such as an airman's character will already have been factored in the EPR before the panel convenes, Kelly said.
But Kelly said that panel won't convene very often. He said that 93percent of the 1,790 units with airmen eligible for promotion to staff sergeant are big enough for commanders to hand out promotion recommendations on their own. And he said there will be no strategic advantage or disadvantage between being in a large or small unit.
"We want a lot of those folks to be closer to their commander," Kelly said.
He acknowledged that change can be difficult, and such a sweeping overhaul of something as central to airmen's careers as the promotion process will make many nervous. But he thinks that airmen will get used to it, over time.
The new enlisted promotion system
The new quotas for enlisted promotion recommendations are only the latest changes to how airmen are promoted. Over the last year, the Air Force has rolled out a series of major overhauls to the enlisted evaluation process, including:
- A new feedback form called the Airman Comprehensive Assessment that went into effect July 1, 2014. The ACA is used to set expectations and goals for airmen over the coming year, and is meant to spark a conversation between a supervisor and an airman to make sure those objectives are clear and understood.
- Numerical enlisted performance report scores are being eliminated and replaced with written descriptions of airmen's performance.
- Time in grade and time in service points are being phased out over a three-year period.
- For the first time, a promotion board to select master sergeants, similar to those held for E-8 and E-9 promotions was held this year.
- Only EPRs produced after an airman becomes eligible for promotion will be considered during the promotion process for technical sergeant and below, but no more than three. And when multiple EPRs are considered, the most recent scores will be weighted more heavily, to give more consideration to airmen's recent performance. The Air Force used to consider their last five years of EPRs.
- The number of possible EPR points has increased from the former 135-point maximum to 250 points. This means performance will have a much greater effect on who gets promoted.
- Airmen now must score at least 40 points out of 100 on both their specialty knowledge tests and promotion fitness examinations, and the combined scores of both tests must be at least 90.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for Military.com, covering the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare. Before that, he covered U.S. Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for Air Force Times.