Gunnery Sgt. Roque Palmerinvega, right, receives new chevrons upon his promotion from staff sergeant to gunnery sergeant Jan. 2 in Phoenix. Marine officials are forecasting the overall enlisted promotion picture this year should be somewhat brighter than in 2012, when the Corps began its active-duty drawdown, due in part to the popularity of key separation incentives. (Cpl. Tyler J. Bolken / Marine Corps)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, Va. — As the Marine Corps enters the second year of its active-duty drawdown, there is encouraging news for enlisted personnel: Two popular incentives — lump-sum buyouts and early retirements — are expected to remain among the service's preferred tools for persuading volunteers to leave, while those who stay should see a noticeably brighter promotion outlook compared with last year, according to Manpower and Reserve Affairs.
Make no mistake, competition to move up will remain rigid. The Corps will continue to shed about 5,000 Marines a year through 2016, and competition will remain fierce in many jobs through then. But at some key ranks, and in several military occupational specialties that had zero promotion allocations in 2012, the backlog will begin to ease, officials say.
Essential to that is the use of voluntary force-shaping measures that incentivize select enlisted Marines to leave early and on their terms. Chief among them are the temporary early retirement authority and voluntary separation pay, said Maj. Roy Ezell, end strength planner for Manpower's Enlisted Plans Section.
The early retirement offer allows select Marines who have served between 15 and 20 years to leave the service ahead of schedule while retaining full retirement benefits, albeit at a reduced rate.
Voluntary separation pay is a lump-sum buyout offered to select Marines in overpopulated MOSs who have served between six and 10 years. Payouts are calculated based on rank and years of service.
Because these programs proved popular in 2012, officials expect Marines will continue to take advantage of them this year. As a result, the promotion outlook should improve in some highly competitive MOSs. That's promising news for Marines who've been deemed below zone for promotion year after year, and those selected to move up but forced to wait 12 months or more before being cleared to pin on new chevrons because the Corps promotes Marines only when there are vacancies.
The change should be evident in a few weeks, when Manpower releases this year's allocation for new gunnery sergeants. Although the number won't be announced before mid-to-late February, officials told Marine Corps Times that staff sergeants hoping to make gunny will see increased opportunity in several MOSs, including some that had zero allocations last year.
From there, Marines should expect to see a trickle-down effect. If the promotion picture improves for staff sergeants, top-notch sergeants should see increased opportunities. And that should have a positive effect on corporals and lance corporals who are at the mercy of MOS-specific cutting scores, which in many cases have climbed year after year. Where sergeants move up, corporals will be needed to fill newly opened billets, and lance corporals will be needed to replace corporals.
"We can't say promotions will speed up," Ezell said, cautioning they may remain slow or closed in some MOSs, "but they will definitely be faster than they would have been had we not introduced these programs."
Here's a look at how the situation is evolving this year across enlisted ranks:
Many staff sergeants have been frustrated by this lack of upward mobility. There are more than 16,000 in the active-duty Corps, making up more than 8 percent of the force, according to figures released in late 2012. In all, 1,095 were selected for promotion to gunny last year, when allocations for that rank were at their lowest in eight years. By comparison, that's down from 1,350 in 2011 and 1,851 in 2010.
To keep promotion opportunities reasonable for staff sergeants considered in zone, Manpower planners narrowed that category, meaning fewer were eligible overall, as more were deemed below zone. Those deemed below zone would be at risk of having to stay at staff sergeant unless the organization took action, which it did in the form of early retirement offers and buyouts.
Consider, too, where promotions were frozen last year. For instance, there were zero allocations for promotion to gunnery sergeant in the 0369 infantry unit leader MOS, despite the infantry being among the Corps' largest career fields. Now, because officials have targeted separation incentives to those in overmanned MOSs at the E-6 and E-7 paygrades — staff sergeant and gunny, respectively — "hopefully we will be able to see some results," said Lane Beindorf, Manpower's enlisted promotions planner.
"You should see the pull effect," he said. "Particularly the 0369 gunnies. We had zero allocations. This year, we should see some gains in that with more opportunities for Marines."
The 2013 Gunnery Sergeant Selection Board is scheduled to convene April 24. Results can be expected after the board concludes June 14.
Gunnery sergeants looking to move up also have experienced drawdown-related backlogs. Some can wait years for a chance at making first sergeant or master sergeant, the Corps' two E-8 paygrades. Part of the reason is that many Marines who make E-8 and E-9 strive to stay in uniform as long as they can to maximize their retirement benefits, so vacancies can be few and far between.
