The way the Army manages its soldiers’ careers is long-due for an overhaul, service leadership says, and it’s instituting new initiatives as part of the most comprehensive reform to the service’s officer personnel system since the late 1940s.

The measures include merit-based promotion considerations, direct commissioning up to the rank of colonel, the chance to opt-out of promotions and a new battalion commander assessment program.

Sgt. Zane Pettibone and Spc. Svenson Albert, a Stinger Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) team with 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, conduct engagement sequences and the 13 critical checks of the Stinger Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS), as part of the multinational live-fire training exercise Shabla 19, June 11, 2019. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Mort)
Sgt. Zane Pettibone and Spc. Svenson Albert, a Stinger Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS) team with 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, conduct engagement sequences and the 13 critical checks of the Stinger Man-Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS), as part of the multinational live-fire training exercise Shabla 19, June 11, 2019. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Thomas Mort)

But a new job marketplace is perhaps the most ambitious program implemented to date.

Assignment Interactive Module 2.0 offers a virtual conduit through which units can advertise jobs; soldiers can attract hiring units by highlighting their life experiences, degrees and extracurricular pursuits; and the Army can gather large amounts of data on all of it.

The marketplace has been open for the past four assignment cycles, but the latest iteration that closed this winter was the first where all positions were viewable to the entire moving population and the process was guided by the Army Talent Alignment Process rules, which more heavily weigh a soldier’s personal desires.

“This is the first time that we allowed complete transparency and also had set it up so the decisions that came out of this process were going to have the preference of the individual officer prioritized over any other consideration,” said Maj. Gen. J.P. McGee, director of the Army’s Talent Management Task Force.

Officers participating in the first assignment cycle had roughly two months to contact the unit and ask questions, such as about the command climate and the training calendar. Officers could also speak directly to unit leadership, make a value proposition to them and learn what the unit offers in return.

And while the Assignment Interactive Module 2.0 is currently only available for officers, an enlisted virtual marketplace is expected to deploy in January 2021.

Markets are officially open

The Army realized it needs to be more rigorous in how it selects soldiers for units. AIM 2.0 is a step in that direction, allowing brigade commanders or above to pick their entire slate of officers and allowing those officers to attract and select assignments by citing their entire resume, rather than two simple variables: branch and rank.

The Army just closed out its first marketplace for soldiers changing posts during the summer movement cycle. Officers at the rank of captain and above participated in the system.

“It may be lost on some people, but it was a very significant and historic milestone,” said Maj. Gen. Joseph Calloway, who leads Army Human Resources Command. “I think it’s the most significant change we’ve made since we transitioned to an all-volunteer force.”

Roughly 95 percent of more than 14,000 active-duty officers put preferences down for their next position, and about 98 percent of units placed preferences for their vacancies.

More than half of officers received their first choice of assignment and more than half of units received their first choice in officer, according to the Army. Additionally, more than 80 percent of officers received an assignment from their top 10 percent of preferenced jobs.

“Having been the [Office of Personnel Management] director before, I can tell you that did not occur — despite our best efforts — under the old system,” Calloway said. “The impact of that is really amplified when officers pick a unit and then they realize when they get an assignment that they’re going to a unit that also preferenced them highly and wants them in their formation.”

Every officer was told to “preference deep.” Nearly 900,000 preferences were made, which equates to roughly 65 preferences per officer.

Of course, that average is skewed because some branches have more jobs available than others, Human Resources Command spokeswoman Lt. Col. Mary Ricks said. The infantry branch, for example, had more jobs available than a functional area like foreign area officer, she added.

The Army began cutting orders for the new assignments in late January. Embedded in those orders will be satisfaction surveys to gather data on how officers felt about their results.

At face-value, Army leaders are happy with how many soldiers received their first choice assignment through the match process, meaning the officer and the unit matched one another as their top preference, said McGee.

The system is expected to help the Army compete for and retain talented officers by offering them more agency in selecting their career paths. But it will also allow units to find the best candidates for jobs by letting them query the marketplace for officers with less-tangible skills that could be of value.

An officer who spent ten years living with his diplomat parents in China, for instance, can now leverage that experience for a job with Indo-Pacific Command.

Not just for officers

The Army’s talent management initiatives have largely started with the officer corps, because the population is much smaller than the enlisted force, and it’s far easier to test new programs with them, said Sgt. Maj. Wardell Jefferson, the Army G-1’s senior enlisted soldier.

But an enlisted virtual marketplace is being readied for next year, which would allow staff sergeants through master sergeants to prioritize their preferences for assignments worldwide. In the past, when they went into the job assignment web portal, enlisted soldiers could only see up to four job openings.

Human Resources Command is running a pilot program that builds on the existing Assignment Satisfaction Key that enlisted troops use to view and update assignment preferences. The pilot, called ASK-Enlisted Marketplace, would provide enlisted soldiers with a list of all jobs that would be available to them during their movement cycle and allow them to rank order the assignments.

“They’ll also have the opportunity to reach out to organizations and figure out what the job entails and things about the community,” Jefferson said.

