Leadership: December 2, 2003

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The U.S. Army is again getting serious about the quality of its sergeants, after years of cutting corners. After the Vietnam war, there were a number of reforms in the American army, one of them being to provide more training for non-commissioned officers (NCOs, or sergeants.) Leadership and management training were now given to troops before they were promoted to NCO rank. There were three main courses (Primary Leadership Development Course, the Basic Noncommissioned Officer Course, and Advanced Noncommissioned Officer Course), each requiring one or more months to complete (depending on what branch of the army the NCO was in.) Sixteen NCO Academies were set up to give the courses. Many American officers had noted the high quality of the German NCOs during World War II, and in one series of battles in eastern France during late 1944, American units had a very hard time fighting a unit formed from the faculty and students of a nearby German NCO school. So the idea of professional training for NCOs was a good thing had taken root after World War II, and by the 1970s was finally implemented.

But there was a problem. The training was expensive, and it took the most valuable troops away from their units for months at a time. But everyone noted that the NCOs who had been through the training were more effective, and attendance at the NCO schools became mandatory. Then the Cold War ended and Congress, looking for a Peace Dividend, cut the budget of the NCO schools. The army mucked about with the length of the courses, and then cut NCOs up for promotion some slack by allowing them to get promoted and attend the school later, when a seat opened up. These were called conditional promotions, conditional on the NCO eventually taking the course. Through the 1990s, it sort of worked, even with the need for many more  troops to spend time in the Balkans on peacekeeping duty. At the same time, it was obvious that the NCOs who had gone to the courses were better at their jobs than those who did not, and were trying to pick things up via OJT (On-the-Job-Training.) Then Afghanistan and the Iraq war came along. By late 2003, there were over 36,000 NCOs waiting for a chance to take their NCO training courses. So the army bit the bullet and has outlawed conditional promotions as of 2004. This means that the NCO Academies will have to get more money, and NCOs will have to be given the time to take the courses. Otherwise, qualified people won't get the promotions they have qualified for. If that happens, some of these people are liable to just leave. The army has learned, during and since World War II, that it's better to have a shortage of NCOs, than it is to put untrained or unqualified people into NCO jobs. But it's so easy to just promote whoever's available. However, that approach failed big time in Vietnam, just as the Germans showed during World War II that you can be a lot more effective with fewer, but more competent, NCOs. You don't notice how important qualified NCOs are until you don't have them, and the army apparently doesn't want to go down that road again.

 


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