oversight

Military Personnel: Strategy Needed to Improve Retention of Experienced Air Force Aircraft Maintainers

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2019-02-05.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

                United States Government Accountability Office
                Report to Congressional Committees




                MILITARY
February 2019




                PERSONNEL

                Strategy Needed to
                Improve Retention of
                Experienced Air Force
                Aircraft Maintainers




GAO-19-160
                                                 February 2019

                                                 MILITARY PERSONNEL
                                                 Strategy Needed to Improve Retention of Experienced
                                                 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Highlights of GAO-19-160, a report to
congressional committees




Why GAO Did This Study                           What GAO Found
Air Force aircraft maintainers are               The Air Force has reduced overall aircraft maintainer staffing gaps, but continues
responsible for ensuring that the Air            to have a gap of experienced maintainers. The Air Force reduced the overall gap
Force’s aircraft are operationally ready         between actual maintainer staffing levels and authorized levels from 4,016
and safe for its aviators—duties critical        maintainers (out of 66,439 authorized active component positions) in fiscal year
to successfully executing its national           2015, to 745 in fiscal year 2017 (out of 66,559 positions). However, in 7 of the
security mission. With more than                 last 8 fiscal years, the Air Force had staffing gaps of experienced maintainers—
100,000 maintainers across the Air               those who are most qualified to meet mission needs and are needed to train new
Force’s active and reserve                       maintainers. Maintainers complete technical school as 3-levels and initially lack
components, according to Air Force
                                                 the experience and proficiency needed to meet mission needs. Following years
officials, aircraft maintenance is the Air
                                                 of on-the-job training, among other things, maintainers upgrade to the 5- and 7-
Force’s largest enlisted career field—
accounting for about a quarter of its
                                                 levels. In fiscal year 2017, the Air Force had gaps of more than 2,000 5-level and
active duty enlisted personnel.                  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.
The conference report accompanying
the National Defense Authorization Act           Over the past 8 fiscal years, the Air Force has increasingly lost experienced
for Fiscal Year 2018 included a                  aircraft maintainers, and it does not have goals and a strategy to help retain
provision for GAO to review the                  maintainers. While overall maintainer loss rates have remained generally stable,
adequacy of the Air Force’s aircraft             loss rates of 5-levels increased from 9 percent in fiscal year 2010 to 12 percent
maintainer workforce. This report                in fiscal years 2016 and 2017 (see figure). Air Force officials expect 7-level loss
assesses the extent to which, from               rates to also increase. Air Force officials stated that they need to retain more
fiscal years 2010 through 2017, the Air          maintainers to help address experience gaps, but the Air Force has not
Force (1) had aircraft maintainer                developed annual retention goals for maintainers. In addition, while the Air Force
staffing gaps, (2) experienced attrition         has increased its use of retention bonuses since fiscal year 2015, according to
of maintainers and took steps to help            Air Force officials, it does not have a strategy to improve retention. Without goals
retain maintainers, and (3) met its              to measure progress and a retention strategy to guide efforts, the Air Force could
annual technical school completion               face further challenges in managing its maintenance workforce, including
rate goals for maintainers.                      ensuring there are enough experienced maintainers to meet mission needs.
GAO analyzed aircraft maintainer
                                                 Air Force Aircraft Maintainer Loss Rates by Skill Level, Fiscal Years 2010-2017
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.

What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that the Air Force
develop annual retention goals and a
retention strategy for aircraft
maintainers. The Air Force concurred
with both recommendations.                        The Air Force consistently met technical school completion rate goals for aircraft
                                                  maintainers from fiscal years 2010 through 2017. In fiscal year 2017, about
View GAO-19-160. For more information,            9,600 active component maintainers completed technical school, an increase
contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or   from about 5,700 in fiscal year 2015. This increase in completions has helped to
farrellb@gao.gov.                                address overall staffing gaps, but cannot immediately resolve experience
                                                 imbalances, due to the time and training needed to reach the 5- and 7- levels.

                                                                                               United States Government Accountability Office
Contents


Letter                                                                                             1
                       Background                                                                  5
                       The Air Force Has Significantly Reduced Overall Aircraft
                         Maintainer Staffing Gaps but Continues to Lack Experienced
                         Maintainers                                                              12
                       The Air Force Has Increasingly Lost Experienced Aircraft
                         Maintainers and Does Not Have Goals and a Strategy to
                         Improve Retention                                                        20
                       The Air Force Has Consistently Met Technical School Completion
                         Rate Goals for Aircraft Maintainers                                      30
                       Conclusions                                                                34
                       Recommendations for Executive Action                                       35
                       Agency Comments                                                            35

Appendix I             Scope and Methodology                                                      37



Appendix II            Air Force Reserve Component Aircraft Maintainer Retention from
                       Fiscal Years 2010-2017                                                     42



Appendix III           Comments from the Department of Defense                                    45




Appendix IV            GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments                                      47



Related GAO Products                                                                              48


Tables
                       Table 1: Examples of Enlisted Air Force Aircraft Maintenance
                               Specialties                                                         6
                       Table 2: Staffing Levels by Skill Level for Select Active
                               Component Aircraft Maintenance Specialties, Fiscal Year
                               2017                                                               17




                       Page i                                GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
          Table 3: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer
                  Reenlistment Rates (as percentages), Fiscal Years 2010-
                  2017                                                                22
          Table 4: Selected Labor Market Indicators for Aerospace
                  Engineers and Aircraft Mechanics and Service
                  Technicians, 2012-2017                                              24
          Table 5: Joint Services Aviation Maintenance Technician
                  Certification Council Program, Enrollment and Graduate
                  Counts, Fiscal Years 2010-2017                                      27
          Table 6: Air Force Reserve Component Actual Aircraft Maintainer
                  Technical School Completions Compared with
                  Programmed Completions, Fiscal Years 2010-2017                      33
          Table 7: Air National Guard Aircraft Maintainer Loss Rates (as
                  percentages), Fiscal Years 2010-2017                                42
          Table 8: Air Force Reserve Command Aircraft Maintainer Loss
                  Rates (as percentages), Fiscal Years 2010-2017                      43

Figures
          Figure 1: Examples of Air Force Aircraft Maintainer Training
                   Equipment                                                           8
          Figure 2: Overview of Air Force Aircraft Maintainer Training
                   Process and Skill-Level Advancement                                 9
          Figure 3: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Actual
                   Staffing Levels, Authorized Levels, and Requirements,
                   Fiscal Years 2010-2017                                             14
          Figure 4: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Actual
                   Staffing Levels Compared with Authorized Levels by Skill
                   Level, Fiscal Years 2010-2017                                      16
          Figure 5: Air Force Reserve Component Actual Aircraft Maintainer
                   Staffing Levels Compared with Authorized Levels, Fiscal
                   Years 2010-2017                                                    19
          Figure 6: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Loss
                   Rates by Skill Level, Fiscal Years 2010-2017                       21
          Figure 7: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer
                   Retention Bonuses, Fiscal Years 2010-2017                          28
          Figure 8: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Actual
                   Technical School Completions Compared with
                   Programmed Completions, Fiscal Years 2010-2017                     31




          Page ii                                GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Abbreviations

AETC              Air Education and Training Command
DOD               Department of Defense



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Page iii                                          GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                       Letter




441 G St. N.W.
Washington, DC 20548




                       February 5, 2019

                       The Honorable James M. Inhofe
                       Chairman
                       The Honorable Jack Reed
                       Ranking Member
                       Committee on Armed Services
                       United States Senate

                       The Honorable Adam Smith
                       Chairman
                       The Honorable Mac Thornberry
                       Ranking Member
                       Committee on Armed Services
                       House of Representatives

                       Air Force aircraft maintainers are responsible for ensuring that the Air
                       Force’s aircraft are operationally ready and safe for its aviators—duties
                       that are critical to ensuring that the department is able to successfully
                       execute its national security mission. Maintainers at the squadron-level
                       perform a wide range of duties, including conducting inspections before
                       and after flights, diagnosing and repairing system malfunctions, and
                       loading and unloading munitions and explosives on aircraft, among many
                       others. 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.

                       In September 2016, we reported that the Air Force cited aircraft
                       maintainer staffing gaps—actual staffing levels that are lower than
                       authorized levels—as a factor limiting its ability to produce the number of
                       aircraft required to meet certain annual training requirements and that,
                       while the Air Force was taking steps to address these gaps, it could take




                       Page 1                                   GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
several years to improve aircraft availability rates. 1 The conference report
accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year
2018 included a provision for us to review the adequacy of the Air Force’s
aircraft maintainer workforce. 2 This report addresses, from fiscal years
2010 through 2017, the extent to which the Air Force: (1) had aircraft
maintainer staffing gaps, (2) experienced attrition of aircraft maintainers,
including any effects of competition with the commercial aviation industry,
and took steps to help retain maintainers, and (3) met its annual technical
school completion rate goals for aircraft maintainers.

For our first objective, we compared staffing levels authorized by the Air
Force for enlisted aircraft maintainers—for the active and reserve
components—with the actual number of maintainers available to staff
those positions for fiscal years 2010 through 2017. 3 We selected this
timeframe to capture staffing levels before and after the Air Force’s fiscal
year 2014 reduction in end strength, and fiscal year 2017 was the most
recent year for which complete data were available at the time of our
review. Specifically, we analyzed the data to identify overall maintainer
staffing gaps as well as any gaps by maintenance specialty and skill level.
In addition, we compared maintainer personnel requirements to
authorized staffing levels—the number of those requirements that were
funded. To assess the reliability of the Air Force’s requirements,
authorized staffing levels, and actual staffing levels, we reviewed related
documentation; assessed the data for errors, omissions, and
inconsistencies; and interviewed officials. We determined that the data
were sufficiently reliable to describe the Air Force’s aircraft maintainer
staffing levels and associated gaps from fiscal years 2010 through 2017.
Additionally, we conducted interviews with relevant Air Force, Air National
Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command officials to identify reasons for
staffing challenges and actions the Air Force has taken to address them.

1
 GAO, Air Force Training: Further Analysis and Planning Needed to Improve
Effectiveness, GAO-16-864 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 19, 2016). The military services
periodically review and update the human resources they determine are needed to
accomplish specific jobs, workloads, missions, and programs, and state those figures
(known as “requirements”) in staffing documents. Once such a requirement is funded, it
becomes part of the military service’s end strength as an “authorized position.” Actual
staffing levels of various positions within the military services may differ from the number
of authorized positions.
2
 H.R. Rep. No. 115-404, at 833-34 (2017) (Conf. Rep.).
3
 For the purposes of this report, when actual staffing levels are lower than authorized
staffing levels, it is considered to be a staffing gap.




Page 2                                             GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
For our second objective, we calculated maintainer loss rates—the
number of maintainers who leave the career field or the Air Force within
the fiscal year over the number of maintainers at the start of the fiscal
year—for the active and reserve components from fiscal years 2010
through 2017. We also analyzed overall aircraft maintainer reenlistment
rates—the number of maintainers reenlisting each fiscal year over the
number of maintainers eligible to reenlist—for the active component for
fiscal years 2010 through 2017. To assess the reliability of the Air Force’s
maintainer loss and reenlistment rate data, we reviewed related
documentation; assessed the data for errors, omissions, and
inconsistencies; and interviewed officials. We determined that the data
were sufficiently reliable to describe both the Air Force’s aircraft
maintainer loss and reenlistment rates from fiscal years 2010 through
2017. In addition, we reviewed the Air Force’s 2015 and 2017 aircraft
maintainer retention survey analyses and conducted five discussion
groups with a non-generalizable sample of aircraft maintainers to obtain
their views on factors affecting maintainer retention, on-the-job training
capacity, and commercial aviation industry opportunities, among other
things.

