The officer assignment process: separating fact from fiction

by LTC Susan Lawrence

The Army’s most precious resource is its people, and it’s a fact that personnel Which way? in officer career management is every officer’s responsibility. We must educate ourselves, our peers and our subordinates on career management, professional development and assignment opportunities.

Information is readily available at local units, installations and most easily on the worldwide web to assist officers with assignment and professional-development decisions. However, senior leaders’ coaching, mentoring and counseling are the most effective tools in training and educating our officers. To provide the leadership junior officers need, we must start by understanding the officer-assignment process and professional-development needs for Signal Corps officers. This article’s purpose is to educate the field on how the officer-assignment process works and to delineate fact from fiction.

Fictions addressed are:

I only need to update my file right before a board.
If I don’t call or write Signal Branch, Personnel Command, they’ll forget about me and leave me here.
My preference sheet just doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to submit one.
I can get a waiver if I don’t have my undergraduate degree.
I have to serve an assignment in my functional area.
The only major branch-qualifying jobs that really count are battalion S-3 and executive officer.
Branch just puts officers where there’s a requirement without considering professional development.

FICTION: I only need to update my file right before a board.

This is absolutely untrue. Your file represents you throughout your entire career. Branch often screens your files for special assignments. For example, we recently had one of our majors interview for aide to a high-level position. If his file hadn’t been up-to-date, he wouldn’t have competed as well. It’s also extremely important that you immediately notify Branch every time you move and give your new address, phone numbers and electronic-mail address.

An important aspect of career management is having, understanding and using the professional timeline included with this article. This is an excellent tool for senior leaders to use when counseling and mentoring officers about important career decisions. It shows officers what year they’re eligible for Army promotions, commands and school selection boards. It assists officers in planning their own moves and jobs to stay competitive, seek opportunities they desire and also take care of their families. Senior leaders should be available to provide guidance and be candid about performance and future opportunities. When contacting your assignment officer at Signal Branch, you’ll understand when he or she refers to that professional timeline in regard to your next assignment.

FICTION: If I don’t call or write Branch, they’ll forget about me and leave me here.

Every officer is managed by what’s called a YMAV, or "year/month available to move." Branch screens this database to get the population available to move during a certain cycle. This is how we manage when it’s time for you to permanently change stations. The table below is the assignment cycle chart that lays out the four cycles per fiscal year, using Fiscal Year 2001 as an example.

Report months Assignments open Assignments close
October-December 2000 April 2000 July 2000
January-March 2001 July 2000 October 2000
April-June 2001 October 2000 December 2000
July-September 2001 December 2000 February 2001
Assignment cycle per fiscal year.

To explain the cycles, "report months" are the months an officer can expect to report to his or her next assignment. Again, an officer’s report month is based on individual YMAV. Each officer should know when his or her YMAV is so they know when to begin working on the follow-on assignment.

"Assignments open" is the timeframe when your assignment officer knows what the valid requirements are for those particular reporting months. That’s why Signal Branch often tells officers to call six months out to see what assignments are available for that cycle. Assignment officers will post new assignments on their webpages for officers to view. If you see an assignment that interests you, contact your assignment officer as soon as possible by phone or email. Many of the assignments are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.

"Assignments close" refers to the suspense for Signal Branch to fill all the requirements. Once those assignments close, Signal Branch must have an officer named for every requirement that was valid during the assignments’ open months.

As you can see from the chart, as soon as an assignment cycle closes, the next cycle begins and more assignments are validated. Therefore the best months to contact your assignment officer are April, July, October and December because those are the months when all assignments open.

FICTION: My preference sheet just doesn’t matter, so I’m not going to submit one.

You may submit an assignment-preference request at anytime by emailing your assignment officer. In fact, Signal Branch is working on a database that will continuously track annual preference statements for all officers. This database will include things like your home of record, your spouse’s home of record and your preference for geographical areas and assignments. When doing your timeline, don’t forget to include when you want to go overseas. Branch attempts to be fair by looking at those officers who are most overseas-vulnerable for those assignments. If your family is happy with your current location, it might be time to do a short tour in Korea with a sequential back to your station of choice. We all have to pay our due with a short tour sooner or later, but there are benefits if you time it right.

It’s also important when doing your timeline, and you want to track in the operational field, that you consider where you want to command a battalion – in the continental United States or overseas. If you haven’t been overseas for more than five or six years, it’s likely that your next tour will be OCONUS. Overseas equity is critical as we try to manage assignments.

Don’t forget to put your children’s ages on the timeline as well. Many senior officers have found themselves in a dilemma when it came time for battalion command, to attend Senior Service College or to compete for colonel-level command. This often calls for multiple moves when children are in high school. Again, consider a short-tour assignment to give the family some stability. Your sacrifice could pay back great dividends to the family.

Lieutenant assignments are done a little differently because of the professional-development requirements and timeline. Once you complete the Signal officers’ basic course, you’ll either be sent CONUS or OCONUS to your first duty station. Branch expects you’ll have an opportunity to serve as platoon leader for at least 12 months during that first assignment. There are exceptions if your first assignment is a short tour overseas. You should also seek executive-officer and/or staff-officer positions for more professional development.

The estimated pin-on point to captain is now 42 months. That’s calculated based on the date an individual entered active duty as a commissioned officer.

FICTION: I can get a waiver if I don’t have my undergraduate degree.

