SECAF: GAO Report on Maintainer Shortage “Was Outdated by the Time it Came Out”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, shown here with Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) and TSgt. Tylor Strop during a visit to the 173 Fighter Wing on Nov. 3, 2018, criticized a recent GAO report that accused the service of still having a maintainer shortage. Air National Guard photo by SSgt. Riley Johnson.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson pushed back on a recent Government Accountability Office report that said the Air Force still suffered from a maintainer shortage and lacked an overall strategy to keep experienced airmen in uniform, saying it focused on outdated data and did not fully take into account Air Force efforts to recover from the shortage.

“We always appreciate those kind of reports, but this one, the last data they had was fiscal year ’17,” Wilson told Air Force Magazine in an exclusive interview on Monday. The complete interview will be published in the March issue of the print magazine. “They didn’t look at data from the last two years or any of the strategies we’ve put in place to recover. Now, the Chief and I know we have some very young maintainers, and we have to season them, but the report was dated by the time it came out.”

As of the end of 2017 when the GAO concluded its Congressionally mandated report, the service was short just 745 maintainers, down significantly from the 4,016 maintainers it was short in Fiscal 2010. Wilson said thanks to a “real emphasis on recruiting and training more maintainers,” the service no longer has a gap in the Active Duty force. However, the experience gap remains a challenge.

In 2017, the Air Force was short more than 2,000 5-level and 400 7-level experienced airmen, and it had a surplus of more than 1,700 3-levels—young airmen straight out training. Wilson said the Air Force is looking at new ways to more rapidly train these airmen so they can begin to build up their expertise sooner.

“We’ve been looking at ways to accelerate the training of, particularly, maintainers, because they’re such a large part of our enlisted force, and they are so critical to us,” she said.

However, the Air Force expects the experience shortage to continue off and on through Fiscal 2023.

“Air Force officials stated that they need to retain more maintainers to help address experience gaps, but the Air Force has not developed annual retention goals for maintainers,” according to the report.

Wilson said Monday the Air Force is placing an emphasis on restoring readiness, and it is using increased funding from Congress to address this with more people. The Air Force is about 15 percent more ready today than two years ago, she said, noting that readiness is based on people, equipment, and maintenance.

The GAO notes the Air Force has used retention bonuses since 2015 to encourage airmen to stay in uniform, but “it does not have a strategy to improve retention,” according to the GAO.

“Without the goals to measure progress and a retention strategy to guide efforts, the Air Force could face further challenges in managing its maintenance workforce, including ensuring there are enough experienced maintainers to meet mission needs,” the report states.

The GAO recommended the Air Force develop these goals by skill level, and develop an overall retention strategy. In comments submitted to the organization, the Air Force agreed and said the deputy chief of staff for logistics as well as the office of manpower, personnel, and services have started initial planning on developing a retention strategy.