After spending the last few years heavily recruiting people to repair and maintain aircraft and other weapons, the Air Force is still in the hole when it comes to its maintainers — but it’s a completely different hole.
While the service completely filled its maintainer deficit, the Air Force is struggling to retain its experienced maintainers and it has no strategy to keep them around, a Feb. 5 report from the Government Accountability Office said.
“The Air Force does not have annual retention goals for aircraft maintainers or a maintainer specific retention strategy to help it meet such goals and to sustain recent staffing level improvements,” the GAO report said. “As a result, the Air Force may continue to face challenges in managing its largest enlisted career field and may miss opportunities to retain a sufficient number of experienced maintainers to meet mission needs.”
GAO told the Air Force that a retention strategy tailored to the specific needs of maintainers could help retain experienced 5- and 7-level maintainers, who are needed to train less experienced airmen in the occupation.
“A key principle of strategic workforce planning is developing strategies that are tailored to address gaps in number, deployment and alignment of human capital approaches for enabling and sustaining the contributions of all critical skills and competencies,” the report stated.
The Air Force’s maintainer issues started with a genuine lack of personnel. In June 2016, the Air Force was in need of 4,000 maintainers.
Through reenlistment bonuses and increased recruitment, the Air Force is no longer dealing with a quantity issue, but rather a quality issue.
While the service signed up plenty of airmen to take care of weapons systems, the old, experienced ones ones still aren’t sticking around. That lack of experience is a big issue for the Air Force.
“It’s almost like squeezing the balloon and what happens on the other end? We are going to have a lot of inexperienced workforce, we’re going to have many recently graduated high school students working on our fighter planes,” Gen. John Cooper, deputy chief of staff for logistics, engineering and force protection explained in 2017.
That’s what the Air Force is dealing with now. The GAO report found the Air Force increasingly lost its experienced maintainers.
“According to our analysis of Air Force data, overall reenlistment rates for aircraft maintainers have generally decreased since fiscal year 2010, from a peak rate of 82 percent in fiscal year 2011, to a low of 73.4 percent in fiscal year 2017,” the study stated.
Maintainers making their first reenlistment showed the worst retention percentages. The high hit 70.5 percent, but in 2017 first-time reenlistment was down to 58.3 percent.
One of the main reasons maintainers leave the service is the draws from private industry.
“Maintainers cited better pay as a reason to transition from the Air Force to the commercial aviation industry,” GAO said. “They also noted consistent schedules, 8-hour work days and overtime pay as additional benefits.”
In the meantime, the Air Force is turning toward alternative ways to train maintainers faster. The service is starting a Maintainer Training Next program that uses simulators, big data trends and biometric data to better train airmen.