Enlisted Promotions Made Simple

Army Enlisted Promotion System

U.S. Soldiers Celebrate A Promotion In Baghdad
Chris Hondros / Staff / Getty Images News / Getty Images

Each year, when Congress passes the Defense Authorization Act, they tell the Army exactly how many people can be on active duty during the year. By separate legislation, Congress also limits what percentage of the total active duty force can serve in each commissioned officer rank, what percentage of the total active duty force can serve in each warrant officer rank, and what percentage of the active duty force can serve in each enlisted rank, above the grade of E-4 (there are no statutory limits for E-4 and below).

That, then, becomes the basis of the Army enlisted promotion system. The Army takes the number of "slots" they have for each enlisted rank, above the rank of E-4, and allocates them to the different MOS's (enlisted jobs). In other words, MOS 123 may be allowed to have 5,000 E-5s at any point in time and 2,000 E-6s and MOS 456 may be authorized 7,000 E-5s, and 5,000 E-6s (as a general rule, the higher the rank, the fewer positions there are).

In order to promote someone (above the rank of E-4), there must be a "vacancy." For example, if an E-9 retires in a certain MOS, that means that one E-8 can be promoted to E-9, and that opens an E-8 slot, so one E-7 can be promoted to E-8, and so-forth. If 200 E-5s get out of the Army in a particular MOS, then 200 E-4s can be promoted to E-5.

The Army has 401,138 enlisted members on active duty. Here's how it breaks down, by enlisted rank:

  • Private (E-1) - 20,284 (5.1%)
  • Private (E-2) - 3,334 (9.1%)
  • Private First Class (E-3) - 56,757 (14.1%)
  • Specialist/Corporal (E-4) - 107,634 (26.8%)
  • Sergeant (E-5) - 73,034 (18.2%)
  • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - 56,664 (14.1%)
  • Sergeant First Class (E-7) - 36,725 (9.2%)
  • Master Sergeant/First Sergeant (E-8) - 10,541 (2.6%)
  • Sergeant Major (E-9) - 3,165 (0.8%)

    So, how does the Army decide which enlisted members are going to get promoted? They do this using three systems: Decentralized promotions for promotion to the grades of E-2 through E-4, Semi centralized promotions for promotion to the grades of E-5 and E-6, and centralized boards for promotions to E-7, E-8, and E-9.

    Decentralized Promotions (E-2 through E-4).

    Decentralized Promotions means that the unit (company) is the promotion authority. By theory, the commander decides who gets promoted and who doesn't. In actuality, because there are no quotas for promotion for E-2s through E-4s, commanders pretty much promote everyone (as long as they do their job okay and don't get into trouble) who meet the "promotion criteria." The "promotion criteria" is set by the Army to ensure that the "promotion flow" remains stable, and everyone (regardless of MOS) can expect to be promoted at the same (approximate) time-frame.

    For soldiers in MOS 19D, and 19K IET, commanders may promote up to 10 percent of each 19D and 19K class upon completion of basic combat training (BCT) portion of one station unit training (OSUT) to PV2 and an equal number to PFC upon graduation from the MOS producing course.

    Finally, if the unit is undermanned in specific grades, the Army may allow the unit commander to waiver TIG and TIS requirements. When specifically authorized, the commander can waive up to 2 months TIG for promotions to E-2, 6 months TIS/2 months TIG for promotions to E-3, and 6 months TIS/3 months TIG for promotion to E-4.

    The promotion criteria for promotion to the ranks of E-2 to E-4 are:

    • Private (E-2) - Six months time-in-grade (TIG) as a private (E-1).
    • Private First Class (E-3) - Four months TIG as a Private (E-2) and 12 months time-in-service (TIS).
    • Specialist/Corporal (E-4) - 6 months TIG with 24 months TIS.

    There are some exceptions to the rules on the previous page. First, in the Army, it's possible to join an advanced rank  (up to E-4) for certain accomplishments, including college credits, Junior ROTC, or even referring other applications for enlistment, while a member of the Delayed Enlistment Program (DEP).

