You Can't Fly Them if you Can't Fix Them: AFRC working hard to ease aircraft maintenance shortage

  • Published
  • By Tyler Grimes
  • Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs, Robins Air Force Base, Georgia
As it faces many challenges such as an increase in operations tempo, budgetary uncertainty and the Air Force-wide pilot shortage, Air Force Reserve Command is stepping up efforts to meet another difficult challenge: a shortage of much-needed Reserve Citizen Airmen in the aircraft maintenance career field.

Lt. Col. Daniel Posch, Maintenance Management Branch chief for AFRC’s Directorate of Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection, known as A4, works on command-wide strategic maintenance policy and personnel initiatives. He explained how substantial the maintenance shortage is for the command.

“The shortage is significant on our full-time force, specifically within our ART (air reserve technician) program,” Posch said. “We are facing critical shortages across the entire command with more than 1,400 vacancies currently.”

ARTs serve in dual-status as civilian employees and traditional Reservists who perform military duty primarily during monthly unit training assembly weekends.

And while the shortage within the maintenance career field extends across AFRC’s entire aircraft fleet, Posch said the fighter and bomber communities are the most undermanned, with more than 800 vacancies between the two.

AFRC predominantly relies on a combination of active-duty Airmen looking to transition to the Reserve and new accessions who do not have prior military service to meet its part-time and full-time manning requirements. However, due to increased competition from the commercial airlines, private defense industries and other government agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration — coupled with a high-demand for maintainers in the active-duty Air Force — the command is looking for new ways to recruit and retain full-time Reservists needed to perform the mission.

Posch and his organization are aggressively working with Reserve recruiters to focus on bringing people into the maintenance career field as ARTs. In fact, a group of 12 recruiters (see related story on Page 18) has been formed to address the maintenance shortage by focusing on recruiting people for the ART program and began working Oct. 1.

Chief Master Sgt. Scott Jongewaard is superintendent of the 944th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where one of the 12 maintenance ART recruiters is located. He said his newly established unit is focused on building a sustainable maintenance Reserve Citizen Airman program to support the F-16 Fighting Falcon and F-35 Lighting II aircraft.

“We have set certain expectations with AFRC, AETC (Air Education and Training Command) and the 56th Fighter Wing (an active-duty organization at Luke) that now might not be able to be met due to hiring limitations,” Jongewaard said. “The challenge was already existent before we had the requirement of the 242 more positions here at Luke AFB, but now it is more noticeable due to the large numbers.”

Jongewaard’s unit is attempting to address its shortage of full-time maintenance people by working closely with the base civilian personnel office to fill vacancies as well as promote openings to qualified candidates from the local area.

“We have always tried to capture the best and brightest from the 56th Fighter Wing and other active-duty locations for personnel who call Phoenix home,” he said. “We have, thanks to AFRC/A4, enough money to put personnel on long-term orders until we are able to hire them. So far we have added 55 new ARTs to the fight. More than 50 percent of the personnel added are new to the ART program.”

Jongewaard said he hopes that training and promoting ARTs instead of attracting Reservists from other units will help the overall AFRC shortage.

In an interview in September with the “Air Force Times,” Lt. Gen. Maryanne Miller, AFRC commander, said that the situation with the maintenance shortage is similar in many ways to the pilot shortage.

“The issue and the challenge every day is that full-timer on the flight line or in the cockpit who provides training for that part-time force,” Miller said. “We’ve had to gap those trainers, and we’ve gapped them with part-time Airmen or maintainers on orders. What we’re also doing, in that realm, is providing monetary incentives, special salary rates and bonuses.”

Miller said the financial increases are having a positive effect on retaining the full-time force in the command.

Maj. Gen. Kathryn “KJ” Johnson, director of Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection for AFRC, is heavily involved with developing solutions to the shortages.

“From the headquarters perspective, there are different polices and laws we are trying to address that will make it easier for people to get hired, stay and transition from other components into AFRC,” Johnson said.

The initiatives Johnson and her team are focused on include streamlining and shortening the hiring process, providing re-enlistment bonuses for ARTs, establishing pay increases and expanding health care benefits to ARTs with TRICARE Reserve Select. This health benefit is a less expensive option but is currently only available to traditional Reservists.

“It takes a long time to train maintainers and to get them experienced; not just qualified, but competent at their jobs and current on their training,” Johnson said.

There is significant emphasis on recruiting and retaining full-time ARTs because they serve as the backbone of the Reserve workforce, which is responsible for training and supporting traditional Reservists.

AFRC/A4 teamed with other AFRC directorates to strategize efforts as they face similar challenges in dealing with the pilot shortage.