The pilot is currently being tested by soldiers in the M1 armor crewman and cavalry scout occupational specialties.

“The officers have got a great foundation ... but the biggest difference for us is the population with the enlisted force,” Jefferson said. “We have upwards of about 400,000 enlisted soldiers, so we’re trying to find something that’s manageable and sustainable.”

Army senior leaders hope the process will stabilize enlisted soldiers’ careers by weighing their preferences more in the assignment process and ensuring good soldiers are retained rather than lost to the civilian sector. At the end of the day, it’s about presenting more options to soldiers and making their career paths more flexible, Jefferson explained.

“I feel this is definitely going to help with retention,” Jefferson said. “As we travel around talking to soldiers, one of the things they ask for is having more input in their careers and this is going to give them that input. More soldiers are going to get assigned to a location that them and their families want to be at.”

Some of this is on the soldiers, though, Jefferson added. They need to be aware of how processes are changing and ready to capitalize on the benefits of those changes.

Soldiers should keep an eye out for different job postings to see unit requirements. Even if they aren’t experienced yet in a desired field, the ASK-EM system can help guide their career in that direction.

Potential for problems

There are always issues that come with overhauls to existing systems, and a job marketplace is certainly no exception. One of the key concerns the Army had in rolling out AIM 2.0 for a larger group of soldiers was the potential for it to create “anomalies.”

“We expected, or thought there might be, anomalies in terms of performance distribution — or diversity and, or gender distribution — across various commands,” Calloway said.

The Army is still running post-market analytics to tease out data from this past cycle, but service leadership said there haven’t been any major shake-ups found as of yet.

“We were positively surprised that there were no indications that there are any anomalies, and that the spread of both performance and diversity stayed consistent with historical norms,” Calloway added.

The Army has also realized how over-saturated soldiers and units sifting through the marketplace can feel.

A logistics captain, for instance, might have 500 jobs they can look at and preference on the virtual marketplace. On the other side of the equation, a unit commander could have 500 officers to review. That’s a bit overwhelming, so during the next assignment cycle, the Army wants to add more filtering options.

“We also think that now that units have done an iteration of this, they’ll be able to adapt their internal policies to take this new authority to its full potential,” McGee said.

As units and officers get better at using the system over time, Calloway said he expects the workload to decrease. For instance, units had to input job descriptions and requisite skills for open positions, but as cycles continue onward, those templates will be pre-populated from past cycles.

The Army’s after-action report from this assignment cycle needs to ensure the virtual marketplace doesn’t become an all-consuming process, said Lt. Gen. Thomas Seamands, deputy chief of staff for the the Army’s G-1.

“The last thing I want to do is create a system where everybody is walking around with their phone all day long seeing how they’re doing in the market, seeing who’s preferencing them, and the units spending all their time, instead of at the range, worrying about who they’re hiring,” Seamands said. “It ought to be additive and not distracting.”

Data and its benefits

The Army knows that this assignment cycle appears to have given soldiers far more choice in terms of their next assignment, which begs the question: how does that compare to the old system?

Unfortunately, the service doesn’t really know. The new marketplace is such a massive shift that statistics from the old system can’t really be compared cohesively.

“I do know anecdotally — having been the OPM director — nowhere near two-thirds of officers got their top three choices. Same thing with top choice and same thing with top 10 percent,” Calloway said.

The service will, going forward, be capturing stats for each successive cycle. That’s part of the data bonanza that has the Army excited. The new system will create a data-rich environment that analysts can use to learn who preferred which jobs and why. It could help identify what works and what doesn’t with regard to retention, from poor leadership at a specific brigade to great living quarters at a certain installation.

The data gathered from the virtual marketplace could also show the service all kinds of skills that exist within the force structure that the Army hasn’t yet had the ability to tap. Security force assistance brigades are great example.

“We can start using the search criteria, [and] let’s find those officers who, in their spare time and with their own money, actually travel internationally and spend their free time visiting other cultures, because what’s a better manifestation of where your preferences and interests lie than where you spend your free time and own money?” McGee noted.

The new system and its accompanying authorities have also been driving different behaviors from units, some of which are starting to aggressively advertise available billets.

“We’re finding really creative approaches for locations that have been historically hard to fill, places like Fort Polk, places like Korea,” McGee said.

Going to 2nd Infantry Division, for instance, offers soldiers the chance to use South Korea as a springboard to travel all across Southeast Asia. And the command queues are also shorter on the peninsula, meaning soldiers seeking that type of role can now see that it’s available.

As the assignment cycles continue, McGee is hopeful the workload will decrease. Some of that will come from units, which may find better ways to screen and interview candidates, but the Army overall will also make software changes to ensure the process doesn’t become an overly burdensome task.

“We always knew there was going to be a significant up-front cost for learning how to do this. Units have gone through that now,” McGee said. “We’re going to put out lessons-learned and best practices. And as we look at improvements to the system in this next iteration, I think we all recognize there’s a need for us to assist units with decreasing the workload in some ways.”