One of the main issues facing lieutenants is the new law requiring an officer being promoted to captain to hold a baccalaureate degree. The waiver authority expired Sept. 30, 2000. Waivers aren’t required for officers to be considered by a promotion board. However, if you’re selected by the board and don’t have your degree by the time you’re to be promoted, Promotions Branch won’t publish your promotion order. It’s imperative that commanders support these young officers by giving them the opportunity to complete their degree while assigned and/or allowing them to participate in the degree-completion program before they attend the Signal Captains Career Course.

Non-branch-qualified captains will be sent from SCCC to a unit where they may command so they can become BQ. To be BQ, an officer must complete SCCC and 12 rated months of company command. If an officer doesn’t become BQ, he or she isn’t eligible for promotion to major.

FICTION: I have to serve an assignment in my functional area.

Not true; in fact, only a few will actually serve in functional assignments. What assignment should a BQ captain take? Officer preferences are based on many things, such as a desire to be in a particular geographical area to a specific type of assignment based on their interests. There is no "right" assignment for BQ captains; the Army has a variety of requirements for them. Therefore the path to individual success and assignment satisfaction is varied and based on the individual. BQ-captain time is the time a company-grade officer can experience different assignments from what he or she has done in his or her career.

Every officer must select a functional area at the fifth year. It isn’t a requirement to serve in this functional area unless the officer desires to pursue a different type of job. However, because there are so many valid requirements for 25C positions and other Army needs, it’s a minority that will actually serve a functional assignment.

Career-field designation chart Officer's career-field designation chart. Top row shows functional-area designation at fifth year. Other areas indicate education milestones. (Illustration by SPC Kelvin Lovelist)

It’s critical as you enter this phase of your timeline that you’re familiar with the Signal Branch’s future-readiness officers webpage at FRO will publish information on what different professional avenues are available: for example, advanced civil schooling, Training with Industry and fellowships.

However, most BQ captains will be selected to fill critical Army assignments. A key one involves Recruiting Command. Recruiting is the Army chief of staff’s top priority today, so we’re sending extremely qualified and competitive officers to Recruiting Command assignments. In fact, the director of PERSCOM’s Officer Personnel Management Directorate must personally approve all nominations. These assignments are followed very closely in priority by Active Component/Reserve Component assignments as the Army looks to fight as "one team."

Many Reserve Officers Training Corps assignments are no longer available because Training and Doctrine Command has contracted most of these positions.

FICTION: The only major branch-qualifying jobs that really count are battalion S-3 and XO.

It’s important that every officer review Department of the Army Pamphlet 600-3. This pamphlet explains what every officer must do at each grade to become competitive to the next grade. With the number of Signal battalions left in today’s active force, it’s numerically impossible to acquire the desired goal of 24 months’ BQ if we only looked at battalion S-3 and XO. To be BQ and competitive for lieutenant colonel and battalion command, you must be educated to Military Education Level 4 and have successfully served in one or more of the following positions as a major:

Brigade/group/Regimental Signal officer (brigade S-6). This includes any brigade where there’s a board-selected 0-6 commander;
Battalion or brigade XO;
Battalion or brigade operations officer (S-3);
Major-level command; or
Division deputy G-6.

FICTION: Branch just puts officers where there’s a requirement without considering professional development.

Signal Branch will get you to the right place at the right time to keep you competitive for promotion and command. It’s up to you as to how well you perform in those jobs. Professional development is critical to an officer’s career, and it’s considered when making any assignment decisions.

When Signal Branch has an officer interested in an assignment, the first step is to assess the officer’s past performance and future promotion potential. Next, the officer’s professional timeline is mapped to ensure the officer won’t be disadvantaged for future schools and/or promotions due to assignment obligations. For example, many officers are interested in advanced civil schooling, which requires two years of schooling followed by a three-year utilization tour. This is an excellent opportunity as long as the officer isn’t obligated to the utilization tour when he or she is selected for Command and General Staff College. (Branch doesn’t advise officers to take assignments that may prevent their professional development in the future. Sometimes officers have the option to defer schools, but we discourage them to defer for more than one year.)

Professional development is primarily a timing issue; understanding the timeline and assignment cycles, as well as knowing your goals, will enable you to better manage your career. Senior leaders must also understand the timeline and cycles, and must assist young officers in making career decisions. It’s imperative we get involved!

Senior leaders’ mentoring, coaching and teaching are the primary tools for junior-officer development. Talking with young officers, learning their goals, sharing past experience and helping them succeed are the best options available to improve company-grade retention. Every officer has different goals, strengths and weaknesses. We must guide them to use their strengths to succeed, yet provide them with opportunities to strengthen their weaknesses without damaging their future opportunities. Setting them up for success is a tough job, but we must enhance our understanding of the personnel-management process and make the time and effort to effectively use it. This is how the Signal Regiment can help retain officers and develop them into the best leaders possible, because our soldiers deserve nothing less than the best.

LTC Lawrence, former Signal Branch chief at Personnel Command, is now on the colonel promotion list and was selected to command 7th Signal Brigade in Mannheim, Germany. Her military education includes Senior Service College.

Acronym QuickScan
BQ – branch-qualified
CONUS – continental United States
FRO – future-readiness officers
OCONUS – outside (the) continental United States
PERSCOM – Personnel Command
SCCC – Signal Captains Career Course
XO – executive officer
YMAV – year/month available to move

dividing rule

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