DOD Depot Workforce: Services Need to Assess the Effectiveness of Their Initiative to Maintain Critical Skills [Reissued with revisions on Dec. 26, 2018.]

GAO-19-51 Published: Dec 14, 2018. Publicly Released: Dec 14, 2018.
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Fast Facts

DOD employs about 80,000 civilians at maintenance depots to keep helicopters, ships, and other weapon systems working. This workforce is aging and DOD faces challenges in hiring and retaining workers with key skills. Officials cited examples of maintenance taking months or years longer than expected, in part due to shortages in skilled personnel.

Some of the services' plans for dealing with depot workforce needs are outdated or are not in use. The services have also not evaluated training programs and other steps depots have taken to maintain key skills.

We recommended the services assess the effectiveness of their depot workforce programs.

 

A DOD Depot Training Lab

Skilled Civilian Workforce Training to Become Proficient in Specialized Skills Such as Metal Fabrication and Welding at a DOD Depot Training Lab

Skilled Civilian Workforce Training to Become Proficient in Specialized Skills Such as Metal Fabrication and Welding at a DOD Depot Training Lab

Reissued with Revisions Dec 26, 2018
This report was revised on December 26, 2018 to adjust the formatting of Appendix I on pages 31 to 47.
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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense's 17 facilities that perform major depot-level maintenance on weapon systems, such as repairing tank engines or overhauling navy submarines, are generally able to fill occupations requiring personnel to possess certain critical skills (“skilled occupations”), such as machinery mechanic and sheet metal specialist. GAO's analysis of depot personnel data showed that most of the military services were generally able to fill skilled occupations to at least 80 percent of their authorization during fiscal years 2013 through 2017. According to Marine Corps officials, contractors are used to meet maintenance and repair workload requirements even when authorizations for skilled civilian workforce are not fully met.

However, the depots identified a variety of workforce challenges, such as hiring personnel in a timely manner and providing inexperienced personnel with the training necessary to become proficient in skilled occupations. According to DOD officials, these challenges contributed to delays in the maintenance of some weapon systems. DOD officials also identified weapon systems for which maintenance was delayed by shortages in skilled personnel. For example, at Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, two submarines were delayed approximately 23 and 20 months past their scheduled maintenance dates in part as a result of shortages in ship fitters and welders, among others. At Ogden Air Logistics Complex, shortages in avionics technicians delayed the maintenance of the F-16 aircraft, and shortages in low observable coater specialists delayed the maintenance of the F-22 aircraft.

Since 2008, all four military services have developed strategic plans that identify and address workforce challenges at the depots. However, some of these strategies are either outdated or have not been implemented. The service components told GAO that they plan to revise, update, and utilize them by the end of fiscal year 2019 at the latest. In the interim, the depots maintain their own planning processes and have taken a variety of actions to help maintain critical skills in their workforces, such as offering recruiting and hiring incentives to skilled workers, implementing training and apprenticeship programs and partnering with local vocational schools.

While the services have collected some data regarding these actions, the depots and the services do not know how effective they have been, because they have not assessed the results of these actions in helping the depots to hire, train, and retain skilled personnel—including determining whether the actions are cost effective. By assessing the cost and effectiveness of these actions, the services would be better able to identify the hiring, training, and retention actions that work, and identify those that are ineffective or cost prohibitive. This would allow them to better tailor their actions to ensure that the depots hire, train, and retain personnel for skilled occupations, and help ensure they are positioned to provide effective depot maintenance for DOD's weapon systems.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD employs over 80,000 civilian personnel at its 17 major maintenance depots to maintain weapon systems such as aircraft, combat vehicles, and ships. The depot workforce has unique skills, and the depots must compete with the private sector for qualified personnel. Increasing numbers of depot workers have been retiring, and the number eligible to retire is expected to increase. Because it takes 5 years or more to become proficient in some occupations, DOD must systematically plan and prepare to hire, train and retain the workforce it needs to support its vital maintenance and repair mission.