    Second, soldiers in Special Forces (18X) can be promoted to E-4 with just 12 months TIS, and no specific TIG requirement.

    An E-4 can be either a "specialist" or a "corporal" in the Army. So, what's the difference? Well, they both get paid the same. However, a corporal is considered a noncommissioned officer and a specialist is not. A corporal has more authority under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), and has a greater degree of leadership responsibility. An E-4 is normally designated an NCO (corporal) if they are a team or section leader. Corporals are more common amongst the Combat Arms, but many Combat Support MOS's (jobs) may have them.

    Semi-Centralized Promotions (E-5 and E-6)

    A semi-centralized promotion process means that the unit (company) plays a part in the promotion selection process, but it's the Army (Army-wide) who decides who actually gets promoted. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, within each Army MOS (job) there are limited numbers of who can hold the ranks of E-5 and E-6 at any given time. When vacancies open up (due to people getting promoted or people getting out), the Army has to decide (Army-wide) which E-4s (within that MOS) to promote to E-5 and which E-5s to promote to E-6.

    There are two promotion processes known as "Primary Zone" and "Secondary Zone." Most enlisted are promoted in the "Primary Zone." The "Secondary Zone" gives an opportunity for commanders to give "exceptional performers" an early shot at promotion. Time-in-Service and Time-in-Grade requirements for promotion consideration in the two zones are:

    Primary Zone

    • Sergeant (E-5) - 8 months TIG as an E-4 and 36 months (3 years) TIS.
    • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - 10 months TIG as an E-5 and 84 months (7 years) TIS.

    Secondary Zone(Exceptional Performers)

    • Sergeant (E-5) - 4 months TIG and 18 months TIS.
    • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - 5 months TIG and 48 months (4 years) TIS.

    The process (for either zone) begins with "Administrative Points." A soldier receives promotion points for various accomplishments, such as military decorations (medals), and PFT (Physical Fitness Test) scores.

    Administrative points consist of the following:

    • Duty Performance (maximum 150 points) - The unit commander awards duty performance points, based on recommendations from the individual's supervisor(s). The commander may award up to 30 points in each of the following areas: Competence (Is the soldier proficient and knowledgeable? Does he/she communicate effectively?) Military Bearing (Is the soldier a "role model," in the areas of appearance and self-confidence?) Leadership (Does the soldier motivate others, set high standards, show proper concern for the mission?) Training [Individual and Team Training.] (Does the soldier share knowledge and experience? Does he/she teach others?) Responsibility/Accountability (Equipment, facilities, safety, conservation).
    • Awards and Decorations (maximum 100 points) - Some military awards (medals) are given a specific promotion-point value.
    • Military Education (maximum 200 points) - Many military training courses (Ranger School, Platoon Leaders Development Course, military correspondence courses, etc.) are worth a certain number of promotion points.
    • Civilian Education (maximum 100 points) - The Army gives promotion points for off-duty education, such as college courses, or business/trade school courses.
    • Military Training (maximum 100 points) - Points are given for scores achieved on the Army Physical Fitness Test, and scores achieved on the Rifle/Pistol Range.

    Promotion Boards. The next part of the process is the Promotion Board. In order to convene a promotion board, the commander must be in the grade of Lieutenant Colonel (O-5) or above. That means, if the company commander is an O-5, the board can be conducted by the company. However, if the company commander is an O-3, the member will meet the board conducted by the next level of command (such as Battalion) where the commander is at least an O-5.

    Some E-4s can be promoted to Sergeant (E-5) without a promotion board, under a new Army promotion policy.

    The promotion board consists of at least three voting members and one nonvoting member (the recorder). The President of the Board is the senior member. If the board consists of all enlisted members (NCOs), then the President of the Board should be (if possible) the Command Sergeant Major. If not possible, then the President can be a Sergeant Major (E-9). All members of the board must be at least one grade senior to those being considered for promotion (For example, for an E-5 promotion board, all of the members must be in the grades of E-6 or above).

