To Close Sea Billet Gap, Big Navy Launches Senior Enlisted Reforms

November 22, 2022Carl Prine
Near the museum ship USS Constitution, Navy petty officers first class who've been selected for promotion to chief petty officer run a gun drill during Chief Petty Officer Heritage Weeks in Boston, Massachusetts, on Sept. 29, 2022. On Tuesday, Nov. 22, the Navy announced sweeping changes to the way chiefs will compete for advancement slots. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Grant Grady.

Near the museum ship USS Constitution, Navy petty officers first class who've been selected for promotion to chief petty officer run a gun drill during Chief Petty Officer Heritage Weeks in Boston, Massachusetts, on Sept. 29, 2022. On Tuesday, Nov. 22, the Navy announced sweeping changes to the way chiefs will compete for advancement slots. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Grant Grady.

Facing a lack of senior enlisted sailors volunteering for sea duty, Big Navy is dangling the prospect of swifter advancements to those who’ll take the toughest jobs.

On Monday, Nov. 21, the Navy’s chief of naval personnel, Vice Adm. Richard Cheeseman, announced a tweak to the Enlisted Marketplace, an innovation designed to pair chiefs, senior chiefs, and master chiefs who want to stay in the sea service with sea billets or unpopular shore assignments.

It’s slated to launch in March, in time for the master chief screening board, according to a NAVADMIN message released Tuesday to all hands.

"Today's advancement processes are not synchronized with distribution management systems resulting in chronic misalignments between available talent and unit-level job requirements," said Cheeseman in a prepared statement emailed to Coffee or Die Magazine. "The Navy advances thousands of sailors each year to meet aggregated requirements but does not immediately redistribute the majority of them to the billet requirements in their new paygrade." 

The Navy reports 9,000 operational sea duty gaps, which are empty billets on operational units. But the number is fluid, and shifts with personnel movements, ship decommissionings, maintenance availabiities, and unplanned problems, such as limited duty for injured sailors and administrative separations.

Big Navy

Chief Yeoman Christopher Preston is advanced to the rank of chief petty officer during a ceremony at the POW/MIA Park on Virginia's Naval Support Activity Hampton Roads, Oct. 21, 2022. The ceremony was the culmination of a six-week training period in which senior enlisted leaders introduced the chief selectees to myriad challenges designed to strengthen their leadership skills and provide a better understanding of what it means to be the chief. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Evan Thompson.

A challenge for the Navy is that it's growing, so the number of total billets at operational units is rising.

But the Pentagon believes the fleet is doing a lot that's right. Despite the Navy's expansion, the fill rate for billets remains at 94%, about the historical average.

The brass just think that they can do a little better, which is where the reforms to better match talent with open billets come in.

big navy

Command Master Chief Larae Baker, assigned to the San Antonio-class amphibious transport dock ship Arlington (LPD 24), poses for a photo in her office on board the ship while it was underway in the Atlantic Ocean on March 4, 2021. US avy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class John D. Bellino.

Traditionally, chiefs and above are selected by boards annually, but they often must wait to jump up for a billet befitting their new rank.

According to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, more than 4,000 chiefs, senior chiefs, and master chiefs are stuck doing jobs below their paygrade.

“And so this is not effectively utilizing the experience and talents that we have,” said Rear Adm. James “Jim” Waters III, the director of the Navy’s Military Personnel Plans and Policy Division, in a roundtable discussion with reporters on Monday. “And we're working hard to get after that this. This results in us having to manually move sailors through the detailing process.”

To Waters, the solution is “billet-based advancement.” That’s already done to elevate the Navy’s third- and second-class petty officers. Big Navy wants to expand that for their enlisted bosses.

big navy

Senior Chief Tabitha Ramirez, assigned to the supply department on board the aircraft carrier George Washington, is pinned by her fellow sailors in her department, in Newport News, Virginia, Aug. 2, 2021. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dakota Nack.

