The Navy has a long-standing tradition with rank and file, since 1775 to be exact. And when something has that long of a history, it is safe to assume change most likely isn’t the easiest thing to come by. But like everything else in the military, we are conditioned and trained to adhere to policy without question or without hesitation. So why should rank structure and promotion be any different? I had a chance to sit down with a Navy pilot who explained to me the trajectory in which a pilot achieves marks to be promoted…and let’s just say, Houston, we have a problem.

Career Trajectory for the Navy Pilot

If you don’t have an aviation background allow me to catch you up so you can join our pilot in his disappointment and silent outrage for the beloved institution. Pilots have a career trajectory that they like to call the “Golden Path” which essentially is the path to take in order to have a successful career and make it past mandatory milestones in order to promote. For starters (in the golden path) from the time you leave flight school and head to your squadron, you want to be competitive enough to have completed that tour with the title of “instructor.” If you have that, you are then able to leave and pick up a training squadron, drones, or a type of SME (subject matter expert) to finally return as a department head in the rank of O-4 Lieutenant Commander.

In order to be on the golden path, it’s vital that the pilot achieves an immaculate Fit Rep (fitness report) before leaving each position. With a near perfect Fit Rep, you are hoping for an EP (early promote) score in order to qualify and be competitive when it’s time for your next rank selection. There are three categories you can receive in your Fit Rep: EP (early promote), MP (must promote), and P (promote).

An example squadron is only allotted two EPs, two MPs, and one P to its senior pilots.  It wouldn’t matter if say all five pilots in the squadron were outstanding and all deserved EPs. The squadron must adhere to this ancient tradition; therefore, downgrading talented pilots in order to fit the promotion guidelines, which can inevitably hurt the pilots chance for promoting and having a lifelong Navy career.

This example was given to me by a pilot who was in outrage over this reality, and desired that this story be shared to help change the promotion narrative within the Navy. The pilot shared, “The unwritten rule is that newer officers to the squadron are generally ranked at the bottom, while senior officers get ranked at the top. This makes somewhat sense due to the fact that if you have been in the squadron longer it’s assumed you have more responsibility. But over time we have seen that is not the case.”

The Navy limits the coveted EP spots in any given reporting group in an effort to instill a competitive ranking structure to help promote and foster excellence. However, when you end up with a group of stellar individuals (or a group of all not so stellar individuals) that ranking structure- and its artificial rigidity of unspoken rules- ultimately has detrimental career-lasting implications, regardless of what their performance actually looked like. Let’s assume there are only five people in this specific squadron and of the five, there are two senior pilots who are underperforming. Because of these types of unwritten rules, these two senior pilots are given EPs.  But now, since the two EP slots are gone, the remaining three outstanding pilots are going to be UNABLE to receive excellent EP scores. Instead, they will have to settle for the two MP and one P slot. On paper, it’s going to look like these three pilots didn’t stack up to the other two, and that will have damaging effects to their career.

The pilot continued, “When it comes down to department head boards, the first thing the members are looking for on the screen is to see the mark of an EP. They will rarely review or see others with MP or P marks because on paper there are “better candidates.” It ruins someone’s chance at a further career. In the Navy, you get two looks at promoting to O-4. If you don’t make it at the first look, you get to go up again around 12 months later. If you are still not promoted at the second look, you are told to leave. They give you a severance package ,and they send you on your way. The ranking system should match the ability of the individuals that represent the squadron. The Navy limits the number of instructor spots and other coveted spots that are essential to follow the ever important ‘golden path.’

REtaining Talent is a DoD-wide Conversation

Why does this matter to the rest of the population outside pilots and the navy? Well, let’s talk about retaining good talent, like we do here at ClearanceJobs. We talk about how to maintain top talent because it impacts national security.

This tactic limits career potential and Navy capabilities. The pilot shared, “In my opinion, there should not be a limit on these types of slots. If you are deemed good enough to do it, there should be a spot. Why are we limiting talent? We are we sending exceptional pilots off to billets where they won’t fly or will be given admin work when they deserve to still be flying?  These pilots get out of the Navy because they are forced to stop flying. We don’t go through endless training, physical demands, and tax dollar funded training to be given billets that have absolutely nothing to do with what we are trained to do.”

Clearly, it doesn’t matter whether it’s inside the military or within corporate America, the expectation that if you are a top performer, your establishment should be well equipped to maintain and recognize your strengths. Whether that looks like financial compensation or rank promotion, it’s without needing to be said that in today’s world there needs to be continued conversations on what’s important to safeguarding America. And that, without a shadow of a doubt should be “your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” I mean, “I was inverted.” Darn, that’s not it either. Okay, it’s definitely “goodness gracious great balls of fire” or in this pilot’s case, “EP or bust, son.”

No Top Gun references were harmed in the writing of this article.

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NJ has over 10 years inside the DoD working for various organizations and cleared defense contractors. With an ear to the ground on all things OPSEC, cyber, machine learning & mental health, she is an untapped keg of open source information.