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Senior enlisted academy shakeup

MCPON's orders: Mandatory for E-8s; fewer chances for E-7s and E-9s

Feb. 10, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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The Navy’s Senior Enlisted Academy will start ramping up this year, with the goal of doubling its output of graduates.

The reason: Graduation will soon be mandatory for all senior chiefs hoping to pin on the two-starred anchors of a master chief.

The requirement comes from Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy (AW/NAC) Mike Stevens, who believes strongly that professional military education for chief petty officers is invaluable to sailors and the fleet.

“I think we can do better in the area of professional military education for our chief petty officers, so we’re going to pursue this course,” Stevens said. “I didn’t know what the Senior Enlisted Academy had to offer until I attended, and like a lot of master chiefs out there, I didn’t think it was something I needed. But after I went and graduated, I realized I was wrong — that it is a great school and actually something I did need and it has helped me immeasurably ever since.”

But with the focus on training every senior chief now, Stevens said the chances that E-7s and E-9s will attend the course will be slim to none.

Under the current rules, 10 percent of any SEA class can be E-7s and there are no restrictions on the numbers of E-9s.

About 450 students attend the academy each year. Of that, about 90 are chief petty officers and 40 are master chiefs, said Command Master Chief (SW/IDW) Jason Wallis, the academy director.

For ambitious E-7s, it’s been a good way to earn some professional military education that could mean an edge at a selection board.

But that opportunity is going away, at least for now, as the course ramps up under the new program.

“Our belief right now, based on the numbers, is that there will not be any opportunities for E-7s, or E-9s who are not selected into the command master chief program, to attend the academy — it’s not that we don’t want them to be there, it’s just simply numbers — we only have room for so many people,” Stevens said in a mid-December interview.

MCPON has wanted to make academy attendance mandatory since taking over as the top enlisted leader in September 2012.

“I don’t want this to be a surprise to the fleet,” Stevens told Navy Times. “I want them to have an opportunity to grasp this, and get their mind around what it is we’re trying to accomplish here. Right now, we’re putting all the pieces and parts together. We’ve got approval to do this and are working on the changes to the advancement manual and a NAVADMIN will come sometime in the near future.”

Stevens expects major changes to coursework, including more Web-based work in place of some of the classroom time at the Newport, R.I.-based academy.

Stevens said he believes that once this program is in high gear, the benefit to the fleet will be immeasurable, not just to chiefs but junior sailors as well.

“It’s difficult for an organization to rise above the capabilities of their leaders and if we want our sailors to expand their capabilities then we have to have leaders who can afford sailors those opportunities,” he said.

If successful, the Navy could consider Stevens’ much bigger vision: creating rank-specific coursework for all the senior enlisted ranks.

“Truth be told, I’d like to provide every chief, senior chief and master chief with their own phase of training at the senior enlisted leadership level,” he said.

Stevens’ ambitions are limited to senior chiefs for now, as he acknowledges the Navy is “resource constrained.”

“We only have so much money to put into the schoolhouse and to keep it running. I felt we’d get the most bang for our buck with the senior chiefs right now,” he said. “If we’re going to get all our senior chiefs through it, then that’s what we need to dedicate our seats.”

Why mandatory?

The average sailor advances to chief petty officer at about the 14-year mark in his career. But unlike the other military services (all of which mandate leadership training for their E-7s through E-9s), once a sailor gets his chief’s anchors, no further professional military leadership courses have been required.

Stevens said chiefs operate on an equivalent level to a division officer or department head, but unlike those officers, don’t get schooling to help operate at that level.

“A master chief can serve until the 30-year mark, so this means a sailor can often go decades without getting any further leadership training than the chief petty officer leadership course that’s required before they pin on their anchors,” Stevens said.

Given the workload and high level of responsibility of master chiefs, it made sense to require an academy course before pinning on the rank.

“We’re asking more and more of our chiefs without giving them any further tools to work with, and that’s what we’re changing here,” he said. “The Senior Enlisted Academy is already established as one of our premier sources of leadership training and we need to leverage that much better than we are.”