We also reviewed the state of the commercial labor market for aircraft
mechanics and aerospace engineers. We analyzed data from the
Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population
Survey on the unemployment rate, employment, and median weekly
earnings from 2012 through 2017, in accordance with economic literature.
We chose this period because we previously reported on the data from
2000 through 2012. 4 We reviewed documentation about the Bureau of
Labor Statistics data and the systems that produced them, as well as our
prior report, and determined the data were sufficiently reliable for the
purposes of our indicator analysis. In addition, we conducted interviews
with four commercial aviation industry stakeholders regarding any
imbalances in aircraft mechanic demand and supply. We selected three
of these organizations based on our previous work and one based on a
recommendation from one of the three organizations. To determine what
is known about the effects of the commercial aviation industry on the Air
Force’s aircraft maintainer workforce, we conducted a literature search
and review. We chose fiscal year 2010 as a starting point to match the
timeframe for which we analyzed Air Force maintainer loss rates. We

4
 GAO, Aviation Workforce: Current and Future Availability of Aviation Engineering and
Maintenance Professionals, GAO-14-237 (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 28, 2014).




Page 3                                          GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
identified and screened 49 studies using a multi-step process to gauge
their relevance and evaluate their methodology. We identified 1 study that
had reliable and relevant information and we discuss the associated
findings of this study below.

To assess the extent to which the Air Force has taken steps to help retain
maintainers, we analyzed the number and total costs of selective
retention bonuses (retention bonuses) that the Air Force awarded by
maintenance specialty and skill level from fiscal years 2010 through 2017
for the active and reserve components. To assess the reliability of the Air
Force’s retention bonus data, we reviewed related documentation;
assessed the data for errors, omissions, and inconsistencies; and
interviewed officials. We determined that the data were sufficiently
reliable to describe the number and total costs of the Air Force’s aircraft
maintainer retention bonuses from fiscal years 2010 through 2017. In
addition, we conducted interviews with relevant Air Force officials
regarding retention goals and monetary and non-monetary incentives to
improve maintainer retention. We compared this information to Standards
for Internal Control in the Federal Government related to monitoring
activities and key principles of strategic workforce planning that we have
identified in our prior work, such as developing strategies that are tailored
to address gaps in numbers of people, skills, and competencies. 5

For our third objective, we calculated technical school completion rates—
the number of aircraft maintainers completing technical school compared
to the number of programmed or expected completions—for the active
component for fiscal years 2010 through 2017. We compared those
completion rates to the Air Education and Training Command (AETC)
established completion rate goal for the active component. For the Air
National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command, we compared
programmed completions to actual completions to determine their ability
to meet training needs. To assess the reliability of the technical school
completion data, we assessed the data for errors, omissions, and
inconsistencies, and interviewed officials. We determined that the data
were sufficiently reliable to describe the Air Force’s aircraft maintainer
technical school completion rates from fiscal years 2010 through 2017,
rounded to the nearest hundreds up to fiscal year 2013, and more-
precisely from fiscal years 2014 and beyond. In addition, we observed
5
 GAO, Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, GAO-14-704G
(Washington, D.C.: Sept. 10, 2014); and GAO, Human Capital: Key Principles for Effective
Strategic Workforce Planning, GAO-04-39 (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 11, 2003).




Page 4                                          GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                          maintainer technical school training at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas
                          and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. We selected these locations because
                          they are two of the primary locations where aircraft maintainer technical
                          school training occurs. Finally, we conducted interviews with technical
                          school instructors about the training process, as well as AETC, Air
                          National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command officials about training
                          challenges and programmed training needs. Our scope and methodology
                          is described in detail in appendix I.

                          We conducted this performance audit from April 2018 to February 2019 in
                          accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
                          Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
                          sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our
                          findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that
                          the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and
                          conclusions based on our audit objectives.



Background
Air Force Aircraft        Air Force aircraft maintainers are assigned to a specific maintenance
Maintenance Specialties   specialty and, in some cases, also to a specific aircraft on which they are
                          qualified to perform maintenance. As of April 2018, the Air Force had 37
                          enlisted maintenance specialties, each designated by an Air Force
                          Specialty Code. See table 1 for examples of various Air Force
                          maintenance specialties and examples of aircraft specific to those
                          specialties, if applicable.




                          Page 5                                   GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Table 1: Examples of Enlisted Air Force Aircraft Maintenance Specialties

 Maintenance specialty                            Examples of Duties and Responsibilities                                  Examples of
                                                                                                                           aircraft/equipment
 Aerospace propulsion                             Inspects, maintains, modifies, tests, and repairs propellers,            F100, F119, F135 jet engines
                                                  turboprop and turboshaft engines, jet engines, small gas turbine
                                                  engines, and engine ground support equipment.
 Aircraft electrical and                          Inspects, troubleshoots, and maintains aircraft electrical and           Various
 environmental systems                            environmental systems.
 Avionics test station and                        Performs and manages avionics test station functions and activities.     A-10, B-2, C-17, F-16
 components                                       Operates, inspects, maintains, programs, and calibrates computer
                                                  and manually operated avionics test and support equipment.
 Low observable aircraft                          Evaluates, installs, removes, and repairs low observable coatings.       B-2, F-22, F-35
 structural maintenance                           Designs, repairs, modifies, and fabricates aircraft, metal, plastic,
                                                  composite, advanced composite, low observable, and bonded
                                                  structural parts and components. Applies preservative treatments to
                                                  aircraft, aerospace ground equipment, and support equipment.
 Nondestructive inspection                        Inspects aerospace weapon systems components and support               Various
                                                  equipment for structural integrity. Performs nondestructive inspection
                                                  on structures, components, and systems. Detects flaws such as
                                                  cracks, processing defects, and heat damage using various
                                                  methods.
 Remotely piloted aircraft                        Maintains aircraft, support equipment, forms, and records. Performs      MQ-1/MQ-9
 maintenance                                      and supervises flight chief, expediter, crew chief, repair and
                                                  reclamation, quality assurance, and maintenance support functions.
 Tactical aircraft maintenance                    Maintains tactical aircraft, support equipment, and forms and            A-10, U-2, F-15, F-16
                                                  records. Performs and supervises flight chief, expediter, crew chief,
                                                  repair and reclamation, quality assurance, and maintenance support
                                                  functions. Services aircraft, including end-of-runway, postflight, and
                                                  preflight, and performs inspections. Uses technical data to diagnose
                                                  and solve maintenance problems on aircraft systems.
Source: GAO analysis of Air Force information. I GAO-19-160




                                                              Page 6                                           GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Maintainer Training       According to officials, following basic training, most airmen assigned to
Process and Skill Level   the aircraft maintenance career field attend some portion of technical
                          school at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. Depending on the
Advancement
                          maintenance specialty, some maintainers may continue their technical
                          training at a second location. For example, maintainers specializing on
                          the F-35 complete additional training at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida
                          after completing initial courses at Sheppard Air Force Base. Maintainers
                          spend anywhere from 23 to 133 academic days in technical school
                          learning about aircraft maintenance fundamentals and their specific
                          maintenance specialties through a mix of classroom instruction and
                          hands-on training. Hands-on training is conducted on both partially-
                          functioning components of aircraft—called “trainers”—that replicate tasks
                          on working aircraft, and on ground instructional training aircraft. Figure 1
                          shows various training equipment used by maintainers during technical
                          school.




                          Page 7                                    GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Figure 1: Examples of Air Force Aircraft Maintainer Training Equipment




Air Force aircraft maintainers complete technical school as 3-levels, or
apprentices. Maintainers are eligible to advance to the 5-level
(journeyman) after completing additional coursework and a minimum of
12 months of on-the-job training. According to Air Force data, depending
on the maintenance specialty, it takes an average of 1 to 2 years to
advance to the 5-level. Maintainers are eligible to enter upgrade training
to advance to the 7-level after being selected for the rank of Staff
Sergeant. According to Air Force officials, the average time in service for
promotion selection is 4.4 years. The 7-level is achieved by completing
additional coursework, and completing a minimum of 12 months of on-
the-job training. Depending on the maintenance specialty, it takes



Page 8                                       GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                                         maintainers an average of 1 to 2 years after entering upgrade training to
                                         advance to the 7-level. 6 Figure 2 shows an overview of the Air Force’s
                                         aircraft maintainer training process and skill-level advancement.

Figure 2: Overview of Air Force Aircraft Maintainer Training Process and Skill-Level Advancement




Air Force Process for                    Department of Defense (DOD) Directive 1100.4 states that staffing
Determining Maintainer                   requirements are driven by workload and shall be established at the
                                         minimum levels necessary to accomplish mission and performance
Positions
                                         objectives. In addition, assigned missions shall be accomplished using
                                         the least costly mix of personnel (military, civilian, and contract)
                                         consistent with military requirements and other needs of DOD as
                                         prescribed in Title 10, United States Code. 7 Air Force officials reported
                                         that they fill their requirements based on the number of those
                                         requirements that are funded—called authorized staffing levels—and the
                                         number of trained and qualified personnel available to be staffed to those
                                         positions. In this report, we refer to the number of maintainers available to
                                         fill authorized staffing levels as actual staffing levels.



                                         6
                                          Department of Defense (DOD) officials stated that this timeline can differ for maintainers
                                         in the Air Force’s reserve component due to, among other things, technical school
                                         scheduling, time afforded by the maintainer’s civilian employer, and drill attendance.
                                         7
                                          Department of Defense Directive 1100.4, Guidance for Manpower Management (Feb. 12,
                                         2005).




                                         Page 9                                            GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                            The Air Force uses the Logistics Composite Model to determine
                            maintainer staffing requirements. 8 The model is a statistical simulation
                            that estimates monthly labor-hours and personnel required to accomplish
                            direct maintenance tasks. According to an Air Force official, locations are
                            staffed according to the worldwide average for each particular
                            maintenance specialty. For example, if the crew chief maintenance
                            specialty worldwide is staffed at 88 percent, the Air Force would staff
                            each overseas Major Command at 88 percent and distribute those
                            resources to ensure the bases are staffed at that worldwide average,
                            followed by domestic locations. An Air Force official stated that there are
                            a number of reasons why a particular location may be staffed below or
                            over the worldwide average, such as early releases from tours.


