Senior airmen this week got their first taste of how difficult it may become to earn a promotion to staff sergeant in the coming years.

The Air Force said Wednesday it chose just over 20% of eligible senior airmen to move up the career ladder in the latest round of promotion considerations — a steep drop from last year’s 35% selection rate. About 9,700 of 46,000 E-4s made the cut, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

It’s the lowest selection rate for incoming E-5s since 1997, when 19% of E-4s moved up. At that point, selection rates were rebounding from a low point of 5.5%. The most recent high point was a 65% promotion rate in 2001.

Now, the dip marks the first round of staff sergeant promotions aimed at restructuring the enlisted force.

Enlisted airmen have quickly risen through the ranks as the Air Force rushed to fill midlevel jobs left vacant by retirements and further promotions. But the service worries that airmen aren’t getting the experience they need to lead their peers well.

To fix the problem, the Air Force wants to keep more senior airmen at that rank for about a year longer than usual to let them mature. Ideally, they’ll be better prepared to become staff sergeants, which comes with more supervisory responsibilities as the first noncommissioned officer rank.

The service is also shifting some of its job billets that are currently designated for staff sergeants, technical sergeants and master sergeants to build a larger cadre of lower enlisted. They’ll be judged on their performance at each rank as well as how long they’ve spent in those grades when being considered for promotions.

Together, those initiatives will make for an increasingly competitive few years for people looking to move into midlevel jobs.

The slowdown in promotions to staff sergeant follows a similarly tough round of picks for technical sergeant. Airmen chosen to move up to the grade of E-6 faced the most competitive cycle since 2013.

The service will release the names of those promoted to staff sergeant Aug. 25.

Recent E-5 promotion rates:

  • 2021: 38.02%
  • 2020: 41.58%
  • 2019: 48.79%
  • 2018: 51.12%
  • 2017: 44.31%
  • 2016: 42.25%
  • 2015: 33.8%
  • 2014: 25.59%
  • 2013: 32.9%
  • 2012: 40.68%

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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