“They will go before a board that will no longer be a selection board. It'll be a screening board,” said Waters. “And so that board will produce a list of names of senior chiefs that are eligible to compete for master chief billets throughout the Navy. Once they are successfully screened by the board, and they're matched to a billet when they obligate for the complete tour — typically about three years — and then report to that E-9 billet, they’ll be advanced to E-9.

“So, let me be clear,” he continued. “This is a fundamental shift in how we do business with respect to enlisted advancement. And we're starting at the top of the enlisted rank. But we think this process better aligns sailor talent with unit job requirements, and seeks to advance sailors who are committed to staying Navy.”

The Navy will offer senior enlisted sailors more control over their careers, with flexibility on when they can take a new billet, a transparent advancement process, and what Cheeseman calls “geographic stability in career decisions and Permanent Change of Station moves.”

To lock it in, chiefs and above will need to agree to go to sea. Sailors selected for a higher grade will be frocked within 30 days of transfer.

Most sailors approaching a High Year Tenure gate will remain eligible for screening. If the board greenlights them to stay, their High Year Tenure will be suspended for two years. 

big navy

Naval Air Force Atlantic Force Master Chief Chris Chelberg talks with sailors on board the aircraft carrier George H. W. Bush during breakfast with the crew, Nov. 14, 2022, in the Adriatic Sea. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Chandler Ludke.

“So, once they are screened, they will then have 24 months, in order to enter one of the Navy assignments cycles,” said Waters. “There are a total of 10 cycles during those 24 months for which they're eligible. And when they go into the marketplace, they will see a list of jobs. And they will be able to apply for the jobs that interest them, that they're aligned to and their rating. And then once that's done, the detailers will work the billet alignment and matching, and then the assignment will be provided.”

These changes won’t affect sailors in the Command Senior Enlisted Leader Program or personnel in the submarine force, sailors with nuclear ratings, musicians, special warfare operators, and special warfare boat operators.

It also doesn’t apply to reservists.

A career Seabee, Fleet Master Chief Delbert Terrell Jr. told reporters that a pilot program proved this concept will work. The Navy offered 100 crucial billets to active-duty senior enlisted sailors, and more than 600 applied to be advanced into the slots.

“This is going to require a shift in our mindset,” Terrell said. “Our people are going to get there. And I'm confident that we have implemented this policy change. And we're going to continue to see the best and brightest sailors get promoted.”

big navy

US Navy Rear Adm. James Waters III, left, is the director of the Military Personnel Plans and Policy Division at the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Fleet Master Chief Delbert Terrell Jr. is the top enlisted advisor to the Navy's Personnel, Manpower, and Training command. US Navy photos.

And it’s not as if commanders can just order senior peacetime sailors to go to sea. An all-volunteer force creates retention headaches for the Navy because senior sailors “get to vote with their feet,” said Waters.

“And so even at those senior ranks, we're dealing with people, especially as we're talking about E-9, many, many of them have the ability to make the choice to retire,” he added.

Terrell recounted that the good old days weren’t all that great. When he made chief, the Navy cut him orders within 90 days and he was gone, leaving his family behind. It happened again when he made senior chief. When he picked up master chief, he didn’t get paid at that grade for 13 months.

“I know when I came in, you know, I was told that my family didn't come in a seabag and, you know, kind of shut up and color and move forward,” Terrell said. “And I think we're in a better place, understanding that our families serve as well, and are the key to the success of not only us as sailors but to the Navy, and to the mission.”

Read Next: Gathering Storm of Carriers: 5 Flattops Patrolling NATO Waters

Carl Prine
Carl Prine

Carl Prine is a former senior editor at Coffee or Die Magazine. He has worked at Navy Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. He served in the Marine Corps and the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. His awards include the Joseph Galloway Award for Distinguished Reporting on the military, a first prize from Investigative Reporters & Editors, and the Combat Infantryman Badge.

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