Commercial Aviation         Maintainers in the commercial aviation industry are commonly employed
Industry and Airframe and   by commercial air carriers, corporate flight departments, repair stations,
                            or manufacturers of aircraft or aircraft components. Aircraft mechanics
Power Plant Certificates
                            inspect, service, and repair aircraft bodies (airframe) and engines (power
                            plant). Aircraft mechanics can earn a mechanic certificate from the
                            Federal Aviation Administration with an airframe rating, power plant
                            rating, or combined airframe and power plant rating, and are referred to
                            as certificated mechanics. According to Federal Aviation Administration
                            data, almost all certificated mechanics hold airframe and power plant
                            ratings. Certification is not necessary to work as an aircraft mechanic;
                            however, without it, a mechanic cannot approve an aircraft for return to
                            service and must be supervised by a certificated mechanic. Certificated
                            mechanics that hold airframe and power plant ratings generally earn a
                            higher wage and are more desirable to employers than mechanics who
                            are not certificated, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

                            For an applicant to be authorized to take the mechanics examination for
                            the combined airframe and power plant rating, the applicant must either
                            (1) complete a Federal Aviation Administration-certificated aviation
                            maintenance technician school, and demonstrate and document relevant
                            airframe and power plant work experience gained through on-the-job
                            training, or (2) demonstrate and document work experience or some



                            8
                             The Logistics Composite Model was created in the 1960s through a joint effort of the
                            RAND Corporation and the Air Force Logistics Command to relate base-level logistics
                            resources with each other and with sortie generation.




                            Page 10                                          GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
combination of work experience and education gained through the military
working with airframes and engines. 9

Since 2002, the Community College of the Air Force has administered the
Federal Aviation Administration-approved Joint Services Aviation
Maintenance Technician Certification Council (the Joint Services Council)
program that, upon completion, confers a certificate of eligibility—
equivalent to a training program diploma—to take the airframe and power
plant exam. According to Community College of the Air Force officials,
although the airframe and power plant certificate is not required for Air
Force maintainer work, it does benefit maintainers’ potential career
prospects. The Joint Services Council’s program is available to members
of all services who have attained minimum requirements in aviation
maintenance—typically after 3 years of experience in a related position—
and includes three self-paced courses taken online in addition to on-the-
job training. Additionally, the Air Force has established its Credentialing
Opportunities On-Line program to help airmen find information on
certifications and licenses related to their jobs. The program requires that
the courses be accredited and be sought after within their industry or
sector as a recognized, preferred, or required credential. The program
also provides some funding assistance in obtaining airframe and power
plant certificates.




9
 Mechanics trained at a Federal Aviation Administration-approved aviation maintenance
technician school complete, at a minimum, 1,900 curriculum hours of training: 750
curriculum hours in airframe subjects, 750 curriculum hours in power plant subjects, and
400 curriculum hours in general education subjects. Applicants seeking to take the
mechanics examination for airframe and power plant ratings based on qualifying on-the-
job training must provide documentary evidence of 30 months of practical experience
concurrently performing the duties appropriate to the airframe and power plant ratings. In
addition to education and training requirements, individuals must be at least 18 years of
age and be able to read, write, speak, and understand English to be eligible for
certification.




Page 11                                           GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                              Since fiscal year 2016, the Air Force has taken steps to significantly
The Air Force Has             reduce the gap between actual aircraft maintainer staffing levels and
Significantly Reduced         authorized levels, a gap which exceeded 4,000 maintainers in fiscal year
                              2015. However, gaps remain for experienced maintainers—those at the
Overall Aircraft              5- and 7-levels who are most qualified to meet mission needs. The Air
Maintainer Staffing           Force’s reserve component has also experienced aircraft maintainer
                              staffing gaps over the past 8 fiscal years, although the Air National
Gaps but Continues            Guard’s gaps have been more consistent and significant than those of the
to Lack Experienced           Air Force Reserve Command.
Maintainers
The Air Force Has Made        Since fiscal year 2016, the Air Force has taken steps to significantly
Significant Reductions to     reduce overall enlisted aircraft maintainer staffing gaps. According to our
                              analysis of Air Force data, for all aircraft maintenance specialties
Overall Aircraft Maintainer
                              combined, the Air Force reduced the gap between actual staffing levels
Staffing Gaps                 and authorized levels from a peak of 4,016 maintainers (94 percent of
                              authorized levels filled) in fiscal year 2015 to 745 maintainers (99 percent)
                              in fiscal year 2017. In addition to a reduction in overall gaps, the number
                              of maintenance specialties experiencing staffing gaps also decreased
                              over this period. Specifically, while 12 maintenance specialties had actual
                              staffing levels that were less than 90 percent of authorized levels in fiscal
                              year 2015, only 4 did in fiscal year 2017. 10 Additionally, in fiscal year
                              2017, actual staffing levels for 18 of the Air Force’s maintenance
                              specialties met or exceeded authorized levels.

                              While the Air Force had a surplus of 1,705 maintainers in fiscal year 2010
                              (103 percent of authorized levels filled), actual staffing levels decreased
                              to 99 percent of authorized levels in fiscal year 2011, and continued to
                              decrease through fiscal year 2015. Air Force officials attributed these
                              staffing gaps to an increase in authorized positions—due to the
                              acquisition of the F-35 and increased maintenance needs for legacy
                              aircraft, such as the F-15, F-16, and B-52—and a decrease in actual
                              staffing levels, due to a reduction in end-strength from fiscal years 2014
                              through 2015. 11 These officials stated that the Air Force reduced its actual
                              10
                                The four maintenance specialties with actual staffing levels less than 90 percent of
                              authorized levels in fiscal year 2017 were: remotely piloted aircraft maintenance,
                              helicopter/tiltrotor aircraft maintenance, bomber/special integrated
                              communication/navigation/mission systems, and maintenance management.
                              11
                                Authorized end strength is the number of personnel that each component (Active,
                              National Guard, and Reserve) of a military service is authorized by Congress to have at
                              the end of a given fiscal year.




                              Page 12                                           GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
maintainer staffing levels through involuntary separations and reduced
accessions due, in part, to the planned divestiture of the A-10 and other
aircraft. However, these officials stated that the divestiture did not occur,
which contributed to further staffing gaps. 12

Since fiscal year 2016, the Air Force has taken a number of steps to
reduce aircraft maintainer staffing gaps, such as increasing accessions
and, beginning in fiscal year 2017, contracting out some maintenance
positions. The Air Force also issued memorandums in August 2016 and
September 2017 that restricted the ability of certain maintainers to retrain
to a career field outside of aircraft maintenance. 13 Additionally, from fiscal
years 2016 through 2018, through the High Year of Tenure Extension
Program, the Air Force extended the maximum number of years that
maintainers in certain maintenance specialties could remain on active
duty. According to October 2018 testimony, the Secretary of the Air Force
stated that the Air Force planned to eliminate the overall maintainer
staffing gap by December 2018. 14 Air Force officials acknowledged that
while staffing levels have started to improve since the reduction in end-
strength, they anticipate that the Air Force will continue to experience
maintainer staffing gaps off and on through fiscal year 2023, when the
gap is projected to be about 500 maintainers, due, in part, to an increase
in F-35 maintenance requirements. According to these officials, this
estimate is based on recruitment cycles and retention trends, and could
change if there are any programmatic changes, such as the addition or
divestment of any aircraft types.

Over the past 8 fiscal years, the Air Force has accepted some level of risk
in deciding how much of its maintainer requirements to fund. For
example, according to our analysis, from fiscal years 2010 through 2017,
12
  In August 2016, we reported on the A-10 divestment decision, see GAO, Force
Structure: Better Information Needed to Support Air Force A-10 and Other Future
Divestment Decisions, GAO-16-816 (Washington, D.C.: Aug. 24, 2016).
13
  These restrictions were, cumulatively, effective from October 1, 2016 through
September 30, 2018. Air Force Logistics, Engineering & Force Protection (AF/A4)
Memorandum, Retraining Exception to Policy Requests (Aug. 31, 2016), and Air Force
Logistics, Engineering & Force Protection (AF/A4) Memorandum, Aircraft Maintenance
Retraining Exception to Policy Requests (Sept. 30, 2017).
14
  Current Readiness of the U.S. Air Force: Department of the Air Force Presentation to
the Subcommittee on Readiness and Management Support of the Senate Committee on
Armed Services, 115th Congress (Oct. 10, 2018) (statement of the Honorable Heather A.
Wilson, United States Secretary of the Air Force, and General Stephen W. Wilson, Vice
Chief of Staff, United States Air Force).




Page 13                                         GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
the Air Force authorized or funded 95 to 97 percent of its maintainer
requirements across maintenance specialties—that is, about 1,800 to
3,900 requirements were not funded each year. According to DOD
officials, across all Air Force specialties decisions have to be made about
how to fund requirements, and it is not uncommon for authorized levels to
fall below requirements. Figure 3 compares the Air Force’s active
component aircraft maintainer staffing levels, authorized levels, and
requirements for all maintenance specialties combined over the past 8
fiscal years.

Figure 3: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Actual Staffing Levels,
Authorized Levels, and Requirements, Fiscal Years 2010-2017




Air Force officials acknowledged that when taking into account increases
in requirements—due in part to aging aircraft systems—maintainer
staffing gaps have been higher than reported. Specifically, while the gap
between actual and authorized staffing levels exceeded 4,000
maintainers in fiscal year 2015, when considering the number of
requirements that were not funded, the gap was about 5,800 maintainers.
Moreover, while maintainer requirements increased by about 1,200
between fiscal years 2015 and 2017, the number of authorized positions
only increased by 120.




Page 14                                      GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
The Air Force Continues to   Our analysis of Air Force data found that the Air Force has had staffing
Have Staffing Gaps of        gaps of experienced aircraft maintainers—those at the 5- and 7-levels—in
                             7 of the past 8 fiscal years. While the Air Force’s actual maintainer
Experienced Aircraft
                             staffing levels were 99 percent of authorized levels in fiscal year 2017, 3-
Maintainers                  level maintainers were the only skill level without a staffing gap.
                             Specifically, in fiscal year 2017, the Air Force had a gap of 2,044 5-level
                             maintainers (94 percent of authorized levels filled) and a gap of 439 7-
                             level maintainers (97 percent). 15 However, the Air Force had a surplus of
                             1,745 3-level maintainers (112 percent). Figure 4 compares, by skill level,
                             actual aircraft maintainer staffing levels with authorized levels for all
                             active component maintenance specialties combined over the past 8
                             fiscal years.




                             15
                               Air Force officials stated that staffing level data reflect skill-levels by rank and, as a
                             result, may not reflect the number of maintainers in the field that are qualified at the 3-, 5-,
                             and 7- skill levels. For example, these officials stated that a maintainer may be qualified to
                             perform 7-level maintainer duties in the field, but not yet have reached the rank of
                             Technical Sergeant, therefore appearing in the staffing level data as a 5-level. For the
                             purposes of staffing level data, these officials stated that 3-level maintainers are the ranks
                             of Airman First Class and below, 5-level maintainers are the ranks of Senior Airman and
                             Staff Sergeant, and 7-level maintainers are the ranks of Technical Sergeant and Master
                             Sergeant.




                             Page 15                                             GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Figure 4: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Actual Staffing Levels Compared with Authorized Levels by Skill
Level, Fiscal Years 2010-2017




                                         In fiscal years 2015 and 2016, the Air Force had significant gaps of 3-
                                         level maintainers—3,536 and 2,401, respectively—due to a decrease in
                                         accessions as part of its reduction in end strength. Air Force officials
                                         stated that these previous staffing gaps of 3-level maintainers have
                                         contributed to the current staffing gap of 5-level maintainers, since
                                         maintainers who were at the 3-level in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 would
                                         have likely upgraded to the 5-level by fiscal year 2017. These officials
                                         stated that, similarly, the current staffing gap of 5-level maintainers is
                                         expected to contribute to an increase in the size of the 7-level maintainer
                                         staffing gap over the next few fiscal years.

