The Air Force said Thursday it will slow enlisted promotions for the next two years as it tries to spread airmen more evenly across the ranks.

The service hopes the move will help resolve some its recent workforce challenges, such as rebuilding institutional knowledge in a young and understaffed maintenance corps.

More people than usual are staying in the enlisted force, but the number of jobs is remaining essentially flat. Without airmen leaving to make room for more junior troops to rise, the workforce stagnates. And without more jobs in the pipeline, the Air Force needs to shrink its cohort of midlevel enlisted so that higher tiers aren’t overwhelmed by demand.

The service wants to use the predicament to its advantage and keep more airmen in their current grade longer, so they can bolster their work and leadership skills before taking on supervisory positions. Airmen would then have more time to build on that foundation as noncommissioned officers.

“We value the experience airmen bring to their work centers,” Air Force personnel chief Lt. Gen. Caroline Miller said in a release. “Although this news may be discouraging for some, this revision is absolutely needed and allows us to grow the Air Force our nation needs.”

The Air Force added nearly 16,000 enlisted positions between 2015 and 2021, and promoted more people into those jobs accordingly. Now, it plans to get rid of about 3,000 active duty positions to shrink to 323,400 in fiscal 2023 and make promotions more competitive.

Another 2,000 or so jobs, which were temporarily part of the Air Force, are slated to return to the Defense Health Agency, Air Force Times previously reported.

The service noted that airmen could see more promotion opportunities if separations and retirements trend up again.

More spots will be available for junior enlisted — airmen basic (E-1) to senior airmen (E-4) — and fewer for the mid-level enlisted, from staff sergeants (E-5) to master sergeants (E-7), Col. James Barger, head of the Air Force Manpower Analysis Agency, said in a release.

How long enlisted airmen spend in their grade or in the service no longer factors into whether they get promoted. That has led to instances in which inexperienced troops are put in higher positions without the knowledge to back it up.

“The majority of the experience decline was attributable to the Air Force trying to achieve an enlisted force structure with too many higher grades,” Barger said.

Airmen typically reach the rank of staff sergeant after serving for about four years, technical sergeant after 12 years and master sergeant after 17 years. After that, federal law dictates how many enlisted personnel can hold the grades of E-8 and E-9.

The Air Force wants to extend that timeline to an average of 13 years for technical sergeants and 18 years for master sergeants.

Some airmen are frustrated that they’ll miss out on higher pay and new job opportunities not available to lower-ranking airmen, potentially stymying their personal and professional growth. On social media, airmen have also expressed concern that the decision will lead to fewer NCOs with more responsibilities and a larger group of younger airmen to train.

But the Air Force argues it makes sense in the bigger picture.

“Within this FY22 promotion cycle, the Air Force adopted the Promotion Recommendation Score, which places value on the experience of airmen and sustained superior performance,” the service said. “The goal is to slow the rate at which the average airman is promoted to give an average of an additional year of experience at each of the E-5 and E-6 grades.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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