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More 'robust' promotion list offers specialists, sergeants improved upward mobility

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (Dec. 14, 2017) -- This month, the Army could have selected for promotion over 8,700 additional Soldiers to either sergeant or staff sergeant across more than 90 military occupational specialty and grade combinations.

Because not enough Soldiers are integrated on the promotion-recommended list, the Army was unable to fill available positions with Soldiers of these grades. Army personnel data, for instance, shows that less than 20 percent of specialists who were otherwise "fully qualified" and who met Army standards to be recommended for promotion to the rank of sergeant, were actually integrated on a promotion list.

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A new Army policy released earlier this month aims to ensure that in the future, enough Soldiers will be integrated onto the list. The result will be that more fully-qualified Soldiers get to see promotion, and the Army gets to fill leadership slots.

"When leaders at the headquarters level see these integrated promotion list trends, there is a perception and concern that 80 percent of the specialists have no potential to be sergeants in the Army," said Gerald J. Purcell, who serves as the personnel policy integrator within Army G-1's directorate for military personnel policy.

"We are sure this is not the case," Purcell said. "However, to enhance the selection process and ensure it is more competitive, fair and equitable for our Soldiers and the Army, we made changes to the relative policies."

Purcell said the changes do not lower promotion standards. Instead, he said, they afford fully qualified, quality Soldiers the opportunity to perform at higher ranks. Additionally, he said, the changes enable the Army to maximize the unique talents of those Soldiers.

"Our policies must support an Army commitment to retain the talented men and women we have accessed and trained," Purcell said. "These Soldiers are our future."

Now, the Army has codified changes to the semi-centralized promotion process to ensure that more Soldiers appear on the promotion recommendation list than have in years past. The changes affect Soldiers in the Regular Army as well as Soldiers in the Army Reserve (Active Guard Reserve.)

Under the new policy, every Soldier in the "primary zone" for promotion, and who is also "fully qualified" and meets Army standards for promotion to the next rank, is required to appear before a local promotion board.

"Appearance before a local promotion board is mandatory for all Soldiers upon initially reaching primary zone eligibility," reads an Army directive, signed by Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper, which spells out the new policy. "All Soldiers approved for promotion list integration will be integrated into the promotion recommended list with all earned promotion points."

The semi-centralized promotion process -- which is how specialists become sergeants, and how sergeants become staff sergeants -- requires that commanders recommend fully qualified Soldiers to go before a local promotion board when they display potential to perform at the next higher grade.

Soldiers who do well at that local board are then placed on the promotion recommended list, or PRL. The Army uses the PRL to select Soldiers for the next pay grade, based on how many promotion points a Soldier has earned. There are no changes to how promotion points are calculated, Purcell said.

For a Regular Army or Army Reserve Soldier to be deemed "fully qualified," they must, among other things, have a high school diploma or GED, have a passing score on their Army Physical Fitness Test, meet weight standards, and not be involved in the Army Substance Abuse Program as a result of a command referral.

For specialists seeking promotion to sergeant, they must also have completed Structured Self-Development level 1. For Soldiers seeking promotion to staff sergeant, they must have completed SSD level 2.

Specialists reach the primary zone for promotion to sergeant at 35 months' time in service, and 11 months' time in grade. Sergeants reach the primary zone for promotion at 71 months' time in service, 17 months' time in grade.

"These policy changes do not equate to automatic promotions," said Purcell.

Nevertheless, Purcell said, the changes are expected to reinforce a Soldier's responsibility for taking charge of their careers and opens the opportunity to position themselves for advancement.

Some Soldiers who go before that local promotion board may not get a recommendation to the PRL. If that happens, those Soldiers must be counseled on why they were not recommended.

"Counseling must identify what Soldiers must do to improve their knowledge, skills, and attributes and to prepare themselves for increased responsibility," reads the directive. "The counseling also must address the consequences of not being integrated into the promotion recommended list. This policy change enhances leader and professional development by reinforcing and getting the most out of existing counseling requirements."

