Big retention means slow promotion — Tom Philpott

Air Force enlisted members advance to pay grades E-5 through E-7 faster than they did before recent wars, but still slower than peers in every other branch of service.

That dampens total earnings over a 20-year career.

Tom PhilpottThe greatest career income difference tied to promotion pace is seen between Air Force and Navy enlisted because sailors show the fastest advancement rate among the four Defense of Department service branches.

Among officers, however, Air Force promotes faster than Army and Marine Corps peers through 20 years’ service, and even surpasses Navy’s pace over a typical 24-year officer career, service promotion data show.

The promotion-pace disparity by service for officers is smaller than for enlisted almost certainly due to tighter controls imposed by Congress.

When compared to data from 2000, results show promotion disparities across services have narrowed over the last dozen years of war.

In 2000, for example, Air Force enlisted made E-6 (technical sergeant) after 14.7 years, on average. That was 3.6 years slower than sailors made E-6 (petty officer first class) and more than six years slower than peers in ground forces (staff sergeant).

Soldiers in 2000 advanced to E-6, on average, 8.6 years into careers and Marines at 8.3 years.

By 2012, airmen were putting on E-6 stripes after 11.1 years, more than three years faster than in 2000. Navy advancements to E-6 also jumped, by almost 2 1/2 years.

Soldiers’ average time to make E-6 was trimmed by a few months since 2000, to an average of 8.2 years, while Marines saw their pace slowed a little, to 8.8 years, to be even with Navy.

Air Force enlisted members by 2012 were making E-7 in 16 years versus a 14-year average across all four services. They reached E-8 in 19.9 years versus an all-service average of 18.4. And Air Force members reached E-9 at 23.6 years, a full year later than the all-service pace to E-9.

Promotion pace for officers is slower in the ground forces. In 2012, Army and Marine Corps officers reached the rank of O-5 (lieutenant colonel) at 16.5 years, on average, compared to 14.6 years for Air Force and 14.9 years to make Navy commander.

The Defense Department overall average of 15.4 years to 0-5 was close to the average of 15.6 reported in 2000.

We asked Air Force for comment on its pace of promotions but didn’t receive a reply by deadline. In the past, officials have explained the slower pace of enlisted promotions as tied to the popularity of the Air Force and quality of life it offers.

Also, the service need high-tech specialists and encourages robust retention rates. A tradeoff is slower promotions.

Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at:

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