So, if the Air Force gives an equal promotion opportunity to each career field, how do they keep individual career fields from getting "top heavy" in enlisted rank? They do this using a program known as "Palace Balance." Each year or so, the Air Force looks at the rank-manning in each of their career fields, for each rank (E-5 to E-9). The first phase of Palace Balance is voluntary. The Air Force will release a general message, asking people in certain ranks, in certain overage jobs, to re-train into jobs that have shortages.
If they don't get enough volunteers, they will send individual letters to people in overage rank/jobs, and tell them that there were not enough volunteer during the first phase, and that they have been identified as being subject to mandatory re-train. If they then volunteer, they usually have a wide choice of jobs to choose from. If, after this phase, there is still not enough volunteers to re-train, the Air Force will select individuals among the list for mandatory re-training (in which case, there is usually a very narrow, or no list to choose from).
Stripes for Exceptional Performers (STEP)
There is one final avenue for promotion to the ranks of Staff Sergeant (E-5) to Master Sergeant (E-7). Each year, the Air Force releases a limited number (usually less than 200, Air Force-wide), slots for a STEP promotion. The slots are usually distributed to the various MAJCOMS (Major Commands), who then usually distribute them to the Wings (Installations). There are generally only two or three STEP allocations given to each Wing (Installation) per year. Wing commanders can then use these allocations to promote OUTSTANDING individuals to Staff Sergeant, Technical Sergeant, and Master Sergeant.
I cannot stress enough that the allocations are EXTREMELY limited, and is not something that one should count on in the promotion process. The stated purpose of the STEP system is to allow Wing (and above) commanders a method to promote individuals who are outstanding performers, but do not score well on promotion tests. However, commanders have a wide latitude on when/how to use their specific STEPS allocations.
Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) and Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) Promotions
Senior Master Sergeant and Chief Master Sergeant Promotions in the Air Force are made using a combination of WAPS points and a centralized promotion board that reviews the individual promotion record.
To be eligible for promotion consideration, the member must meet the following TIS/TIG requirements:
- Senior Master Sergeant (E-8) - 11 years TIS and 20 months TIG.
- Chief Master Sergeant (E-9) - 14 years TIS and 21 months TIG.
The WAPS points are the same as used in E-5 through E-7 promotions, except, instead of two promotion tests, there is only one -- The Air Force Supervisory Examination. Questions for this test are derived from two manuals: Air Force Manual 36-2241 Vol 1 - PROMOTION FITNESS EXAMINATION (PFE) STUDY GUIDE (the same manual that those going for E-5 to E-7 promotions study), and Air Force Manual 36-2241 Vol 2 - USAF SUPERVISORY EXAMINATION (USAFSE) STUDY GUIDE. The test consists of 100 questions, and is worth a maximum of 100 points.