    If available, there must be at least one voting member of the same sex as the soldiers being considered. For example, if a board is considering 50 E-5s for promotion to E-6, and 2 of those being considered are female, the board should have at least one female voting member. Additionally, each board should have at least one voting minority member (African American, Hispanic, Asian, etc.).

    Soldiers physically appear before the promotion board. Each board members ask a series of questions, and scores the candidate in four separate areas:

    • Personal Appearance
    • Oral Expression & Conversation Skills
    • Knowledge of World Affairs
    • Awareness of Military Programs
    • Knowledge of Basic Soldiering (Soldier's Manual)
    • Soldier's Attitude (includes an assessment of the soldier's and potential for promotion, trends in performance, etc).

    Each board member rates each of the above areas as follows:

    • Average - 1 to 7 points
    • Above Average - 8 to 13 points
    • Excellent - 14 to 19 points
    • Outstanding 20 to 25 points

    The maximum number of points that can be awarded by each board member is 150 points, total. The total points for all the voting board members are totaled, and then divided by the number of board members. This results in an "average score" by the board. That becomes the soldier's "promotion board points" (maximum of 150).

    The board takes one final action -- they vote on whether or not they recommend the candidate for promotion. If a majority of the members vote "no," then the individual will not be promoted, regardless of how many total administrative and board points they have.

    The board points are then added to the administrative points. The maximum possible combined administrative points and board points is 850.

    In order to be placed on the promotion "recommended list," a soldier eligible for promotion to E-5 must achieve a minimum of 350 combined administrative and board points. A soldier eligible for promotion to E-6 must have at least 450 total promotion points.

    Soldiers who make it through all of the above are placed on the "Recommended List." As I said, there are only a certain number of vacancies available in each MOS for each enlisted grade. Each month, the Army looks at each MOS and determines how many people within the MOS they need to promote to fill the vacancies (remember, vacancies within each grade are created when someone gets promoted out of that grade, gets out of the Army, or re-trains into a different MOS).

    Let's say that there are 700 E-4s (Army-wide) on the "recommended list" for promotion to E-5 in MOS 123, "Left-handed Fence-pole Climber." The Army Personnel Computers do their magic, and determine that in order to fill the vacancies, they must promote 50 E-4s within the MOS to E-5 during the month of June. The Army looks at all the scores (total administrative points and board scores) of all the soldiers on the "recommended list" within that MOS. The 50 E-4 soldiers with the most combined points within that MOS (Army-wide) will be promoted. The person (within that top 50) that has the lowest score establishes the score cut-off. In other words, let's say that the 50th person on the list has a total score of 450 (out of 800 possible). The Army will then send out a message saying that everyone in MOS 123, on the "Recommended List" for promotion to E-5 with a score of 450 or greater will be promoted.

    Of course, some MOS's (jobs) have faster (average) promotion times than others. Why? It's because there are more vacancies within that MOS. For example, if MOS 123 really sucks, or the civilian-equivelent pays high, a lot of E-4s and E-5s will get out (or possibly re-train) after just one 4 or 5 year hitch. That means there are fewer E-4s and E-5s competing for open promotion vacancies, which means less competition, which, in turn, generally means one needs a lower "cut-off" score to be promoted. Additionally, if the job pays high in the civilian sector, or really sucks, more senior NCOs will elect to retire at 20 years of service, instead of staying for 25 or 30 years, thereby opening up more promotion slots.

    Centralized Promotions (E-7, E-8, and E-9)

    Centralized promotions are conducted Army-wide, at Army Personnel Headquarters. The unit/battalion has nothing (or little) to do with the promotion process. There are no minimum time-in-grade requirements for promotion to E-7, E-8, or E-9, but soldiers must meet the following minimum time-in-service requirements to be eligible for promotion:

    • Sergeant First Class (E-7) - 6 years.
    • Master Sergeant/First Sergeant (E-8) - 8 years.
    • Sergeant Major (E-9) - 9 years.

