In the Air Force enlisted promotion system, time has traditionally played a key role in the determination of winners and losers. More specifically, experience, as measured by time, has been the engine driving promotions. With enough time in grade and time in service, solid performers could overcome other weaknesses, because the Air Force took the view that those with experience under their belts should generally be considered the most prepared for the next level.
Over the decades, this has helped ensure NCOs get credit in the system for the years they put in learning and mastering a technical trade. The practice reflects a conservative system — one that entrusts responsibility to elders.
But it has downsides as well. Given that any system designed will have “fast burners” who ring the promotion bell faster than everyone else, the legacy Air Force system rewarded those who scored highest on written promotion tests. Some of these scored higher because they knew their jobs better than others. Some scored higher because they were simply good at memorizing things and spotting them in standardized test responses. Another flaw was the reality that the strongest performers were sometimes passed over in favour of weaker performers with more time in grade or time in service.
With its latest change to the promotion system, the Air Force is giving this legacy setup a major shakeup. Points for time in grade and service are no longer part of promotion math. The objective is to select for promotion those whose performance has earmarked them for success at the next level, regardless of relative experience level. While strong testing skill remains an important promotion advantage, the relative weight of scores has been decreased. With time in uniform now meaningless and test scores worth much less than before, the new key to the system is duty performance, as recognized in commander-supplied promotion recommendations rendered under the “forced distribution” program.
Critics will say this simply moves the locus of competition to the distribution process, which risks hyperloading the system with political incentives. The winners, it is said, will be those who “play the game” best … persuading commanders and senior enlisted advisors of their potential regardless of whether perception differs from reality.
It’s not a baseless charge. Promotion is the most powerful of organizational motivators. It grants responsibility, money, a huge ego stroke, and in the military, an instantly recognizable status indicator. The Air Force’s new system will almost certainly bring out the worst in some of its lurking pragmatists, and they’ll be richly rewarded for coldly calculating rather than focusing on performance.
But on balance, this is a great and long overdue change. The old system promoted too many people who’d spent much of their careers disinterested in developing themselves. They got moved along because it was “their turn.” Many of these types made great technicians, but should not have advanced beyond the technician level. Yet multitudes did, simply by standing still and letting the seeds of time bloom and be harvested. In just as many cases, someone more qualified for promotion was passed over, not because of a lack of performance or demonstrated potential, but because of relative youth or an unqualified reverence for experience. This created a malfunction in the enlisted force, with technicians appointed to managerial roles, where their ineptitude plagued many a frustrated squadron.
The new system will have flaws. It arguably goes too far in the opposite direction, opening the door for inexperienced but ambitious airmen to experience the Peter Principle in a different but no less injurious way. But the nicest feature of the new system is how it rejects the stale and conservative view animating its predecessor.
Experience, especially in the Air Force, is wildly overrated. There are times when it makes all the difference in the world, but much of the time it actually gets in the way. The longer someone has been institutionalized, the stronger the tendency to want to remain safely cocooned within the familiar and consistent. This is why most prisoners locked up for a significant period of time have little desire to be released. It’s why people volunteer to deploy multiple times.
But this tendency is poisonous to organizational health, which depends on a passionate pursuit of new ideas, a willingness to challenge convention, and a general openness of mind. The Air Force needs people who are old enough to know but young enough to care. The new system may not deliver that, but it has a chance. The old system really didn’t. It was a device for feeding reinforcements into the existing structure, which made it self-reinforcing and insular.
But history has largely been written by people who were not even 40 years old when they did their greatest work. The trick for the Air Force is to open a pathway to those people … to given them responsibility faster than it is devolved to those who have been idling. The new system reflects an Air Force interested in doing that.
In a service that has made a practice of condescending to its NCOs, this is a hopeful signal that things are continuing to turn around.