GAO was asked to review DOD's efforts to maintain critical skills at its maintenance depots. GAO examined (1) DOD's challenges in filling skilled occupations and maintaining critical skills in the depot workforce, and any potential effects of these challenges on maintenance activities and (2) actions DOD has taken to hire, train, and retain personnel with critical skills, including its efforts to determine the effectiveness of those actions. GAO analyzed personnel data from fiscal years 2013 through 2017, reviewed depot strategic plans, and met with depot officials responsible for developing initiatives to recruit and train depot personnel.

Reissued with revisions on Dec. 26, 2018.

This report was revised on December 26, 2018 to adjust the formatting of Appendix I on pages 31 to 47.
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Recommendations

GAO recommends that the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force assess the effectiveness of the actions they have taken to maintain critical skills in the depot workforce. The Department of Defense concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Army, in conjunction with the U.S. Army Materiel Command, should assess the effectiveness of the Army depots' hiring, training, and retention programs. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Army concurred with our recommendation. As of May 25, 2022, the Army stated that Army Materiel Command developed a strategic framework to implement the Army's 2019 Army People Strategy-a deliberate strategy to manage the talents of the Army's military and civilian personnel. The purpose of the Command's strategic framework is to drive talent management across the enterprise and provide guidance, a framework, and conceptual basis for follow-on implementation plans. The command is currently operating under approved lines of effort for the framework and expects the strategy to be finalized by October 2022. The Army also provided GAO a list of corrective actions that identified how the Army plans to address our recommendation. These actions included ongoing assessments of critical skills shortages, bi-annual workload assessments to evaluate labor hour levels for critical skills at the depots, and a completed review of the use of living quarter allowances as an incentive to recruit and retain qualified individuals at certain locations in the enterprise. Further, the Army indicated its intent to collaborate with the Office of the Secretary of Defense to assess permanently extending direct hiring authority to the depots to backfill critical skills, with an estimated completion date of the end of fiscal year 2025. GAO will continue to follow-up with the Army, as appropriate.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Navy, in conjunction with the Naval Sea Systems Command and Naval Air Systems Command, should assess the effectiveness of the Navy's shipyards' and fleet readiness centers' hiring, training, and retention programs. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The Navy concurred with our recommendation. In response to our recommendation, the Navy is in the process of collecting information to assess the effectiveness of these programs and considers these efforts ongoing. According to the Navy's corrective action plan, the Navy is, on a continuous basis, assessing current hiring processes in regularly scheduled "Recruitment War Room" meetings; analyzing workload growth and changing skill sets requirements for emerging technologies; and more consistently tracking the qualifications, certifications, and licenses across all fleet readiness centers. GAO will continue to follow up with the Navy, as appropriate.
Department of Defense The Commandant of the Marine Corps, in conjunction with the Marine Corps Logistics Command, should assess the effectiveness of the Marine Corps depots' hiring, training, and retention programs. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Marine Corps concurred with our recommendation. As of May 20, 2022, the Marine Corps stated that Marine Corps Logistics Command assessed and evaluated its hiring processes to meet Office of Personnel Management standard timelines for recruiting and executing direct hire authorities. The Marine Corps stated it continues to assess and evaluate its workforce to develop occupational series competency modeling and implement career progression system training. GAO will continue following up with the Marine Corps, as appropriate.
Department of Defense The Secretary of the Air Force, in conjunction with the Air Force Materiel Command, should assess the effectiveness of the Air Force air logistics complexes' hiring, training, and retention programs. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The Air Force concurred with our recommendation. As of May 18, 2022, the Air Force has identified 15 separate actions that are intended to address this recommendation, including actions to partner with local trade schools, technical colleges, universities, and community organizations to acquire a skilled workforce; annually assess its strategic skills requirements; reassess its grade structure to reveal potential career gaps and "dead-ends," expand the use of targeted training programs, and continuously evaluate flexibilities to incentivize and promote retention in the workforce, among others. Many of the planned milestone dates for these action items occurred in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, but documentation has not yet been provided to support the completion of these actions. GAO will continue to follow up with the Air Force on the status of these recommendations, as appropriate.

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