Junior NCO promotions have collapsed — here’s the data, and why

Promotable specialists, corporals and sergeants across the Army eagerly anticipate the release of promotion point cut-off scores each month.

It’s understandable. Earning enough points for promotion to sergeant or staff sergeant means more pay, more responsibility and more career opportunities.

Rank has its privileges, too. In most units, earning your stripes or first rocker means moving out of the barracks — many of which suffer from mold and maintenance problems — and escaping mandatory meal deductions from paychecks.

But the past three months’ cut-offs combined for the lowest quarterly promotion rates for both sergeant and staff sergeant since 2019, according to an Army Times analysis of Human Resources Command data.

In the first quarter of 2019, nearly three-in-ten eligible specialists or corporals made sergeant, and about one-in-five eligible sergeants pinned staff sergeant. Four years later, rates have plummeted: quarter one of 2023 had approximately a 4.13% promotion rate to sergeant and a 2.33% rate to staff sergeant.

Promotion rates for sergeant and staff sergeant depend on a multitude of factors — how many soldiers are eligible, how many vacancies the Army has, and more.

The service calls such promotions “semi-centralized.” To become eligible, a soldier needs to meet minimum time-in-grade and time-in-service requirements and pass a local promotion board.

Then, Human Resources Command calculates each eligible soldier’s promotion points, which depend on things like awards, fitness, training, civilian education and more. Officials compare the population data against how many new sergeants and staff sergeants a given career field needs and calculate a promotion point “cut-off score” for each military occupational specialty and eligibility tier that will promote enough (but not too many) soldiers to meet the Army’s needs.

This happens monthly. Those who have more points than their job and eligibility zone’s cut-off score promote; those who have fewer don’t.

It’s a math problem, and one designed to suit the service’s needs.

Why are Army promotion rates low in 2023?

A combination of policy decisions, pressure to keep the ranks filled during a recruiting crisis and difficulties with data transfers in the Army’s new human resources platform have made the math frustrating for junior troops in 2023.

Army personnel directorate spokesperson Lt. Col. Joseph Payton answered questions from Army Times about the falling rates and why they were occurring. He confirmed the accuracy of Army Times’ data analysis, but cautioned that the data “doesn’t project what the Army will do with future promotions.”

One policy impacting promotion rates — a temporary exception to a policy allowing otherwise-eligible enlisted soldiers to receive temporary promotions before completing their required professional military education — “ensured the highest quality Soldier[s] remained eligible for promotion” in the wake of backlogs at schools caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a transition to a train-before-selection model, Payton said.

Officials expanded the education exception, which permanently applies to pregnant and deployed soldiers, to include all enlisted troops beginning January 2021. That move expanded the pool of eligible troops, putting downward pressure on the selection rates. The service recently renewed the policy exception, according to a memorandum obtained by Army Times.

The service’s reliance on retention to maintain its end strength in the face of abysmal recruiting numbers means fewer mid-career positions are open, too. At first, this wasn’t an issue, a former top human resources official told Army Times last year — the service expanded its staff sergeant ranks in recent years, meaning there were enough jobs to avoid a demographic glut backing up promotions.

But the combination of reduced recruiting and “retaining mid-grade NCOs does limit, to a degree, the mid-grade promotion demand for certain [jobs],” acknowledged Payton, who argued high retention rates allow the service to avoid losing training investments it’s made on experienced soldiers. “This is normal and healthy for sustaining and growing a professional NCO Corps.”

More nebulous is the impact of the service’s new human resources platform, the Integrated Personnel and Pay System-Army, which launched Army-wide in January. Users in social media forums such as Army Reddit reported seeing their points drop after the platform’s launch, and others asked about them in a Feb. 23 town hall event with platform developers.

The shortfall was so widespread that the service issued a military personnel message detailing workaround instructions.

Some problems lie with the platform.

Its “known issues” page detains a series of data errors that resulted in promotion point shortfalls — fitness tests, correspondence courses, and graduation honors at military schools initially incorrectly fed into the new promotion points system. The Army has resolved many of these complications, the page claims.

The Army is blaming other problems on users, though. Points for weapons qualification, initially impacted by a data feed issue, now require many units to go into the service’s training management system and edit past entries. Other mysterious drops in points are due to missing awards, civilian education and other factors requiring units to submit fixes on an individual basis, according to the personnel message.

Those soldiers whose points required correction can breathe a sigh of relief once fixed, though.

Payton said the Army is committed to ensuring troops receiving points corrections “who would have met a past promotion point cut-off score are promoted with a retroactive effective date including all pay and allowances.”

The personnel directorate spokesperson also suggested that promotion rates may increase in the coming months if the Army’s needs do, describing them as “dynamic...depending on the requirements for each [job] and grade.”