There’s only one way to ensure that all master chiefs have the chance to learn these valuable tools and to get the fleet focused on the importance of the training: Make it mandatory.

“You just don’t get the focus you want if it’s not a requirement,” Stevens said. “If it’s tied to advancement, it is much easier to leverage resources and to get both sailors and commands to pay attention to meeting that requirement — and along the way, they’ll get the benefit of this critically needed education.”

Navy Times asked Wallis, the head of the Senior Enlisted Academy, in mid-December whether the recent spate of command master chief firings was another reason to make the academy mandatory. Wallis, who has worked closely with Stevens, said those incidents did not play a role in the decision-making to revise the academy.

The requirement isn’t expected to affect advancements until 2019, but the requirement and revised curriculum will come much sooner, likely by November, Wallis said.

If you’ve already earned the rank of senior chief or make it before the FY 2016 board, you will be grandfathered under the old rules and won’t have to attend. Those who make E-8 off the FY16 board will have to attend by 2019 to compete for E-9.

There will be waivers granted for this requirement, but don’t count on them.

“Waivers will be something that are very rarely offered, so we’ll have to decide at what level the waiver is actually granted,” Stevens said. “But we want to be careful that we don’t give waivers haphazardly, because what we found in the past is that people use the waiver process as an excuse not to attend.”

While this news may be disappointing for E-7s and E-9s hoping to attend the academy, there is still time to enroll before the new rules kick in, Wallis said. There are about seven classes through November and openings in every one. If you’re an E-7 and want to attend you’ll need support from your command; an “early promote” on your latest eval; and you must be time-in-rate-eligible to make senior chief, Wallis said.

Long-term, Stevens is holding out hope more opportunities will return for E-7s and E-9s.

“We’ll see how it plays out down the road and possibly we’ll be able to later open up some seats again,” he said. “Because ultimately I’d like to allow anyone who wants to attend to be able to go.”

Ramping up

The new vision for the academy will require boosting the numbers of classes and students.

“Right now, we put about seven classes through a year and about 600 students, give or take a few,” Stevens said.

But to have the capacity to meet the requirement, the school will have to accommodate about 1,200 students per year, roughly equivalent to the number of chiefs who advance to senior chief each year.

To help keep costs down, the curriculum will be revised to accommodate more distance learning.

Today most of the six-week academy is done in residence at the Newport schoolhouse. Under Stevens’ plan, the distance learning would take about nine weeks, part time, and then three full weeks in Newport.

“We’re looking at requiring our students to do most of the individual academics prior to their arrival,” Stevens said. “This does two things: It allows us to increase the numbers of students who can attend, and we’ll do it at about the same cost of the program now.”

It costs about $5 million per year to run the six-week academy, Wallis said. When the new curriculum begins, the annual expenses are expected to drop to $4 million, he added, despite more than doubling the number of students. The shorter on-site classes cut down lodging and meal costs, Wallis said. The academy will keep its 15-member staff intact.

Topics covered in the academy include communication skills, leadership, organizational behavior and national and international studies.

Exactly how much work these senior chiefs will have to do while still at their commands is a work in progress, he said.

“That’s the piece the academy is working on right now because we know we can’t place a burden on our senior chiefs,” he said. “We’re very mindful of the fact we don’t want to load down our senior chiefs to the point it interferes with their job — so we will make sure we have a balance.”

Meanwhile,the focus of the in-residence portion will now be dedicated to group study and projects.

The increase in students will push the current staff and infrastructure close to its limits, Stevens said: “When we execute this, we’ll be at about the 80 or 90 percent capacity, but we’re going to go all in and make adjustments along the way.”

Wallis is confident that the increased use of distance learning will not hinder senior enlisted education.

“I have absolutely no doubt about the quality of the Senior Enlisted Academy,” he said.

Staff writer Tony Lombardo contributed to this report.

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