Results of the latest E-8 selection boards, released in late December, show a noticeable increase in the number of gunnies chosen for first sergeant and a negligible decline in master sergeant selections — but those are routine fluctuations on par with recent years, officials say. They have little to do with force-shaping efforts associated with the drawdown, Beindorf said.
Last year there were 9,000-plus gunnery sergeants in the Corps, nearly 5 percent of the force. Selection to first sergeant rose from 103 in fiscal 2012 to 160 this fiscal year. Master sergeant selections fell from 595 in fiscal '12 to 585 this year.
At the same time, promotion zones are holding relatively steady. In the case of master sergeant, in-zone eligibility decreased slightly between the 2012 and 2013 selection boards, which produced a slightly higher selection rate. Eligibility for first sergeant expanded slightly from last year, and the selection rate jumped about 3 percent because more Marines were needed this year. Those numbers can vary from year to year but should remain stable for the foreseeable future, manpower officials say.
The backlog gunnies face stems at least in part from the practice of extending some sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants beyond 30 years so they could complete a final tour. Those days are over, with few exceptions, so new spots should open up for gunnies at a relatively steady rate.
"Last year, we had more E-9s, sergeants major particularly, going beyond 30 years of service. Since Sergeant Major [Mike] Barrett [became sergeant major of the Marine Corps], he's said those are going to be more of the exception than the norm," Beindorf said.
While making the cut to E-8 will remain highly competitive, eliminating service limit waivers that have allowed senior enlisted leaders to stay beyond 30 years will ensure that spots open for younger Marines wanting their chance to become a senior enlisted adviser to a commander or as a technical expert in their field, the provinces of sergeants major and master gunnery sergeants, respectively.
The next E-8 selection board won't convene until late 2013.
Senior staff NCOs
Beyond curtailing service-limit waivers for E-9s, the drawdown really isn't focusing on senior enlisted Marines, officials say. "Our E-8, E-9 numbers are pretty much where they need to be throughout the drawdown," Beindorf said. "We are not really expecting any more significant cuts in the top two grades."
Their numbers are relatively few and intimately connected to the Marine Corps' force structure, officials say. So even though the Corps is reshaping over the next few years, deactivating some units and consolidating others that perform similar functions, the Corps is not shedding many command elements, Beindorf said. The Corps will continue to need about the same number of senior staff noncommissioned officers.
"You cut an infantry battalion and there are only a couple E-8 billets, whereas there are a lot of gunnery sergeant, staff sergeant billets," he said.
Sergeants and junior Marines
"In an ideal world," Beindorf said, "you have six Marines promoted for every E-9 allocation — lance corporal getting promoted to corporal and so on all the way up to master gunny. That's in a perfect world."
But the reality is that new vacancies at the E-8 and E-9 paygrades have limited trickle-down effect beyond the gunny and staff sergeant ranks because of logjams there, he said. So targeting senior enlisted ranks would not address the root problem and help improve prospects for sergeants and below.
"We are using the [early retirements and buyouts] to target those overages and hopefully create promotion opportunities for junior Marines to move up," Beindorf said.
Allocations for promotion to staff sergeant are usually released in May or early June. This year's board is scheduled to convene July 17 with results expected after it concludes Sept. 13.
Because Marines are allowed to stay on through 20 years only after they make staff sergeant, that rank has ballooned, leaving nowhere for many sergeants to go. Last year, 1,500 were selected for promotion to staff sergeant — a drastic 43 percent drop from 2011, when 2,739 where chosen. By limiting whom it deemed in zone for promotion to staff sergeant in 2012, the Corps greatly reduced the number considered, from 8,300 in 2011 to 5,400 in 2012. Thus, the odds were decent for the relatively few sergeants fortunate enough to be in zone.
And thus the importance of February's gunny board announcement. As overages at gunnery sergeant are relieved, more staff sergeants can move up. In turn, more of the Corps' 28,000-plus sergeants can fill new vacancies left by promoted staff sergeants. That's positive for sergeants, who must make the next grade at least if they hope to serve through to retirement, and also good, too, for the corporals and lance corporals behind them.
While cutting scores will continue to depend on the density of specific MOSs, the early-out incentives should help clear overpopulated jobs in ranks above them and, in turn, potentially lower those scores. Because "a good portion of folks" are taking advantage of the buyouts and early retirements, Ezell said, slow-promoting MOSs should experience some relief.
"We should," Ezell said, "see improvement."