Military Personnel: Strategy Needed to Improve Retention of Experienced Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Aircraft maintenance is the Air Force’s largest enlisted career field, with more than 100,000 active and reserve maintainers to ensure its fleet is safe and ready to operate.
However, the Air Force still needs more aircraft maintainers—particularly those with more skills and experience. It has struggled to retain the ones it has, in part due to the workload and stress from not having enough experienced maintainers on staff.
The Air Force uses retention bonuses to keep maintainers with certain critical skills, but does not have a comprehensive strategy or goals to help retain experienced maintainers. We recommended it develop both.
Maintaining an Air Force Aircraft
A woman wearing glasses and gloves uses a screwdriver on an exterior airplane panel.
What GAO Found
The Air Force has reduced overall aircraft maintainer staffing gaps, but continues to have a gap of experienced maintainers. The Air Force reduced the overall gap between actual maintainer staffing levels and authorized levels from 4,016 maintainers (out of 66,439 authorized active component positions) in fiscal year 2015, to 745 in fiscal year 2017 (out of 66,559 positions). However, in 7 of the last 8 fiscal years, the Air Force had staffing gaps of experienced maintainers—those who are most qualified to meet mission needs and are needed to train new maintainers. Maintainers complete technical school as 3-levels and initially lack the experience and proficiency needed to meet mission needs. Following years of on-the-job training, among other things, maintainers upgrade to the 5- and 7-levels. In fiscal year 2017, the Air Force had gaps of more than 2,000 5-level and 400 7-level maintainers, and a surplus of over 1,700 3-levels. Air Force officials anticipate that staffing gaps will continue off and on through fiscal year 2023.
Over the past 8 fiscal years, the Air Force has increasingly lost experienced aircraft maintainers, and it does not have goals and a strategy to help retain maintainers. While overall maintainer loss rates have remained generally stable, loss rates of 5-levels increased from 9 percent in fiscal year 2010 to 12 percent in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 (see figure). Air Force officials expect 7-level loss rates to also increase. Air Force officials stated that they need to retain more maintainers to help address experience gaps, but the Air Force has not developed annual retention goals for maintainers. In addition, while the Air Force has increased its use of retention bonuses since fiscal year 2015, according to Air Force officials, it does not have a strategy to improve retention. Without goals to measure progress and a retention strategy to guide efforts, the Air Force could face further challenges in managing its maintenance workforce, including ensuring there are enough experienced maintainers to meet mission needs.
Air Force Aircraft Maintainer Loss Rates by Skill Level, Fiscal Years 2010-2017
The Air Force consistently met technical school completion rate goals for aircraft maintainers from fiscal years 2010 through 2017. In fiscal year 2017, about 9,600 active component maintainers completed technical school, an increase from about 5,700 in fiscal year 2015. This increase in completions has helped to address overall staffing gaps, but cannot immediately resolve experience imbalances, due to the time and training needed to reach the 5- and 7- levels.
Why GAO Did This Study
Air Force aircraft maintainers are responsible for ensuring that the Air Force's aircraft are operationally ready and safe for its aviators—duties critical to successfully executing its national security mission. With more than 100,000 maintainers across the Air Force's active and reserve components, according to Air Force officials, aircraft maintenance is the Air Force's largest enlisted career field—accounting for about a quarter of its active duty enlisted personnel.
The conference report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 included a provision for GAO to review the adequacy of the Air Force's aircraft maintainer workforce. This report assesses the extent to which, from fiscal years 2010 through 2017, the Air Force (1) had aircraft maintainer staffing gaps, (2) experienced attrition of maintainers and took steps to help retain maintainers, and (3) met its annual technical school completion rate goals for maintainers.
GAO analyzed aircraft maintainer staffing levels, loss and reenlistment rates, and technical school completion rates from fiscal years 2010-2017, the most recent data available; conducted five non-generalizable discussion groups with maintainers; and interviewed aviation industry, Department of Defense, and Air Force officials.
GAO recommends that the Air Force develop annual retention goals and a retention strategy for aircraft maintainers. The Air Force concurred with both recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Defense||The Secretary of the Air Force should develop annual retention goals for aircraft maintainers by skill level—for both loss and reenlistment rates—in alignment with authorized levels. (Recommendation 1)||
The Air Force concurred with this recommendation. In March 2021, the Air Force provided documentation of annual retention goals for aircraft maintainers, by skill level, that it had established through fiscal year 2025 based, in part, on historical baseline data. Specifically, the Air Force established retention goals for three-level, five-level, and seven-level aircraft maintainers. The Air Force also outlined the process through which it plans to evaluate these retention goals on a continual basis.
|Department of Defense||The Secretary of the Air Force should develop an aircraft maintainer retention strategy, including initiatives that are tailored to the specific needs and challenges of maintainers to help ensure that the Air Force can meet and retain required staffing levels. (Recommendation 2)||
The Air Force concurred with this recommendation. In March 2021, the Air Force provided a four-step retention strategy that focuses on adjusting personnel turnover in alignment with the Air Force's objectives for its enlisted maintenance workforce. The strategy includes the (1) cyclical evaluation of historical retention trends; (2) identification and revision of retention goals; (3) identification of retention rates necessary to attain those goals; and (4) establishment of metrics needed to track performance against those goals. As part of the strategy, the Air Force also identified four levers to influence retention: accessions, promotions, non-monetary incentives, and monetary incentives.