                                         In fiscal year 2017, certain maintenance specialties and aircraft faced
                                         greater experience gaps than others. For example, the advanced fighter
                                         aircraft integrated avionics specialty had a gap of 140 7-level maintainers
                                         (70 percent of authorized levels filled) and a gap of 56 5-level




                                         Page 16                                      GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                                                                  maintainers—all specifically trained on the F-35 (78 percent). 16 In
                                                                  contrast, the aerospace ground equipment specialty had a surplus of 28
                                                                  7-level maintainers (104 percent). Table 2 shows authorized versus
                                                                  actual staffing levels for select active component maintenance specialties
                                                                  and aircraft, by skill level, in fiscal year 2017.

Table 2: Staffing Levels by Skill Level for Select Active Component Aircraft Maintenance Specialties, Fiscal Year 2017

                   Maintenance specialty                               Aircraft       Skill level             Number of       Actual staffing           Percent filled
                                                                                                    authorized positions                level
 Advanced fighter aircraft integrated                                       F-35               5                      254                  198                       78
 avionics                                                                       —              7                      465                  325                       70
 Aerospace ground equipment                                                     —              5                   1,663                 1,652                       99
                                                                                               7                      696                  724                      104
 Aircraft armament systems                                                      —              5                   3,207                 3,019                       94
                                                                                               7                   1,420                 1,444                      102
 Tactical aircraft maintenance (5th                                         F-35               5                      443                  359                       81
 generation)                                                                F-22               5                      433                  433                      100
                                                                                —              7                      643                  495                       77
 Remotely piloted aircraft                                       MQ-1/MQ-9                     5                      257                  139                       54
 maintenance                                                               RQ-4                5                       71                    81                     114
                                                                                —              7                      244                  152                       62
Source: GAO analysis of Air Force staffing level data and information. I GAO-19-160

                                                                  Note: For some maintenance specialties, 3- and 5-level maintainers specialize on specific aircraft, but
                                                                  7-level maintainers do not. For some maintenance specialties, none of the skill-levels specialize on
                                                                  specific aircraft. Those specialties are designated with a “—” in the table.




                                                                  Air Force officials stated that it is important to have a balance of
                                                                  maintainer experience levels, but noted that current experience
                                                                  imbalances cannot be corrected as quickly as overall staffing gaps
                                                                  because rebuilding experience takes time. As previously discussed,
                                                                  depending on the maintenance specialty, the average time to upgrade
                                                                  from a 3-level to a 5-level ranges from 1 to 2 years, and the average time
                                                                  to upgrade from a 5-level to a 7-level after entering upgrade training is 1
                                                                  to 2 years. Air Force officials highlighted that there is no substitute for
                                                                  experience.

                                                                  16
                                                                    While 3- and 5-level maintainers assigned to the advanced fighter aircraft integrated
                                                                  avionics maintenance specialty specialize on a specific aircraft, 7-level maintainers
                                                                  assigned to the specialty do not.




                                                                  Page 17                                                   GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                               Noting that new 3-level maintainers will initially lack the experience and
                               proficiency needed to meet mission needs—and will require supervision
                               to oversee their technical progression—the Air Force has taken steps to
                               ensure that experienced maintainers are assigned to maintenance roles
                               that will improve operational readiness and influence the growing
                               workforce. Specifically, the Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics,
                               Engineering and Force Protection issued a memorandum in July 2016 to
                               all of the Major Command Vice Commanders noting the importance of
                               maximizing utilization of experienced maintenance personnel in mission
                               generation and repair network jobs. 17 Air Force officials stated that it is
                               critical that experienced maintainers be in the field training the surplus of
                               new 3-level maintainers and getting them the experience they need. In
                               addition, beginning in fiscal year 2017, in order to retrain 600 experienced
                               maintainers on the F-35, the Air Force contracted some aircraft
                               maintenance for three legacy aircraft in certain locations. These
                               maintenance contracts are to run from fiscal years 2017 through 2020.


The Air National Guard         Over the past 8 fiscal years, the Air Force’s reserve component has also
Has Had Consistent             experienced aircraft maintainer staffing gaps; however, the Air National
                               Guard’s gaps have been more consistent and significant than those of the
Aircraft Maintainer Staffing
                               Air Force Reserve Command. Figure 5 compares actual aircraft
Gaps, While Air Force          maintainer staffing levels with authorized levels for the Air National Guard
Reserve Gaps Have Been         and the Air Force Reserve Command over the past 8 fiscal years.
Smaller




                               17
                                U.S. Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff for Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection
                               Memorandum, Maximizing Utilization of Maintenance Manpower (July 29, 2016).




                               Page 18                                          GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Figure 5: Air Force Reserve Component Actual Aircraft Maintainer Staffing Levels Compared with Authorized Levels, Fiscal
Years 2010-2017




                                         According to our analysis, the Air National Guard has had consistent
                                         aircraft maintainer staffing gaps from fiscal years 2010 through 2017—
                                         ranging from 84 percent to 89 percent of authorized levels filled. In fiscal
                                         year 2017, the Air National Guard had a staffing gap of 3,219 maintainers
                                         (87 percent of authorized levels filled), which was primarily spread evenly
                                         across 5- and 7-level maintainers. The Air National Guard’s staffing gaps
                                         have remained despite a significant decrease in authorizations over this
                                         period. Specifically, the Air National Guard’s authorized positions
                                         decreased from 28,654 in fiscal year 2010, to 24,198 in fiscal year 2017.
                                         Air National Guard officials stated that the decrease in authorizations is a
                                         result of mission and aircraft changes—in particular, while the Guard has
                                         increased its use of unmanned aerial systems, it primarily relies on
                                         contract maintenance for those systems, reducing the need for Air Force
                                         maintainers.

                                         In comparison, the Air Force Reserve Command experienced smaller
                                         maintainer staffing gaps over the past 8 fiscal years. According to our
                                         analysis, the percent of authorized levels filled ranged from a low of 95
                                         percent in fiscal year 2010 (a gap of 733 maintainers), to a high of 103
                                         percent in fiscal year 2013 (a surplus of 514). In fiscal year 2017, the Air
                                         Force Reserve Command had an overall staffing gap of 374 maintainers
                                         (97 percent of authorized levels filled), which primarily consisted of 7-level
                                         maintainers. Specifically, in fiscal year 2017, the Air Force Reserve



                                         Page 19                                     GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                          Command had a gap of 777 7-level maintainers (89 percent of authorized
                          levels filled), and a surplus of 566 5-level maintainers (108 percent).

                          Officials from both the Air National Guard and the Air Force Reserve
                          Command stated that aircraft maintainer staffing levels differ by wing and
                          location. For example, Air Force Reserve Command officials noted that
                          maintainer requirements have recently increased at certain Air Force
                          bases due to the arrival of fifth-generation fighter aircraft, and that while
                          those locations are working to increase their maintainer staffing levels,
                          they are currently below authorized levels. Air Force Reserve Command
                          officials identified a strong economy with multiple civilian employment
                          opportunities, disparities in active duty versus technician pay, and long
                          hiring processes as factors affecting its full-time maintainer staffing levels.
                          As a result, these officials noted that that they are looking at ways to
                          improve maintainer retention. 18 Air National Guard officials stated that any
                          maintainer-specific recruitment or retention challenges would be identified
                          and addressed at the local level and that, as a result, they were unable to
                          describe challenges Air National Guard-wide.


                          The Air Force has had challenges retaining experienced maintainers, with
The Air Force Has         loss rates of 5-level maintainers increasing over the past 8 fiscal years.
Increasingly Lost         While the commercial aviation industry is experiencing similar staffing
                          challenges, the effects of these challenges on the Air Force’s maintainer
Experienced Aircraft      workforce are unknown. In addition, since fiscal year 2015, the Air Force
Maintainers and Does      has increased retention bonuses to improve retention among certain
                          critical maintenance specialties, but the Air Force does not have retention
Not Have Goals and        goals or an overall strategy to help retain maintainers and sustain recent
a Strategy to Improve     staffing level improvements.
Retention
Air Force Losses of       The Air Force monitors maintainer retention through loss rates—the
Experienced Maintainers   percentage of maintainers who leave the career field or the Air Force
                          during a given fiscal year for reasons such as separation or retirement—
Have Increased since
                          and reenlistment rates, according to Air Force officials. Our analysis of Air
Fiscal Year 2010          Force data found that overall enlisted aircraft maintainer loss rates have
                          remained relatively stable over the past 8 fiscal years. Specifically, overall

                          18
                            Details on the retention of aircraft maintainers in the Air Force Reserve Command and
                          the Air National Guard are provided in appendix II.




                          Page 20                                         GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                                         loss rates ranged from 9 to 10 percent—mirroring overall enlisted loss
                                         rates across the Air Force—with the exception of fiscal year 2014, when
                                         the loss rate was 13 percent due, in part, to reductions in end strength.
                                         Air Force officials stated that they need to retain more maintainers than in
                                         past fiscal years to help address experience gaps. However, gaps of
                                         experienced maintainers—those at the 5-level—have increased.
                                         Specifically, loss rates among 5-level maintainers increased from 9
                                         percent in fiscal year 2010 to 12 percent in fiscal years 2016 and 2017.
                                         Loss rates of 7-level maintainers were 8 and 9 percent in fiscal years
                                         2016 and 2017, respectively. Figure 6 compares, by skill level, active
                                         component maintainer loss rates with loss rates for all Air Force enlisted
                                         personnel over the past 8 fiscal years. 19

Figure 6: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Loss Rates by Skill Level, Fiscal Years 2010-2017




                                         a
                                          Air Force loss rates averaged approximately 10 percent since fiscal year 2010, with the exception of
                                         fiscal year 2014 when the loss rate was approximately 13 percent.




                                         19
                                           Details on Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard aircraft maintainer loss
                                         rates are provided in appendix II.




                                         Page 21                                                GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                                                                While loss rates of 7-level maintainers were comparable to overall
                                                                maintainer loss rates in fiscal years 2016 and 2017, Air Force officials
                                                                expect those rates to increase over the next few fiscal years due to
                                                                changes in reenlistment behaviors and the current staffing gap of 5-level
                                                                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—similar to reenlistment rates for
                                                                all Air Force enlisted personnel. Over this period, reenlistment rates
                                                                decreased most significantly for maintainers making their first
                                                                reenlistment decision—from 70.5 percent in fiscal year 2010, to 58.3
                                                                percent in fiscal year 2017. Reenlistment rates at the second reenlistment
                                                                decision point decreased as well—from 88 percent in fiscal year 2010, to
                                                                81.3 percent in fiscal year 2017. Table 3 provides reenlistment rates for
                                                                active component aircraft maintainers over the past 8 fiscal years.

