Promotions to staff sergeant are growing rarer as the Air Force continues to reshape its midlevel enlisted ranks.

The Air Force said Tuesday it chose 17.4% of eligible senior airmen to move up the career ladder this year, down from last year’s selection rate of 21.1%. Nine thousand of the 51,717 E-4s who were considered made the cut, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

It’s the most competitive round of promotions to E-4 since at least 1996, when 16.6% of senior airmen were picked to advance. That figure did not include supplemental promotions, or those offered to airmen who weren’t considered during their normal window because of extenuating circumstances like a deployment.

Airmen typically reach the rank of staff sergeant after serving for about four years.

This is the second tranche of promotions announced since the Air Force began restructuring its enlisted force last year.

The service plans to promote fewer midlevel enlisted through 2024 in a bid to spread airmen more evenly across the ranks. The initiative will also give noncommissioned officers — staff sergeants and technical sergeants — a bit longer to mature into supervisors.

Under the plan, staff sergeant jobs would shrink from 27% of the enlisted force in fiscal 2022 to 21% in fiscal 2025, with more E-5s than positions to fill. More than 261,000 enlisted airmen were serving on active duty as of March, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

Some airmen have complained on social media of putting in extra effort without the reward of promotion. They also worry that the Air Force’s longer-term strategy could pressure a smaller noncommissioned officer corps that oversees more lower-level troops than in the past, and that failing to get a salary bump sooner will strain their pocketbooks.

The Air Force will release the names of those promoted to staff sergeant on Aug. 10.

Recent E-5 selection rates

(not including supplemental promotions)

2022: 19.2%

2021: 38%

2020: 41.6%

2019: 48.8%

2018: 51.1%

2017: 44.3%

2016: 42.3%

2015: 33.8%

2014: 25.6%

2013: 32.9%

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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