(Navy Times) -- Navy officials are asking roughly 6,000 first-term sailors to extend their enlistments at sea in an effort to stave off a looming manpower shortage that will begin to hit the fleet this year.
Officials aren’t offering extra money or other traditional perks. Instead, for those sailors who raise their hands, Navy officials say they’ll allow those sailors to stay beyond traditional “up or out” time limits.
The sea-duty extensions for up to two more years of service will give those sailors more opportunity to advance to the next level and increase their chances to re-up for shore duty when their sea tour is over.
The unusual offer — with a working deadline of Feb. 28 — comes as the Navy is facing a temporary manning crisis that threatens to reverse several years of progress toward the goal of ensuring that deploying units leave their homeports with as many billets filled as possible.
“Currently we have several thousand gaps at sea,” said Rear Adm. John F. Meir, the assistant commander of Navy Personnel Command for Career Progression.
“This extension helps us by keeping those billets filled at sea and we don’t have to roll sailors into the billets being vacated by those leaving active duty,” Meir said.
The offer primarily benefits E-3 sailors and below, especially in the most sea-intensive ratings in year groups 2012 and 2013. A year group is the fiscal year in which the sailor entered active duty.
The looming shortage arose because the Navy, admittedly, overshot the latest drawdown, which ran from 2003 to 2011. Over those years, the size of the Navy dropped from 380,000 sailors down to just over 317,000 at the end of 2012 — nearly 5,000 below the Congressionally mandated end strength that year of 322,700.
As a result, the Navy sought to boost its numbers quickly and expanded recruiting in 2012 and 2013. In normal years, the Navy recruits an average of 33,000 new sailors to maintain the force, but that jumped to more than 36,000 in fiscal year 2012 and more than 40,000 in 2013.
Now, as sailors from those unusually large year groups near the end of their first-term enlistment contracts, the Navy is worried it won’t have enough sailors to man the fleet. Until this “bubble,” as officials call it, moves through the personnel system, the Navy is expecting shortages at sea and is taking measures to address that, including offering extensions to sailors who might not normally get a chance to stay in the Navy.
“This program is designed to help address potential future gaps at sea created as the large [year group 2013] begins to leave sea duty in the coming few years,” said Katie Suich, spokeswoman for the Navy Personnel Command.
The Navy has made significant progress in filling out undermanned units during the past several years. The Navy tracks fleet manning in two ways: “fit” and “fill.” For each unit, the “fill” is the percentage of billets that are simply filled, whereas "fit" is making sure that billets requiring special skills, or Navy enlisted classifications, are matched with people who possess those skills.
As of November 2016, the at-sea manning “fill” had risen to 97.4 percent, up from 90 percent back in 2012. And the “fit” rate recently reached 89 percent, the highest it’s been in years and up from 75 percent back in 2012, according to Navy data.
“Fit and fill are expected to decline over the next two years before returning to the historically high levels that we have seen recently,” Suich said.
The full extent of the decline in manning may depend on how many volunteers step up for the unusual sea-duty extension offer. Initial estimates show as many as 2,000 sailors from the 2012 year group may be eligible to apply and an additional 4,000 from the 2013 year group, Meir said.
The shortage on the horizon is also fueled by the fact that the Navy’s initial sea tours are often for five to six years. But most sailors enlist for just four years at a pop. About 45 percent of initial tour sailors have a rotation date that is after their current end-of-service date, Meir said.
“The very nature of our enlistment contracts are that most enlistments aren’t linked to the sea tour lengths. Their obligation ends, really prior to them being able to complete their sea tour,” Meir said.
“We refer to this as the [End of Active obligated Service] to [Personnel Rotation Date] mismatch,” he said.
In normal years, the Navy detailing system can mitigate the early losses by assigning new sailors to those vacated billets. But as those who entered service in 2012 and 2013 begin to leave the service — the extra losses are too tough to fill.
In recent years, officials say, the Navy has begun some pilot programs to fix that problem, but it’s in the early stages and a few years away from having the impact manning officials would like.
The two-year extensions will work outside the Navy’s “Career Points,” or C-Way, re-enlistment approval system, which Meir says will benefit both the sailor and the Navy.
C-Way is the Navy’s reenlistment approval system that matches the force’s personnel requirements with the best performing sailors. Typically, sailors must apply to reenlist or extend their time in the service.
Ratings are divided into one of three categories — “open,” which are undermanned specialties, “balanced,” which are properly manned or “competitive,” which are overmanned.
For those in open or balanced ratings — approval is mostly automatic. But for those in the competitive category, they compete with their peers in the rating for approval. And it’s also no secret that C-Way is biased to paygrade — the higher your the paygrade, the better your shot. It also considers year group in decisions.
The sea-duty extension now on the table allow sailors to bypass that system for now and improve their standing in the service before getting another look from C-Way. That will “allow sailors who volunteer to extend their enlistment to gain more fleet experience and to be more competitive when their C-Way application window occurs,” Suich said.
AVOID ‘UP OR OUT’
Also at play with many of these sailors is high-year tenure, also known as the “up or out” limits the Navy sets for each paygrade. Those who don’t advance within those limits are sent home.
For example, paygrade E-1 and E-2 sailors can’t normally stay beyond four years. For E-3s, it’s five years and for E-4s, it’s eight. E-5s can stay until 14-years, while E-6 is the lowest paygrade allowed to stay until 20 and retire.
For this program, the Navy is also willing to waive those limits. As this program only applies to first-term sailors, this is for E-3s bumping up against the five-year mark who have yet to make E-4.
Meir says this extra time could make a big difference, especially for those sailors who came into the Navy as non-designated airmen, seamen or firemen and were designated to a specific job while in the fleet. Many E-3-and-below sailors, such as those working in the flight deck or in deck force, aren’t working in their rating full-time.
“For example, if a sailor gets accepted into a rating late, it’s pretty tough to pass the test and advance without having done the job before — this will extend the high-year tenure gate for them and I think it will make a difference for many of them,” Meir said.
Meir says there are no quotas or target numbers for the extension. Navy officials have set a deadline for applications of Feb. 28 and said that could be extended, depending on interest from the fleet.
“We want to avoid heading in the direction of where we were five years ago, especially when we see that train potentially coming,” said Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, spokesman for the chief of naval personnel.
“Our number one priority is to keep the Fleet manned at the highest levels we can,” Christensen said.