Table 3: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Reenlistment Rates (as percentages), Fiscal Years 2010-2017

                                                       Fiscal           Fiscal      Fiscal      Fiscal      Fiscal      Fiscal      Fiscal      Fiscal
                                                    year 2010        year 2011   year 2012   year 2013   year 2014   year 2015   year 2016   year 2017
1st Reenlistment                                         70.5             67.7        67.2        60.2        61.7        56.5        58.4         58.3
2nd Reenlistment                                         88.0             86.9        86.7        86.4        85.6        84.5        81.5         81.3
3rd Reenlistment (career)                                97.6             96.7        98.6        96.6        96.0        97.3        96.0         95.1
4th Reenlistment (retirement)                            99.8             100         100         100         99.6        100         99.2          100
All reenlistments combined                               81.6             82.0        80.8        76.9        77.7        75.0        74.9         73.4
Source: Air Force reenlistment data. I GAO-19-160

                                                                In 2015 and 2017, the Air Force conducted aircraft maintenance retention
                                                                surveys in order to identify areas of opportunity to improve career
                                                                experiences, job satisfaction, and to understand retention drivers. Air
                                                                Force officials stated that these surveys and reports are used as
                                                                informational tools, but that they are researching methods to further dive
                                                                into specific concerns. Maintainers who responded to the 2017 survey
                                                                cited job stress, overall job satisfaction, and satisfaction with the career
                                                                field as top factors influencing them to leave the Air Force. 20 Survey
                                                                respondents also stated that military benefits, the retirement program,
                                                                and job security were the top reasons to remain in the Air Force. The
                                                                survey also found that mid-tier enlisted personnel—Senior Airmen, Staff
                                                                Sergeants, and Tech Sergeants—reported lower levels of satisfaction
                                                                with leadership than did higher enlisted ranks.
                                                                20
                                                                 Air Force, Air Force 2017 Aircraft Maintenance Retention Survey Analysis (Apr. 2018).




                                                                Page 22                                         GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                             Participants in all five of our discussion groups with maintainers cited job
                             dissatisfaction as a factor affecting their reenlistment decisions.
                             Specifically, participants discussed the stress of the job, physical toll of
                             the work, heavy workload, and undesirable working conditions. In
                             addition, participants in all discussion groups noted challenges in
                             providing on-the-job training to the large number of 3-level maintainers
                             arriving at their squadrons due to staffing gaps of 5- and 7-level
                             maintainers—who are needed to supervise that training. Participants
                             stated that the lack of experienced maintainers has increased workloads
                             and stress levels, which they stated may negatively affect reenlistment
                             decisions. Some participants in all five discussion groups were interested
                             in retraining into other specialties outside of aircraft maintenance as a
                             way to continue their Air Force careers. However, as previously
                             discussed, since 2016, the Air Force has placed certain restrictions on
                             retraining to non-maintenance career fields in an effort to address
                             maintainer staffing challenges.


Hiring Difficulties May      According to our analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data from 2012
Exist in the Commercial      through 2017, unemployment rate, employment, and wage earnings for
                             the aircraft mechanic and service technician, and aerospace engineer
Aviation Industry, but Its
                             occupations were consistent with the existence of hiring difficulties. While
Effects on the Air Force’s   no single metric can be used to say whether a labor shortage exists, it is
Maintainer Workforce Are     possible to look at certain “indicators” in conjunction with views of
Unknown                      stakeholders. Specifically, we previously found that according to
                             economic literature, if a job shortage were to exist, one would expect (1) a
                             low unemployment rate signaling limited availability of workers in that
                             profession, (2) increases in employment due to increases in demand for
                             that occupation, and (3) increases in wages offered to draw people into
                             that profession. 21 Table 4 shows these specific indicators from 2012 to
                             2017, since we last reported, measured using the Bureau of Labor
                             Statistics’ Current Population Survey.




                             21
                               GAO, Aviation Workforce: Current and Future Availability of Airline Pilots, GAO-14-232
                             (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 28, 2014); see Carolyn M. Veneri, “Can Occupational Labor
                             Shortages be Identified Using Available Data?,” Monthly Labor Review, vol. 122, no. 3, pp.
                             15-21 (March 1999); and Malcolm S. Cohen, Labor Shortages: As America Approaches
                             the Twenty-first Century (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1995).




                             Page 23                                          GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Table 4: Selected Labor Market Indicators for Aerospace Engineers and Aircraft Mechanics and Service Technicians, 2012-
2017

                                                                     Annual percent                      Annual percent                              Average
                                                                                  a                                   b                                     c
                                                           change in median wages               changes in employment                          unemployment
 Aerospace engineers                                                                   1.5                                1.3                                 1.5
 Aircraft mechanics and service                                                        2.0                                1.2                                 2.5
 technicians
 All occupations                                                                       0.9                                2.0                                 6.0
Source: GAO Analysis of Current Population Survey Data. I GAO-19-160
                                                               a
                                                                We calculated the “annual percent change in median wages” as the annualized percent change in
                                                               median weekly earnings among full-time wage and salary workers in that occupation (the boundary
                                                               between the highest paid 50 percent and the lowest paid 50 percent in that occupation). The changes
                                                               in median wages are adjusted for inflation using the Consumer Price Index for All Urban Consumers.
                                                               b
                                                                We calculated the “annual percent change in employment” as the annualized percent change in
                                                               employment among full time workers in that occupation over the period.
                                                               c
                                                                The unemployment rate is the percentage of persons aged 16 years or older that had no
                                                               employment, but were seeking employment, out of the entire labor force. The unemployment rate for
                                                               an occupation includes those unemployed in that occupation based on their most recent job. We
                                                               calculated “average unemployment” as the average unemployment rate in that occupation over the
                                                               period.


                                                               As table 4 indicates, the direction of all three of these indicators is
                                                               consistent with difficulty in hiring of both aircraft mechanics and
                                                               aerospace engineers. However, the indicators should be viewed with
                                                               appropriate caveats. 22 First, from 2012 to 2017, median wages for
                                                               aerospace engineers and aircraft mechanics increased at a greater
                                                               percentage than wages for all occupations, approximately 1.5 and 2.0
                                                               percent per year, respectively, compared to about 1 percent for all
                                                               occupations. However, while median wages increased for aerospace
                                                               engineers and aircraft mechanics during this entire period, it did not
                                                               increase in every year, and it exhibited swings by as much as 13 percent.
                                                               Second, from 2012 to 2017, employment for aerospace engineers and
                                                               aircraft mechanics increased by approximately 1.3 and 1.2 percent per
                                                               year, respectively. In comparison, for all occupations, employment
                                                               increased by about 2 percent per year over this period. Finally, over this
                                                               period, the average unemployment rate for aerospace engineers and
                                                               aircraft mechanics was approximately 1.5 and 2.5 percent on average,
                                                               respectively, compared to about 6 percent for all occupations.

                                                               22
                                                                 We previously reported on important limitations to these indicators, as measured using
                                                               the Current Population Survey data, in GAO-14-232. Those data are collected through a
                                                               household survey and are subject to response and sampling error. Moreover, the Bureau
                                                               of Labor Statistics collects information on workers at all stages in their career—so it may
                                                               not be informative of changes in starting salaries.




                                                               Page 24                                               GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
In addition, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational
Outlook Handbook, overall employment of aircraft and avionics
equipment mechanics and technicians is projected to grow 5 percent from
2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Job
opportunities are expected to be good because there will be a need to
replace those workers leaving the occupation. 23 Industry stakeholders we
spoke with anticipate similar growth in demand for labor, and cited ways
companies were recruiting maintainers into the industry, such as raising
wages, incorporating additional training, and paying maintainers during
their airframe and power plant certificate coursework.

The effects of the commercial aviation industry’s hiring difficulties on the
Air Force’s maintainer workforce are unknown. Air Force officials stated
that the Air Force has not assessed the effects, and that while some
maintainers will leave the Air Force to work for the commercial aviation
industry, they do not believe it is an overarching issue. However, Air
National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command officials noted that a
base’s location, in particular its proximity to commercial aviation industry
opportunities, may affect its ability to recruit and retain maintainers. While
the industry stakeholders we spoke with noted that military maintainers
are attractive to the commercial aviation industry because of their
previous training, work ethic, and discipline, they also noted challenges in
recruiting military maintainers. Specifically, one stakeholder stated that
many military maintainers require similar training for private sector
positions as their non-military peers, citing to the specificity of training
military maintainers receive compared to the broader approach taken by
the commercial aviation sector.

Only one study we identified through our literature search examined the
potential effects of the commercial aviation industry—specifically the
commercial airlines—on Air Force aircraft maintainer staffing levels. This
study, published in 2016 by RAND and reviewing data from fiscal years
2004 through 2013, did not estimate the effect of any specific
development in the commercial aviation industry on the Air Force.
However, it identified several factors that suggest that the effects, if any,



23
  U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook:
Aircraft and Avionics Equipment Mechanics and Technicians,
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/installation-maintenance-and-repair/aircraft-and-avionics-
equipment-mechanics-and-technicians.htm (visited October 11, 2018).




Page 25                                        GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
are likely to be limited. 24 It found this based on four indicators: (1) the Air
Force kept steady maintainer retention rates while the airline maintainer
population fluctuated over the same period of time; (2) the Air Force
offered competitive maintainer salaries compared with several airlines,
making it unlikely that maintainers would separate or retire for better
earnings potential alone; (3) few Air Force maintainers seemed to be
pursuing airframe and power plant certification, which is often a
prerequisite to employment in the airline industry; and (4) on average,
there were considerably more qualified Air Force maintainers separating
or retiring than projected airline maintenance jobs available. However, the
report focused only on the commercial airlines. Air Force officials stated
that they are more likely to experience outside recruitment of maintainers
from defense contractors than from commercial airlines.

Participants in four of our five discussion groups with maintainers cited
better pay as a reason to transition from the Air Force to the commercial
aviation industry. They also noted consistent schedules, 8-hour work
days, and overtime pay as additional benefits. However, participants in all
of our discussion groups also discussed an interest in careers outside of
aircraft maintenance, such as police work, firefighting, cyber security,
information technology, and real estate, among others.

For maintainers who want to pursue a career in the commercial aviation
industry upon separation or retirement from the Air Force, DOD has
undertaken several actions to facilitate airframe and power plant
certification of its servicemembers. For example, as previously discussed,
since 2002 the Community College of the Air Force has administered the
Federal Aviation Administration-approved Joint Services Council program
that, upon completion, confers a certificate of eligibility to take the
airframe and power plant exam. According to Community College of the
Air Force data, in fiscal year 2017, there were 95 graduates from the Joint
Services Council’s airframe and power plant preparation program. Table
5 shows the number of Air Force personnel that enrolled in and graduated
from the Joint Services Council’s airframe and power plant program from
fiscal years 2010 through 2017.




24
  RAND Project AIR FORCE, RAND Corporation, Can the Air Force and Airlines
Collaborate for Mutual Benefit? An Exploration of Pilot and Maintenance Workforce
Options (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2016).




