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NCO promotions: Competition growing stiffer, testing ability matters

May. 27, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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Test scores and the cutoff are the highest in six years, while time in grade is trending down.

200820092010201120122013
Eligible airmen24,22322,74821,82919,53819,80920,528
Selected5,4045,6045,4246,6185,4643,841
Promotion rate22.3124.6424.8533.8727.5818.71
Time in grade4.324.454.494.584.434.38
Specialty Knowledge Test61.8663.663.5960.4560.4268.43
Promotion Fitness Exam70.2870.279.6972.4669.7182.76
Average cutoff338.46340.41341.18335.21332.85350.21

It's time to hit the books. The selection rate for master sergeant plunged this year, dropping to its lowest level in more than a decade.

It's time to hit the books. The selection rate for master sergeant plunged this year, dropping to its lowest level in more than a decade.

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It’s time to hit the books.

The selection rate for master sergeant plunged this year, dropping to its lowest level in more than a decade. Only 18.71 percent of eligible technical sergeants were selected for the list released May 23.

The 3,841 tech sergeants selected this year is just over half the 6,618 selected in 2011, when the promotion rate spiked to 33.87 percent.

But while this year’s rate approached historic lows, one group of airmen continued to thrive and excel: fast-rising up-and-comers who aced the specialty knowledge test and promotion fitness exam.

The average test scores needed to get promoted jumped 17.36 points, to 350.21, up from 332.85 last year and about 12.5 points greater than the average needed over the past five years.

The average PFE score needed to get promoted soared 13 points, to 82.26, up from 69.71 last year and about 10 points greater than the average needed over the past five years. Scores for the specialty knowledge test rose eight points to 68.43. It was the biggest jump for each in at least six years.

Similarly, the average time in grade for those getting the nod dropped, from 4.58 years in 2011 to 4.38 this year, the third straight year that number has decreased. That’s good news for hard-chargers whose scores can beat the overall downward trend.

These trends will likely continue to play out when tech sergeant promotions are announced in July. Data shows that the two normally track each other.

Driving the plunging promotion rate is a combination of record-high retention and the Air Force’s continued gradual drawdown.

Since February, the Air Force has been trying to trim the force by 3,340 enlisted airmen — through voluntary programs and date-of-separation rollbacks — by Sept. 30, when the fiscal year ends.

Some 1,900 airmen have been approved to leave under the date-of-separation rollbacks, which allow for cash payouts in exchange for leaving early. Air Force officials believe that this combination of programs will allow the service to trim the force without involuntary measures.

But more cuts are anticipated next year. The Air Force’s 2014 budget proposal calls for an additional cut of 2,640 airmen. While Congress will have the final say on that decision, the ongoing budget crunch, coupled with mandatory cuts under sequestration, paint a gloomy picture.

One thing is clear: Competition is growing stiffer for promotion, and those who study are going to be the winners. For those who don’t test well, chances will diminish.

“That’s the big ticket thing. Study your ... professional development guide, and study your specialty skills knowledge based on the [career development course],” said Master Sgt. Gisela Hawthorne, noncommissioned officer in charge for enlisted promotions at the Air Force Personnel Center.

Historically, tech sergeant promotion rates follow a similar pattern to that of master sergeants.

“All those promotion quotas are set based on the number of people you have in the next higher grade,” said retired Col. Terry Stevens, a former Air Force personnel expert. Less movement in the master sergeant ranks means fewer vacancies for tech sergeants.

“If you’ve got normal separation factors, normal retirement factors, those rates — depending on grade — can go up to 25 to 30 percent. As the upper grades thin out, you can promote into those vacancies.”

The problem doesn’t just affect senior NCOs. Everyone in the lower grades is affected, he said.

The last time the master sergeant selection rate was this low was 2006, when it hit 19.85 percent, forced down by a decision to slice 40,000 airmen from the force. But just a year later, the promotion rate rebounded to nearly 25 percent, and it has stayed above 20 percent since. The best year was 2011, when 33.8 percent, or 6,618 of 19,538 eligible tech sergeants, were promoted.

Last year, 5,464 of the 19,809 tech sergeants were selected, for a promotion rate of 27.58 percent.

Of course, whether you get promoted depends on whether your score makes the cutoff for your AFSC.

This year, the average cutoff was 350.21, also the highest in at least six years. The average cutoff scores for most Air Force Specialty Codes were in the 330s and 340s.

Airmen in special duty AFSCs, such as honor guard, professional military education instructor and military training leader and instructor, accounted for the highest scores, topped off by the one physical therapy tech sergeant , who scored a 384.50 on the combined tests.

Cutoffs for fusion analysts, airmen in the special operations forces personnel recovery career fields, physical medicine airmen and mobility air forces aircraft maintainers also were well above the average.

Some of the lower cutoffs: aircrew flight equipment, with a cutoff of 327.66; maintenance management analyst, with 323.83; and signals intelligence analyst, with 327.50.

The Air Force must limit its E-7 population to 10 percent of the total enlisted force, so not only does the number of master sergeant billets shrink as the force is cut, but if too few of those occupying those billets retire or are promoted, promotion opportunity is constrained.

E-5s looking to make E-6 had the same testing window as tech sergeants this year and can expect promotion results in late June or early July.

From 2007 to 2011, the number of airmen selected to sew on a tech sergeant stripe increased each year.

Last year was the first year the number of selectees took a slight dip, though the net effect was statistically small.

One more reason to hit the books hard: Master Sgt. Lethario Vanish, NCOIC for E-5 - E-7 promotion cycle, for AFPC, said NCOs who make rank sooner stand a better chance of achieving the highest enlisted ranks before high-year tenure kicks in. tech sergeants must move up or out after 22 years, and master sergeants after 24 years.

“If it takes you awhile to make tech sergeant, the chances for making master sergeant are limited,” he said.

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