WASHINGTON (Army News Service, June 5, 2013) -- Sergeants first class, master sergeants and first sergeants now have a benefit only sergeants major previously enjoyed, a dialogue with their career managers before a new assignment takes effect.

Before the change took place in April, E-7s and E-8s were notified only by email that they were being transferred, said Col. Robert Bennett, director, Enlisted Personnel Management Directorate.

"We became too reliant on virtual communications, and as a result we sacrificed personal communications," he said.

About a year ago, Bennett traveled throughout the Army to meet with Soldiers to discuss how his directorate could better improve quality of life. One of the topics that kept coming up, he said, was the wish that there could be two-way communication between Soldiers and career managers.

Ideally, such a dialogue would begin months before a transfer and would include information Soldiers need to make a smooth assignment transfer. Additionally, the career manager could be informed about any special needs the Soldiers or their families might have, he said.

Bennett said his discussion with Soldiers left a deep impression on him and he became convinced the old way of doing business had to change. His directorate initiated a pilot study last year, using Soldiers in the aviation and transportation fields.

Of the approximately 4,800 Soldiers in those fields, about 400 were slated for moves during the study. Those Soldiers became the first noncommissioned officers, or NCOs, to have open communications with their career managers.

Ideally, that dialogue was by phone, Bennett said, but in some cases it had to be done via email.

The results of the pilot were "phenomenal," he said, meaning that the new "NCO Contact" program, as it became known, got "overwhelmingly positive reviews."

The career managers can often suggest things that will make the transfer smoother for the NCOs, such as housing availability and services provided on installations, he said.

Career managers are from the same military occupational specialty as the Soldiers they are assigning and Bennett said no one knows the needs of those NCOs better than they.

While NCOs still cannot get out of assignments they don't like, because the needs of the Army take priority, dialogue with the Soldier can sometimes alert a career manager to extenuating circumstances, he said, citing some examples.

One NCO was to report to Fort Rucker, Ala., to become an instructor in an Army Training and Doctrine Command slot, Bennett said. When his career manager got on the phone with him, he found out the NCO had a speech impediment that would have limited his effectiveness there.

The old way of doing business, Bennett said, would have been to send that Soldier to the assignment without first talking to him, and then change his orders after he reported.

Other examples where dialogue could help is when the NCO has a disability or injury, he said, pointing out that the last 12 years of a wartime Army have resulted in many such cases. In those instances, it is often better to assign an NCO to an installation where he or she can have access to specialized health care providers.

Another instance might be when a Soldier has a family member with a disability that qualifies under the Exceptional Family Member Program. Some installations are better equipped to deal with those needs.

Bennett said he wishes the NCO Contact program were available for all junior enlisted Soldiers. But as a practical matter, it would not be possible for each career manager to reach out to the thousands of Soldiers he or she is.

While career managers cannot make every senior NCO happy, Bennett said he hopes the change will result in at least a more positive assignment experience.