Page 26                                         GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Table 5: Joint Services Aviation Maintenance Technician Certification Council Program, Enrollment and Graduate Counts,
Fiscal Years 2010-2017

                                        Fiscal year Fiscal year Fiscal year Fiscal year Fiscal year Fiscal year Fiscal year Fiscal year
                                              2010        2011        2012        2013        2014        2015        2016        2017
Enrollments                                        673               870         1,257           952          1,025            598            77           143
Graduates                                            23               24            44             44            51             60            68             95
Source: Community College of the Air Force data. I GAO-19-160



                                                                Air Force officials noted a decrease in enrollments since fiscal year 2015
                                                                due to additional enrollment requirements, including completing initial
                                                                coursework. From fiscal years 2015 through 2017, about 900 personnel
                                                                used Air Force funding for airframe and power plant certificates through
                                                                the Air Force Credentialing Opportunities On-Line program, which was
                                                                established in fiscal year 2015.


The Air Force Has                                               The Air Force has increased its use of retention bonuses since fiscal year
Increased Its Use of                                            2015 to help retain critical maintenance specialties. Per DOD Instruction
                                                                1304.31, the secretary of a military department may use service retention
Retention Bonuses for
                                                                bonuses to obtain the reenlistment or voluntary extension of an enlistment
Some Maintenance                                                in exchange for a military service member’s agreement to serve for a
Specialties, but Does Not                                       specified period in at least one of the following categories: a designated
Have Retention Goals or a                                       military skill, career field, unit, or grade; or to meet some other condition
Maintainer Specific                                             of service. 25 In fiscal year 2015, the Air Force awarded 1,590 bonuses to
                                                                aircraft maintainers in certain specialties, totaling more than $60 million. 26
Strategy to Improve                                             Bonuses increased in fiscal year 2016—with 2,415 bonuses awarded at a
Retention                                                       total cost of more than $87 million. Bonuses decreased slightly in fiscal
                                                                year 2017—with 1,797 bonuses awarded primarily to 5-level maintainers,
                                                                at a total cost of over $65 million. 27 Figure 7 shows the increases in the
                                                                25
                                                                  According to DOD Instruction 1304.31, when designating a military skill for purposes of
                                                                paying a retention bonus, the secretary of a military department shall consider, among
                                                                other things: the critical personnel shortage in a particular military skill with respect to at
                                                                least three of the preceding year groups, as defined by the secretary concerned; the
                                                                potential impact of critical staffing challenges on the mission of the military department;
                                                                the degree to which retention in a particular military skill does not meet established
                                                                retention objectives; and the high cost of training associated with the military skill. DOD
                                                                Instruction 1304.31, Enlisted Bonus Program (EBP) (Mar. 12, 2013).
                                                                26
                                                                  Retention bonus amounts are inflation-adjusted monetary amounts in fiscal year 2017
                                                                dollars.
                                                                27
                                                                  Details on the Air Force Reserve Command and Air National Guard’s use of retention
                                                                bonuses to improve aircraft maintainer retention are provided in appendix II.




                                                                Page 27                                               GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
number and total costs of Air Force active component retention bonuses
awarded to aircraft maintainers over the past 8 fiscal years.

Figure 7: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Retention Bonuses, Fiscal
Years 2010-2017




According to Air Force officials, retention bonuses remain a critical
incentive for reenlistment. Participants in four of our five discussion
groups with maintainers highlighted retention bonuses as a motivating
factor to remain in the Air Force. Some participants stated that they were
a major factor in their decision-making, while others were unsure of the
availability or amount of bonuses, making it difficult to appropriately
consider them in their decisions.

Air Force officials have stated that they need to retain more maintainers
than in past fiscal years to help address experience gaps, but the Air
Force has not established retention goals for maintainers. Standards for
Internal Control in the Federal Government states that management
should establish and operate monitoring activities and evaluate the
results. In addition, the Standards provide that, in reviewing actual
performance, management tracks achievements and compares them to




Page 28                                      GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
plans, goals, and objectives. 28 While the Air Force has mechanisms to
monitor the health of the maintenance career field, such as through loss
and reenlistment rates, it has not developed annual retention goals for
maintainers. As a result, the Air Force cannot identify how many 5-level
and 7-level maintainers it needs to retain to support new 3-level
maintainers in training and certification of flight line work. Given increases
in losses of experienced maintainers and decreasing reenlistment rates,
the Air Force faces challenges in managing the overall maintenance
workforce, including ensuring that there are enough experienced
maintainers to fulfill mission and training needs. Without annual retention
goals—for both loss and reenlistment rates—the Air Force cannot assess
how many maintainers it needs to retain each year, by skill level, to
sustain recent staffing level improvements and, ultimately, to ensure the
health of its maintenance workforce.

The Air Force also lacks a retention strategy to focus its efforts in
retaining maintainers. As previously discussed, the Air Force has
conducted aircraft maintenance retention surveys to gauge the health of
the workforce and identify opportunities to improve the career field, but Air
Force officials have stated that these surveys are currently used only for
informational purposes. In addition, while the Air Force offers retention
bonuses for certain maintenance specialties—and has extended the
maximum number of years maintainers in certain specialties can remain
on active duty through the High Year of Tenure Extension Program—
according to Air Force officials, it does not have a maintainer specific
strategy or other initiatives (either monetary or non-monetary) that
address the factors the Air Force has identified through its biennial
surveys as negatively influencing maintainer retention. 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. 29

Without a retention strategy—including initiatives that are tailored to the
specific needs and challenges of maintainers—the Air Force may be
missing opportunities to retain experienced 5- and 7-level maintainers,
who are needed to train the recent increase of new 3-level maintainers in
the field. According to participants from our discussion groups with

28
 GAO-14-704G.
29
 GAO-04-39.




Page 29                                    GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                             maintainers, increases in 3-level maintainers could negatively affect
                             retention of experienced maintainers if this increase continues to affect
                             their workloads. While the Air Force has some tools in place to monitor
                             retention and identify factors affecting reenlistment decisions, such as its
                             retention surveys, without a retention strategy to address concerns raised
                             in these surveys, and goals against which to measure progress, it may
                             not be able to sustain recent staffing level improvements or improve the
                             overall health of the maintenance workforce as effectively.


                             Over the past 8 fiscal years, the Air Force has consistently met overall
The Air Force Has            aircraft maintainer technical school completion rate goals. However, after
Consistently Met             technical school, additional on-the-job training is required to produce a
                             fully qualified maintainer. In addition, the Air Force reserve component’s
Technical School             programmed technical school completions have consistently exceeded
Completion Rate              actual completions over this period.
Goals for Aircraft
Maintainers
The Air Force Has Met        Our analysis of Air Force data found that the Air Force consistently met
Overall Technical School     technical school completion rate goals from fiscal years 2010 through
                             2017. According to Air Education and Training Command (AETC)
Completion Rate Goals for
                             officials, AETC established a maintainer technical school completion rate
Aircraft Maintainers Since   goal for the active component of 90 percent—that is, the number of actual
Fiscal Year 2010             technical school completions compared to the number of programmed or
                             expected completions. According to AETC officials, the goal is not
                             documented, but it has been in place since at least fiscal year 2010 and is
                             intended to measure the health and well-being of the training program. In
                             fiscal year 2017, the completion rate was 97 percent, with all but two
                             maintenance specialties meeting their goals. 30 According to AETC
                             officials, there are a number of reasons a particular maintenance
                             specialty may not meet its technical school completion rate goals, such as
                             low technical school entry rates, security clearance delays, and
                             challenging course topics. Figure 8 shows the Air Force’s active
                             30
                               The two maintenance specialties that did not meet their technical school completion rate
                             goals in fiscal year 2017 were Special Operations Forces/Personnel Recovery Integrated
                             Electronic Warfare Systems (89 percent completion rate) and Nuclear Weapons (80
                             percent completion rate). Over the past 8 fiscal years, the Nuclear Weapons specialty only
                             met technical school completion rate goals in 1 year. AETC officials stated that the
                             security clearance backlog and Personnel Reliability Program disqualifications have
                             contributed to the low completion rates.




                             Page 30                                          GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                                       component technical school completion rates for all maintenance
                                       specialties combined over the past 8 fiscal years.

Figure 8: Air Force Active Component Aircraft Maintainer Actual Technical School Completions Compared with Programmed
Completions, Fiscal Years 2010-2017




                                       a
                                        The technical school completion rates are rounded to the nearest 5 percent due to the reliability of
                                       the data in at least fiscal years 2010 through 2013.


                                       In fiscal year 2017, approximately 9,600 active component maintainers
                                       completed technical school, an increase from about 7,200 and 5,700 in
                                       fiscal years 2016 and 2015, respectively. While increased technical
                                       school completions help to address overall aircraft maintainer staffing
                                       gaps, they cannot immediately resolve staffing imbalances across
                                       experience levels. Air Force officials noted that while they track the
                                       number of maintainers they are producing by technical school
                                       completions (the number of new 3-level maintainers), maintainers are not
                                       fully qualified for the job until they are 5-levels, which requires, as
                                       previously discussed, at least a year of on-the-job training, among other
                                       things. Technical school instructors agreed that while technical school is
                                       important for teaching basic concepts, on-the-job training is what
                                       produces a fully-qualified maintainer.

                                       AETC officials stated that the technical schools continue to have the
                                       capacity to meet completion rate goals even with the increase in students,
                                       but that they have experienced significant challenges in recent years
                                       receiving enough instructors in a timely manner—both civilian and
                                       military—and getting them qualified to teach. These officials stated that
                                       this is a result of issues with the formula that determines instructor
                                       staffing needs, the instructor staffing process for military personnel, and
                                       civilian hiring delays, among other things. According to AETC officials,
                                       they have been able to consistently meet completion rate goals despite
                                       these challenges by waiving some course requirements for multiple
                                       instructors (except when there are safety concerns), contracting some



                                       Page 31                                                  GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
instruction, and assigning temporary duty personnel to serve as
instructors. These officials noted that while those actions have allowed
them to continue to meet their mission, they have also masked the
severity of the instructor staffing challenges and increased existing
instructors’ stress and workloads. This was confirmed by the technical
school instructors with which we spoke. Additionally, AETC officials noted
challenges with aging infrastructure and hangars, and in obtaining high
fidelity, realistic aircraft and trainers. However, they did highlight a recent
success in acquiring updated avionics trainers.

Over the past few fiscal years, AETC has conducted annual field
interviews with technical school graduates and graduate supervisors to
evaluate the technical school training program. 31 Specifically, AETC uses
the interviews to gauge satisfaction with the graduates’ abilities to perform
tasks required in the career field, and to identify areas to improve training
quality or revise training standards. In the memorandum resulting from
the fiscal year 2017 field interviews, AETC made a number of
recommendations to improve maintainer technical school training, such
as improving knowledge and task retention by increasing hands-on
repetition and decreasing delays between technical school and a
maintainer’s first assignment, reexamining aspects of the technical school
training curriculum, and improving instruction related to maintenance
forms and technical orders.

The memorandum also noted that while there are initiatives that the
technical schools can undertake to increase overall satisfaction, there are
some disconnects between supervisor expectations in the field and the
training program that should be resolved. Technical school instructors
agreed that there is a disconnect between what students learn in
technical school and what their supervisors in the field expect them to
have learned in technical school versus on the job. The memorandum
identified opportunities to clarify these expectations, such as workshops
to identify training requirements.




31                                                    nd
 The Field Interview Reports are specific to the 82        Training Group’s training program.




