Enlisted promotion pace levels out

By Tom Philpott : Military Update

Career enlisted members in the Air Force and Navy have drawn surprisingly near to their Army and Marine Corps peers in speed of advancement to higher grades and higher pay.

Enlisted promotion data gathered from the four services under the Defense Department show some remarkable changes from fiscal 2000 to 2005, the last year for which complete data is available. Average time in service for Air Force members, for example, as they advanced to pay grades E-6 or E-7 in 2005 was about four years faster than in 2000.

Sailors too are being promoted quicker. Average time in service at advancement to E-6 in 2005 was two years faster than in 2000. And sailors advancing to E-7 in 2005, on average, do so almost four years sooner than did shipmates five years earlier.

Soldiers and Marines haven’t seen the same gain in advancements, yet they continue to make grade faster than sailors or airmen. Dramatic disparities in promotion pace, however, have narrowed noticeably.

The Air Force and Navy, which strives to keep large numbers of high-tech specialists for full careers, took several intentional actions, starting in 2000, to improve enlisted advancements and to shore up career retention. The Air Force’s big move was to raise its proportion of career personnel.

For years it had capped total personnel serving in its top five enlisted grades, E-5 through E-9, to no more than 48 percent of its enlisted force. In 2000, the Air Force raised that cap to 50 percent and, in 2003, raised it again to 56 percent, said Chief Master Sgt. Trenda Voegtle, chief of Air Force enlisted promotions and evaluations policy. The impact was to expand advancement opportunities, most sharply in pay grades E-5 through E-7.

“The Air Force talked about getting more serious about mid-career retention problems when they saw some problems in the late ’90s and again after 9/11,” recalled a congressional staff member. “One of their solutions, in addition to (more bonus) money and other internal, no-cost kinds of initiatives, was to ramp up promotions and increase the grade table.’’

The law limits the number of E-8s a service can have to 2 percent of its enlisted force and its number of E-9s to 1 percent. Otherwise, the services can control their own enlisted pay grades, limited only by a need to keep reasonable promotion opportunities at all grades and by the size of their personnel budgets. A more senior force costs more in pay, housing allowances, even in retirement trust fund contributions to cover future obligations. What a service hopes to buy with faster promotions is improved morale and career retention.

Because the Air Force grew the size of its career force grades of E-5 through E-7 by a full 8 percent points from 2000 through 2003, its enlisted promotion pace rose sharply. By fiscal 2005, members being advanced to E-5 were spending 20 fewer months as E-4s, on average, than had those members advanced to E-5 in 2000. By fiscal 2005, members being advanced to E-6, or technical sergeant, had seen their time as E-5s lowered by almost 27 months. And time served as an E-6 awaiting promotion to E-7 dropped by another full year. The cumulative effect, on average, was to knock 5 1/2 years off the pace at which Air Force personnel reached E-8.

Navy data shows similar changes.

The pace of advancement didn’t change significantly for soldiers and Marines.