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AF plans to fill first sergeant slots

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Oct. 20, 2003) -- Before the end of the year, Air Force officials will have taken the first step toward eliminating a 10-percent manning shortfall in first sergeant billets.

In November, as part of the new First Sergeant Selection Process, Air Force officials expect to release a list of master sergeants selected as candidates for first sergeant special duty, said Senior Master Sgt. Chris Anthony. He is the first sergeant special-duty manager at the Pentagon.

Those selected under the new process will account for nearly 33 percent of graduates from the First Sergeant Academy at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., Anthony said. They will begin attending the school in May.

"That one-third is not an arbitrary number," Anthony said. "It is based on volunteer rates. Over the last year or so, the volunteers only filled about two-thirds of our requirements."

The Air Force requirement for new first sergeants is reflected in the number of slots allocated in the First Sergeant Academy each year -- a little more than 300. Anthony said declining numbers of first sergeant volunteers left more than 100 empty desks at the school last year.

Empty desks at the school translate to empty first sergeant billets around the force. About 130, or 10 percent, of the nearly 1,300 units needing first sergeants are currently doing without. That is an unacceptable statistic, said the Air Force's highest-ranking enlisted member.

"First sergeant manning and decreasing class enrollments at the First Sergeant Academy have become a concern," said Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force Gerald R. Murray. "Since the beginning of 2000, first sergeant manning has steadily decreased from 96 to 89 percent, while the rank structure has become significantly imbalanced. I believe anything less than 100-percent manning is unacceptable to properly lead and care for our enlisted force."

The prevalence of those empty enlisted leadership positions is one reason the Air Force moved toward selecting some first sergeants, Anthony said.

"First sergeant is a special duty," Anthony said. "But it is also a leadership position. We don't have vacant squadron commander positions in the Air Force. If somebody doesn't volunteer to go be a commander then the Air Force selects somebody. We do the same thing with command chiefs. Now we will do it with first sergeants."

One reason for the declining number of volunteers for first sergeant duty is a fear that it will affect a personís promotion ability. Anthony said that fear is unfounded.

"There is a perception of reduced promotions," Anthony said. "But we promote at the same level as other Air Force (specialties). The reality is that you have the same opportunity to get promoted as a first sergeant as you do anywhere else."

The difference, Anthony said, is in the quality of people a person must compete with for that promotion.

"The competition is a little different," Anthony said. "As a first sergeant, you are in a special duty where you are competing against other first sergeants, all with stellar records. We don't bring in anything less than outstanding noncommissioned officers in this job. That tends to make the competition a little tougher."

Simply having completed a tour as a first sergeant increases your chances of promotion when returning to your primary career field, he said.

"For those (who) depart first sergeant duty after three years, it is a big career enhancer for them," Anthony said. "Our numbers show that 87 percent of master sergeants who return to their primary (specialty) after having performed first sergeant duty get promoted to senior master sergeant the first time testing. Promotion boards look favorably on first sergeant experience."

Anthony said the list released in November will contain about 400 names. Of those 400, about 120 will eventually become first sergeants. Continuing at that rate, he said, the Air Force can expect to be 100-percent manned for first sergeants by about 2006.