Page 32                                          GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
The Air Force Reserve                                             Over the past 8 fiscal years, the Air Force reserve component’s
Component’s Programmed                                            programmed technical school completions for aircraft maintainers have
                                                                  consistently exceeded actual completions. Specifically, according to our
Technical School
                                                                  analysis, from fiscal years 2010 through 2017, the Air National Guard’s
Completions Have                                                  actual technical school completions, as compared to programmed
Consistently Exceeded                                             completions, ranged from about 60 to 95 percent. Similarly, the Air Force
Actual Completions                                                Reserve Command’s completion rates ranged from about 50 to 85
                                                                  percent. 32 The highest completion rate for both was in fiscal year 2017.
                                                                  According to Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command
                                                                  officials, they do not have technical school completion rate goals like the
                                                                  active component since they also recruit prior servicemembers, as
                                                                  discussed below. Table 6 compares the Air Force reserve component’s
                                                                  programmed versus actual technical school completions over the past 8
                                                                  fiscal years.

Table 6: Air Force Reserve Component Actual Aircraft Maintainer Technical School Completions Compared with Programmed
Completions, Fiscal Years 2010-2017

Fiscal                                       Air National Guard                                                    Air Force Reserve Command
year                 Programmed                         Actual                   Completion rate      Programmed                  Actual            Completion rate
                     completions                   completions                      (as percent)      completions            completions               (as percent)
2010                                2600                         2200                        80                  1100                  1000                         85
2011                                3500                         2700                        75                  1500                  1300                         85
2012                                3000                         1900                        60                  2300                  1700                         70
2013                                2500                         1600                        65                  2800                  1400                         50
2014                                2500                         1500                        60                  2200                  1000                         50
2015                                2300                         1700                        75                  1500                    900                        55
2016                                1700                         1300                        80                  1100                    700                        65
2017                                1500                         1400                        95                    800                   700                        85
Source: GAO analysis of Air Force technical school training data. I GAO-19-160

                                                                  Note: Technical school programmed completions and actual completions are rounded to the nearest
                                                                  hundreds and completion rates are rounded to the nearest 5 percent due to the reliability of the data
                                                                  in at least fiscal years 2010 through 2013.


                                                                  According to an AETC official, it is common for the reserve component to
                                                                  have significantly more programmed completions than actual technical
                                                                  school completions in a given fiscal year. For example, this official stated
                                                                  that the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command program

                                                                  32
                                                                    Technical school completion rates are rounded to the nearest 5 percent due to the
                                                                  reliability of the data in at least fiscal years 2010 through 2013.




                                                                  Page 33                                                 GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
              their training spaces 2 to 3 years in advance and it can be difficult to
              anticipate training needs. Specifically, Air National Guard officials stated
              that the number of training spaces requested each year are to fill
              vacancies and that those vacancies are filled by both prior
              servicemembers (who may have already attended maintainer technical
              school and do not need to do so again) and non-prior servicemembers
              (who will need to attend technical school). An AETC official noted that the
              number of personnel that will fall into each category each year is difficult
              to anticipate. For example, according to Air Force Reserve Command
              officials, the number of non-prior service accessions has decreased over
              the past 8 fiscal years, accounting for about 33 percent of accessions in
              fiscal year 2017, a decrease from about 43 percent in fiscal year 2010. Air
              National Guard officials stated that if they do not program enough training
              spaces, it can be difficult to add spaces later.

              Air National Guard officials stated that they have been conservative in
              programming training spaces since fiscal year 2016—to minimize unfilled
              spaces—which, along with high maintainer turnover, is reflected in
              increased completion rates. Specifically, in fiscal year 2017, the Air
              National Guard programmed 1,528 completions and the number of actual
              completions was 1,418, amounting to a completion rate of 93 percent—its
              highest rate over the past 8 fiscal years. Air National Guard officials noted
              that the training spaces it did not fill over the past 2 fiscal years were
              generally due to last minute cancellations for health, family, or civilian
              employment issues. AETC officials stated that they can fill unused
              reserve component training spaces with active duty maintainers or
              students from international partners, which has provided AETC more
              flexibility to increase active duty maintainer training over the past few
              fiscal years.


              The Air Force has significantly reduced overall aircraft maintainer staffing
Conclusions   gaps since fiscal year 2016, in part by increasing accessions. While the
              Air Force has consistently met its technical school completion rate goals
              for newly accessed aircraft maintainers, it continues to have staffing gaps
              of experienced maintainers—who are needed to supervise and provide
              on-the-job training to those new maintainers following technical school.
              Air Force officials have highlighted the need to retain more aircraft
              maintainers to help address experience gaps, but losses of experienced
              maintainers have increased since fiscal year 2010, and the Air Force
              expects losses to continue to increase for certain maintainers over the
              next few fiscal years. While the Air Force has increased its use of
              retention bonuses for some critical maintenance specialties, it does not


              Page 34                                   GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                      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. 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.


                      We are making the following two recommendations to DOD:
Recommendations for
Executive Action      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 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)


                      In written comments on a draft of this report, the Air Force concurred with
Agency Comments       both of the recommendations. The Air Force also noted initial actions it
                      has taken to develop an aircraft maintainer retention strategy. The Air
                      Force’s comments are reprinted in appendix III.


                      We are sending copies of this report to the appropriate congressional
                      committees, the Acting Secretary of Defense, and the Secretary of the Air
                      Force. In addition, this report is available at no charge on the GAO
                      website at http://www.gao.gov.




                      Page 35                                    GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
If you or your staff have any questions regarding this report, please
contact me at (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov. Contact points for our
Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs may be found on
the last page of this report. GAO staff who made significant contributions
to this report are listed in appendix IV.




Brenda S. Farrell
Director, Defense Capabilities and Management




Page 36                                  GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology
             Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




             To assess the extent to which the Air Force had aircraft maintainer
             staffing gaps, we compared staffing levels authorized by the Air Force for
             enlisted aircraft maintainers—for the active and reserve components—
             with the actual number of maintainers available to staff those positions for
             fiscal years 2010 through 2017. 1 We selected this timeframe to capture
             staffing levels before and after the Air Force’s fiscal year 2014 reduction
             in end strength, and fiscal year 2017 was the most recent year for which
             complete data were available at the time of our review. Specifically, we
             analyzed the data to identify overall maintainer staffing gaps, as well as
             any gaps by maintenance specialty and skill level. In addition, we
             compared maintainer personnel requirements to authorized staffing
             levels—the number of those requirements that are funded—for the overall
             maintainer population, each maintenance specialty, and each skill level.
             To assess the reliability of the Air Force’s requirements, authorized
             staffing levels, and actual staffing levels (for both the active and reserve
             components), we reviewed related documentation; assessed the data for
             errors, omissions, and inconsistencies; and interviewed officials. We
             determined that the data were sufficiently reliable to describe the Air
             Force’s aircraft maintainer staffing levels and associated gaps from fiscal
             years 2010 through 2017. Additionally, we conducted interviews with
             relevant Air Force, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command
             officials to identify reasons for staffing challenges and actions the Air
             Force has taken to address them.

             To assess the extent to which the Air Force experienced attrition of
             aircraft maintainers, we calculated maintainer loss rates—the number of
             maintainers who leave the career field or the Air Force within the fiscal
             year (for reasons such as separation or retirement) over the number of
             maintainers at the start of the fiscal year—for fiscal years 2010 through
             2017. We calculated loss rates for the overall maintainer population as
             well as by skill level and maintenance specialty for the active and reserve
             components. We also analyzed overall aircraft maintainer reenlistment
             rates—the number of maintainers reenlisting each fiscal year over the
             number of maintainers eligible to reenlist—for the active component for
             fiscal years 2010 through 2017. To assess the reliability of the Air Force’s
             maintainer loss and reenlistment rate data, we reviewed related
             documentation; assessed the data for errors, omissions, and
             inconsistencies; and interviewed officials. We determined that the data

             1
              For the purposes of this report, when actual staffing levels are lower than authorized
             staffing levels, it is considered to be a staffing gap.




             Page 37                                           GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




were sufficiently reliable to describe the Air Force’s aircraft maintainer
loss and reenlistment rates from fiscal years 2010 through 2017.

In addition, we reviewed the Air Force’s 2015 and 2017 aircraft maintainer
retention survey analyses 2 and conducted discussion groups with a non-
generalizable sample of aircraft maintainers to obtain their views on
factors affecting maintainer retention, on-the-job training capacity, and
commercial aviation industry opportunities, among other things. We
selected Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma and Eglin Air Force Base in
Florida as the locations for these discussion groups based on geographic
diversity, base size, and the types of aircraft maintained at each base. At
each location, we moderated two to three discussion groups with aircraft
maintainers for a total of five discussion groups ranging from between 3
and 12 maintainers per group. While these discussion groups allowed us
to learn about many important aspects of the aircraft maintenance
workforce from the perspective of aircraft maintainers, they were
designed to provide anecdotal information and not results that would be
representative of all the Air Force’s more than 100,000 aircraft
maintainers as of fiscal year 2017.

To review the state of the commercial labor market for aircraft mechanics
and aerospace engineers, we analyzed data from the Department of
Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey on the
unemployment rate, employment, and median weekly earnings from 2012
through 2017, in accordance with economic literature we reviewed for a
prior report. 3 These data can be used as indicators of whether labor
market conditions are consistent with a shortage. We chose this period
because we had previously reported on the data from 2000 through 2012,
and 2017 was the most recent data at the time of our review. 4 We
reviewed documentation about the Bureau of Labor Statistics data and
the systems that produced them, as well as our prior report that used the
data. Based on prior testing of the data from these systems, we
determined the data were sufficiently reliable for the purposes of our
indicator analysis to provide context on the labor market. We also

2
 Air Force, Air Force 2017 Aircraft Maintenance Retention Survey Analysis (Apr. 2018),
and Air Force, Air Force 2015 Enlisted Maintenance Retention Survey Results and
Recommendations (July 2016).
3
 GAO, Aviation Workforce: Current and Future Availability of Aviation Engineering and
Maintenance Professionals, GAO-14-237 (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 28, 2014).
4
GAO-14-237.




Page 38                                         GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




reviewed the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook for Aircraft
and Avionics Equipment Mechanics and Technicians for 2016 to 2026 to
determine anticipated future workforce trends. In addition, we conducted
interviews with four commercial aviation industry stakeholders regarding
any imbalances in demand and supply, and actions the industry is taking
to address them. Specifically, we conducted interviews with officials from
the Aeronautical Repair Station Association, the Aerospace Industries
Association, Aerotek, and the General Aviation Manufacturers
Association. We selected three of these organizations based on our
previous work and one based on a recommendation from one of the three
organizations.

To determine what is known about the extent to which the commercial
aviation industry affects the Air Force’s aircraft maintainer staffing levels,
we conducted a literature search and review to identify relevant studies.
Specifically, we conducted a literature search for studies published in
books, reports, peer-reviewed journals, and dissertations since fiscal year
2010. We chose fiscal year 2010 as a starting point so that the scope of
the search would match the timeframe for which we analyzed Air Force
maintainer loss rates. We searched five databases, including ProQuest,
Scopus, and EBSCO. Our search used Boolean search phrases,
including variations of words such as aviation, maintenance, and
retention. We identified and screened 49 studies using a multi-step
process to gauge their relevance and evaluate their methodology. We
excluded studies that did not specifically focus on our objective, military
maintainers, or the U.S. commercial aviation industry. We retained 1
study after screening and reviewed its methodology, findings, and
limitations. 5 Three GAO staff (two analysts and an economist) were
involved in the screening and a systematic review of the study, which was
determined to be sufficiently relevant and methodologically rigorous.

