It was a tough Tuesday for many Air Force staff sergeants hoping for a promotion to technical sergeant, a role that would give them more responsibilities as well as a bigger paycheck at a time when inflation and high housing prices are cutting into the bank accounts of many service members. The Air Force Personnel Center announced that out of 33,935 eligible staff sergeants, only 5,430 had been selected for promotion to technical sergeant, a selection rate of 16%. That’s a 10-point drop from last year’s 26.94% selection rate, and many airmen worry that future promotions will be just as competitive in light of recent news that the Air Force is slowing down its promotion rate for noncommissioned officers in ranks E-5 (staff sergeant) through E-7 (master sergeant).
Air Force leaders say the promotion slowdown is necessary for the health of the force, but what decisions led to today’s conditions that made the force unhealthy? One expert suggested that it’s largely due to Congressionally mandated force requirements for the branch, but it’s also due to the Air Force being the most tech-heavy military service.
“It’s a challenge in the Air Force, which has so many specific technical skills, particularly in maintenance,” said Kate Kuzminski, senior fellow and director of the Military, Veterans and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security. “Having more senior enlisted airmen means more technical skills and leadership skills, but it can also end up being short-sighted” when there are not as many junior enlisted coming up the pipeline.
Kuzminski pointed out that the Marine Corps is dealing with the opposite problem, where about 75% of its first-term Marines leave the service at their first opportunity and don’t stay to become experienced NCOs. However, the Air Force’s problem may be worse. Unlike the Marines, which have NCO billets waiting to be filled, the Air Force has to pump the brakes on the promotions of noncommissioned officers who the service has already put a value on by promoting them to their current grade in the first place.
“The Air Force may have to make space for more junior airmen by cutting NCOs who they have already deemed valuable,” Kuzminski said.
The Air Force operates some of the most expensive, complicated equipment in the military, so it makes sense that the service would emphasize technical proficiency in its mentors and leaders. But that emphasis sometimes comes at the expense of the people skills that make a good leader, Kuzminski said. The expert pointed out that in the Army, a fresh lieutenant might lead a platoon of 20 or more soldiers from day one of his or her career. But in the Air Force, and especially with pilots, an officer may not be called for that type of leadership role until they’d been in for a decade or more, she said.
“It’s not a knock on anyone, but there’s a lot that comes from time in service that contributes to knowledge of culture, of service, and of leadership,” Kuzminski said.
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