    (Note: This doesn't mean that you'll find too many (or any) Sergeant Majors with only 9 years in the Army. As you'll see below, the promotion board puts a lot of stock into experience. Someone with only 9 years in the Army is unlikely to have enough experience to impress the promotion board members).

    The Centralized Promotion Board consists of at least five members. The board can (and usually is) divided into separate panels, which, in turn, review/score the promotion records for those being considered in different MOS's. If so, each panel must include at least three voting members. The President of the Board must be a General Officer. Board members are commissioned officers and Senior NCOs.

    Unlike the promotion boards for E-5s and E-6's, soldiers do not personally meet the Centralized Board. The board makes their decisions based on the contents of the soldier's promotion records.

    Each year, the Army decides how many soldiers within each MOS it plans to promote to the ranks of E-7, E-8, and E-9. For example, if the Army plans to promote 17 E-7 soldiers in MOS 123 to E-8 within the next year, they basically say to the board, "Here are the promotion records of everyone eligible for promotion to E-8 in MOS 123. Please review these records, discuss them, vote, and select 17 of them to be promoted within the next 12 months."

    Soldiers eligible for consideration may write to the president of the promotion board to provide documents and information drawing attention to any matter concerning themselves that they feel is important to their consideration. Although written communication is authorized, it is only encouraged when there is something that is not provided in the soldier’s records that the soldier feels will have an impact on the board’s deliberations.

    The promotion records consist of pretty much everything that is in the soldier's military records, including decorations (medals), dates of service, dates of assignments, duty positions (past and present), performance reports, educational accomplishments, military training, official photograph, records of disciplinary action, such as Article 15, or courts-martial convictions, letters of reprimand, etc.

    The members of the board discuss and score each record, and then make a determination as to whether or not the individual should be promoted (remember, the board is told in advance exactly how many in each MOS can be promoted that year).

    The negative part of this process is that if a member is not selected, the board will not tell him/her (individually) why. However, following the conclusion of the board, the President publishes a synopsis, which gives an overview of which factors (in general) the board looked at the most (which may or may not have any bearing on what is primarily looked at the next year).

    The Army then takes all the selectees (without regard to MOS), and assigns them a promotion sequence number, which is assigned according to seniority. For example, if it's the E-7 list, the Army will give the lowest sequence number (0001) to the E-7 selectee with the most time-in-grade as an E-6. Each month, for the next 12 months, the Army will then release the sequence numbers of those to be promoted during that month. This ensures a smooth promotion flow for the following 12 months (when the next board will meet and do everything all over again).

    Note: You've probably noted that, like corporal/specialist, the grade of E-8 is also divided into two ranks: Master Sergeant and First Sergeant. Like the specialist/corporal, Master Sergeants and First Sergeants are paid the same (both are E-8s). However, the First Sergeant has a much larger degree of authority and responsibility. The First Sergeant wears special rank (with a diamond), and is the top enlisted leader in the unit. First sergeants work directly for the unit commander and are responsible for the morale, welfare, and discipline of all of the enlisted members assigned to the unit. For more details, see Dedication to the First Sergeant and Day in the Life of a First Sergeant.

    So, how long does it take to get promoted in the Army? Remember, it's dependent on the particular MOS (job) and how many vacancies (due to separations and retirements) there are in that job. On average, however, one can expect to be promoted with the following time-in-service (2001 statistics):

    • Private (E-2) - 6 months
    • Private First Class (E-3) - 1 year
    • Specialist/Corporal (E-4) - 18 months
    • Sergeant (E-5) - 4.2 years
    • Staff Sergeant (E-6) - 8.5 years
    • Sergeant First Class (E-7) - 13.6 years
    • Master Sergeant/First Sergeant (E-8) - 17 years
    • Sergeant Major (E-9) - 20.8 years

    More About Army Promotions

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