Eventually, all fully qualified Soldiers who meet Army standards, but have not yet been recommended by a promotion board for inclusion on the PRL, will be integrated onto the PRL through a new mandatory list integration requirement.

For specialists, that mandatory list integration comes at 47 months' time in service, 23 months' time in grade. For sergeants, it comes at 83 months' time in service, 23 months' time in grade.

Commanders will not have the ability to stop mandatory list integration, however, when a commander feels a Soldier has no promotion potential, they must use the "bar to continued service," along with counseling, to keep them off the promotion list.

The Army Directive makes it clear that unit leaders are responsible for training and developing Soldiers for increased levels of responsibility by the time a Soldier attains promotion eligibility in the primary zone. The newly established mandatory list integration policy, one full year following primary zone eligibility, reinforces an up-or-out Army system.

"Retention of Soldiers with no potential is inconsistent with Army service," Purcell said.

The bar to continued service puts those Soldiers identified as having no potential on notice that their continued service may not be in the Army's best interest.

Soldiers who reach the "secondary zone" for promotion -- which is earlier than the primary zone -- and who are also fully qualified, will still need to be recommended to a promotion board by their commanders.


"There are not enough Soldiers integrated onto the recommended list for us to promote to actual requirements," said Purcell. "We want to promote Soldiers by military occupational specialty, but they are not there to promote."

What Purcell said he and his team perceived was that unit leaders may opt to only recommend the "best of the best" of their Soldiers to appear before a local promotion board -- which is completely understandable. But often, that practice excludes many other quality Soldiers who are also fully qualified for promotion.

Additionally, having local standards for who should be recommended to go before a promotion board creates an uneven playing field for Soldiers across the Army when it comes to advancement.

If a commander at "Unit Alpha," for instance, sets the bar extremely high for his board recommendation, and across the country at "Unit Bravo," another commander sets the bar just slightly lower, then it's possible for a Unit Bravo Soldier to get promoted over a more qualified Soldier from Unit Alpha -- because the Unit Alpha Soldier was never recommended to a board, and thus, never had his name appear on a PRL.

"The commanders look at Soldiers and they recommend their best people for promotion," Purcell said. But, "there is this perception among Soldiers that the leaders at the company level are not being fair. I think that's not the case. What I think is happening is unit leaders are thinking the best people in their unit should be promoted. But what happens is when one limits those individuals at the unit level to 'the best,' there is no robust list for us at the department level to select the best in the Army as opposed to the best in one's unit. That's a big problem because it negatively impacts readiness and morale. Today, because there is no depth, as soon as a Soldier is recommended for promotion in many MOSs, they immediately make the cutoff score."

Under the new policy, every Soldier who reaches the "primary zone" and who is fully qualified, will have a shot at the next pay grade by competing against every other Soldier in their MOS, based on the promotion points they have earned.

"What we are doing is enhancing Army readiness levels by strengthening the NCO Corps," said Purcell. "We will do this in part by getting all fully qualified Soldiers who meet Army standards on the list so that when we pull all the names in from across the Army, we have a robust list that will allow us to ... meet enterprise-wide requirements, and have enough people to meet competing demands."

That new process, Purcell said, places the responsibility on each individual Soldier to strive for increased promotion points. It also drives their behavior towards self-improvement. Additionally, because of the increased competition, the new promotion policy improves the overall selection process by ensuring the best qualified Soldiers are selected for promotion from a list of fully qualified Soldiers.

The Army's intent with the policy changes is threefold, Purcell said. The first intent is to improve Army readiness by addressing skill and grade shortages, the second is to enhance promotion rates, and the third is to further develop Soldiers.

The refined polices ensure fully qualified, quality Soldiers who meet Army standards, are afforded promotion opportunities. Conversely, the same policy denies continued service to those Solider who demonstrate no potential increased responsibility.

"This strengthens our Army and our NCO Corps," Purcell said.

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