We also analyzed data on the number of Air Force personnel completing
the Joint Services Aviation Maintenance Technician Certification Council
(Joint Services Council) airframe and power plant certificate program from
fiscal years 2010 through 2017, and the number of Air Force personnel
receiving airframe and power plant certificate funding from the
Community College of the Air Force’s Air Force Credentialing
Opportunities On-line program from fiscal years 2015 through 2017. We
5
 The study we reviewed was RAND Project AIR FORCE, RAND Corporation, Can the Air
Force and Airlines Collaborate for Mutual Benefit? An Exploration of Pilot and
Maintenance Workforce Options (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND Corporation, 2016).




Page 39                                     GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




selected this timeframe because the Air Force’s airframe and power plant
funding program began in fiscal year 2015, and fiscal year 2017 was the
most recent data available at the time of our review. To assess the
reliability of the Air Force’s airframe and power plant certificate program
data, we interviewed officials. We determined that the data were
sufficiently reliable to describe the number of Air Force personnel
completing the Joint Services Council’s airframe and power plant
certificate program from fiscal years 2010 through 2017 and the number
of personnel receiving funding from fiscal years 2015 through 2017.

To assess the extent to which the Air Force has taken steps to help retain
maintainers, we analyzed the number and total costs of selective
retention bonuses (retention bonuses) that the Air Force awarded, by
maintenance specialty and skill level, from fiscal years 2010 through 2017
for the active and reserve components. We normalized the cost data to
constant fiscal year 2017 data. To assess the reliability of the Air Force’s
retention bonus data, we reviewed related documentation; assessed the
data for errors, omissions, and inconsistencies; and interviewed officials.
We determined that the data were sufficiently reliable to describe the
number and total costs of the Air Force’s aircraft maintainer retention
bonuses from fiscal years 2010 through 2017. In addition, we conducted
interviews with relevant Air Force officials regarding retention goals and
monetary and non-monetary incentives to improve maintainer retention,
and Department of Defense officials regarding retention bonuses. We
compared this information to Standards for Internal Control in the Federal
Government related to monitoring activities and key principles of strategic
workforce planning that we have identified in our prior work, such as
developing strategies that are tailored to address gaps in numbers of
people, skills, and competencies. 6

To assess the extent to which the Air Force met its annual technical
school completion rate goals for aircraft maintainers, we calculated
technical school completion rates—the number of aircraft maintainers
completing technical school compared to the number of programmed or
expected completions—for the overall maintainer population and each
maintenance specialty for the active component, for fiscal years 2010
through 2017. We compared those completion rates to the Air Education
and Training Command (AETC) established active component completion
6
 GAO, Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government, GAO-14-704G
(Washington, D.C.: Sept. 10, 2014); and GAO, Human Capital: Key Principles for Effective
Strategic Workforce Planning, GAO-04-39 (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 11, 2003).




Page 40                                         GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix I: Scope and Methodology




rate goal. For the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command,
we compared programmed completions to actual completions to
determine the extent to which they met their technical school training
needs. To assess the reliability of the technical school completion data
(for both the active and reserve components), we assessed the data for
errors, omissions, and inconsistencies, and interviewed officials. We
determined that the data were sufficiently reliable to describe the Air
Force’s aircraft maintainer technical school completion rates from fiscal
years 2010 through 2017, rounded to the nearest hundreds up to fiscal
year 2013, and more-precisely from fiscal years 2014 and beyond.

In addition, we observed maintainer technical school training—both
classroom-based and hands-on—as well as training equipment at
Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas and Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
We selected these locations because they are two of the primary
locations where aircraft maintainer technical school training occurs.
Specifically, according to Air Force officials, the majority of aircraft
maintainers receive at least a portion of their technical school training at
Sheppard Air Force Base, and all F-35-specific maintainer training occurs
at Eglin Air Force Base. Additionally, as part of our previously discussed
non-generalizable sample of discussion groups with aircraft maintainers,
we obtained maintainers’ perspectives on technical school and on-the-job
training. We also reviewed training policies as well as other
documentation, such as Career Field Education and Training Plans and
training evaluations. Finally, we conducted interviews with technical
school instructors and supervisors about the maintainer training process
as well as AETC, Air National Guard, and Air Force Reserve Command
officials about training challenges and programmed training needs.

We conducted this performance audit from April 2018 to February 2019 in
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.
Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that
the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and
conclusions based on our audit objectives.




Page 41                                  GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix II: Air Force Reserve Component
                                                                 Appendix II: Air Force Reserve Component
                                                                 Aircraft Maintainer Retention from Fiscal Years
                                                                 2010-2017


Aircraft Maintainer Retention from Fiscal
Years 2010-2017
                                                                 According to Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve Command
                                                                 officials, they monitor retention of aircraft maintainers through loss rates—
                                                                 the number of maintainers who leave the career field or the Air Force
                                                                 within the fiscal year, over the number of maintainers at the start of the
                                                                 fiscal year—and have used selective retention bonuses (retention
                                                                 bonuses) and taken other actions to improve retention.

                                                                 According to our analysis of Air National Guard data, aircraft maintainer
                                                                 loss rates have fluctuated over the past 8 fiscal years. For example, loss
                                                                 rates increased significantly for all maintenance specialties and skill levels
                                                                 combined, from 12 percent in fiscal year 2010, to 36 percent and 30
                                                                 percent in fiscal years 2012 and 2013, respectively. While Air National
                                                                 Guard maintainer loss rates decreased from fiscal years 2014 through
                                                                 2017, they remained higher than fiscal year 2010 rates. Table 7 provides
                                                                 loss rates for Air National Guard aircraft maintainers over the past 8 fiscal
                                                                 years.

Table 7: Air National Guard Aircraft Maintainer Loss Rates (as percentages), Fiscal Years 2010-2017

                                                          Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal
                                                       year 2010 year 2011 year 2012 year 2013 year 2014 year 2015 year 2016 year 2017
5-Level maintainers                                               11          13           45           34         23          20           18          18
7-Level maintainers                                               12          13           27           28         20          15           15          15
All skill levels (0 to 9)                                         12          14           36           30         21          18           17          17
Source: GAO analysis of Air National Guard loss rate data. I GAO-19-160



                                                                 Air National Guard officials stated that maintainer loss rates are often
                                                                 location dependent, and that retention bonuses are the primary tool used
                                                                 to improve retention. According to these officials, while the Air National
                                                                 Guard looks at nationwide staffing when determining which occupational
                                                                 specialties are eligible for bonuses, some locations may have more
                                                                 critical needs than others. The number of retention bonuses that the Air
                                                                 National Guard has awarded to aircraft maintainers has decreased over
                                                                 the past 8 fiscal years, while the total cost has increased. Specifically, in
                                                                 fiscal year 2010, the Air National Guard awarded 1,587 retention bonuses
                                                                 at a total cost of $4,580,295. 1 However, in fiscal year 2017, the Air
                                                                 National Guard awarded 653 retention bonuses at a total cost of


                                                                 1
                                                                  Retention bonus amounts are inflation-adjusted monetary amounts in fiscal year 2017
                                                                 dollars.




                                                                 Page 42                                           GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
                                                              Appendix II: Air Force Reserve Component
                                                              Aircraft Maintainer Retention from Fiscal Years
                                                              2010-2017




                                                              $5,373,000. Over the past 8 fiscal years, the majority of its retention
                                                              bonuses were awarded to 7-level maintainers.

                                                              The Air Force Reserve Command’s aircraft maintainer loss rates over the
                                                              past 8 fiscal years have ranged from 10 to 13 percent. In addition, the
                                                              loss rates of 5- and 7-level maintainers have been similar to the loss rates
                                                              of all skill levels combined over this period. Similar to the Air National
                                                              Guard, Air Force Reserve Command officials stated that maintainer
                                                              staffing challenges and loss rates are partly location dependent, though
                                                              they also cited opportunities and higher pay in the civilian labor market;
                                                              high operations tempo; lack of career growth, opportunities, and flexibility;
                                                              and pay disparities with the active component as factors affecting
                                                              retention. Table 8 provides loss rates for Air Force Reserve Command
                                                              aircraft maintainers over the past 8 fiscal years.

Table 8: Air Force Reserve Command Aircraft Maintainer Loss Rates (as percentages), Fiscal Years 2010-2017

                                                       Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal    Fiscal
                                                    year 2010 year 2011 year 2012 year 2013 year 2014 year 2015 year 2016 year 2017
5-Level maintainers                                            11                11     12           12         13          12           10          12
7-Level maintainers                                            11                11     11           10         13          13           11          13
All skill levels (0 to 9)                                      11                11     11           11         13          12           10          12
Source: GAO analysis of Air Force Reserve Command loss rate data. I GAO-19-160



                                                              The Air Force Reserve Command has also used retention bonuses to
                                                              help improve retention. Specifically, over the past 8 fiscal years, the Air
                                                              Force Reserve Command has increased the number of retention bonuses
                                                              awarded and their total costs. For example, in fiscal year 2012, the Air
                                                              Force Reserve Command awarded 15 retention bonuses totaling
                                                              $242,593. 2 In fiscal year 2015, it increased to 572 bonuses awarded
                                                              totaling $8,913,229. In fiscal year 2017, the Air Force Reserve Command
                                                              awarded 317 retention bonuses at a total cost of $4,550,000. According
                                                              to Air Force Reserve Command officials, the Air Force Reserve
                                                              Command has taken a number of steps to help improve technician
                                                              retention, such as paid permanent change of station and student loan
                                                              repayment. These officials stated that they are also currently working to
                                                              improve career path options and medical benefits for technicians. Further,
                                                              Air Force Reserve Command officials highlighted Human Capital

                                                              2
                                                               Retention bonus amounts are inflation-adjusted monetary amounts in fiscal year 2017
                                                              dollars.




                                                              Page 43                                           GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix II: Air Force Reserve Component
Aircraft Maintainer Retention from Fiscal Years
2010-2017




Management 2.0 as an effort focused on balancing the human capital
supply and demand across the Air Force Reserve Command, including
improving recruitment and retention.




Page 44                                           GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix III: Comments from the
              Appendix III: Comments from the Department
              of Defense



Department of Defense




              Page 45                                      GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix III: Comments from the Department
of Defense




Page 46                                      GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
Appendix IV: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Appendix IV: GAO Contact and Staff
                  Acknowledgments



Acknowledgments


                  Brenda S. Farrell, (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov
GAO Contact
                  In addition to the contacts named above, Lori Atkinson (Assistant
Staff             Director), Benjamin Bolitzer, Molly Callaghan, Timothy Carr, Christopher
Acknowledgments   Curran, Matthew Dobratz, Amie Lesser, Grant Mallie, Mike Silver, Carter
                  Stevens, and Lillian M. Yob made significant contributions to this report.




                  Page 47                                  GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
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             Military Aviation Mishaps: DOD Needs to Improve Its Approach for
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             Page 48                                   GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
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           Page 49                                GAO-19-160 Air Force Aircraft Maintainers
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