One of the major issues with both the maintenance and pilot shortages is the pay gap between what AFRC and private industries can offer.

“We are trying to at least get close pay wise,” Johnson said. “The best part of the Reserve is that you may join for the mission, but you stay for the people.”

That emphasis on the Reserve as a community is part of the effort to retain the skilled workforce in maintenance.

For Jongewaard, in addition to being part of the maintenance community, having a positive impact on the growing Luke AFB mission is what keeps him engaged after years of service.

“We can make a difference here," he said. “And even as an individual who comes out for one day, we can find something meaningful that needs to get done. I feel that we still have the best job in the Air Force and especially here at Luke AFB working on the latest and greatest aircraft, keeping older aircraft flying more often and having a global impact on producing sorties to train pilots.”

Although he said he loves his job, Jongewaard said he is apprehensive about the emphasis on hiring in maintenance possibly taking time away for other responsibilities.

“One of my biggest concerns is that most often new maintenance leaders are not having time to be mentored or to mentor others, and we seem to push a lot more on the front-line supervisors,” he said. “Our challenge is already in front of us, and I think it will get worse before it gets better. We can fix it, but it equals getting faces to places as fast as possible and making sure that everyone is on the same page in the hiring action.”

Another initiative Johnson and her team are developing to address issues like the one Jongewaard is concerned about is to shorten the time it takes to get Reserve Citizen Airmen the training they need to do their day-to-day job as well as deploy.

“We don’t want them to come join the Reserve and spend months waiting to go to basic training or tech school,” Johnson said. “We need them trained and ready as quickly as possible so they are prepared for the wartime requirement we have.”

There is also a renewed focus on addressing the issues at the squadron level that play a factor in the shortages, she said. Many Reservists in the squadrons say they are frustrated with the large amount of administrative work as well as the required ancillary training unrelated to a specific job.

“The strategic purpose of AFRC is to have a trained and ready workforce,” Johnson said. “And that means everyone must be proficient at their core AFSC (Air Force specialty code). It is particularly important in the mission areas like operations and maintenance because you never know when we are going to need to go to war. So we must be ready every single day.”

To achieve that strategic purpose, Johnson tells commanders they need to prioritize AFSC-related training over the additional general training, especially for traditional Reservists who have very limited time on the job during UTAs.

“Our people want to do their job,” she said. “That’s why they join the Reserve.”

As the Air Force continues to operate under the budgetary uncertainty of a continuing resolution, the fiscal instability hampers AFRC’s ability to mitigate the shortages.

“I think what we really need is consistency with the budget and delivered on time,” Johnson said. “This doesn’t just hurt the Air Force, Army, Navy or Marines. The uncertainty affects our industry partners as well because the uncertainty that we feel is translated to them.”

In addition to industry partners, the anxiety about the budget uncertainty is affecting all areas, down to individual Reservists.

“If you are on orders doing training that we want you to do on Sept. 30 and I can’t tell you whether on Oct. 1 that you are going to have orders to continue your training, how does that make you feel?” Johnson said. “First, it makes you feel very uncertain about your future. And, second, it makes you feel very devalued. It is no wonder that people are leaving us.”

AFRC’s Directorate of Manpower, Personnel and Services, known as A1, is taking the lead in building on the command’s existing capabilities to shape the future force and addressing the concerns of Reservists in maintenance, according to Col. Anne B. Gunter, the organization’s director.

“Since 2010, in response to fiscal pressures, the Air Force ‘force shaped’ or separated nearly 20,000 highly skilled Airmen,” Gunter said. “A1 is addressing personnel shortfalls in critical skills and is focusing on effective manning and training.”

Some of the things Gunter and the A1 team are working on in conjunction with A4 include special salary rates; retention, relocation and recruitment bonuses; restructuring of positions to make them developmental; testing a 90-day open continuous announcement; using direct hire authority; developing an intern program; and possible conversion of some ART positions to civilian positions.

Like Johnson, Gunter explained that focusing on the squadrons is critical to fixing the shortage.

“By strengthening the squadrons’ manpower needs and building, developing and maintaining a ready and responsive workforce, the Air Force Reserve will continue to meet the operational and strategic capabilities,” she said.

Also at the local level, AFRC will be bringing back career assistance advisor positions to the wings. These advisors will manage retention, incentive, bonus and re-enlistment programs. In addition, they will coordinate with wing leadership concerning retention issues related to loss trends and determine whether current efforts can support local retention goals.

“Our goal is to continue to recruit high-quality candidates into the Air Force Reserve and retain these members, ensuring our units are manned and ready for any worldwide contingency,” Gunter said.