RCAF Commander tackles shortage of aviators

Commander of the RCAF Visits 4 Wing

RCAF Commander LGen Al Meinzinger chats with troops during a visit to 4 Wing Cold Lake.
Photo: LS Justin Spinello

Lieutenant-General Al Meinzinger, Commander of the Royal Canadian Air Force

The Royal Canadian Air Force employs a highly technical, highly trained workforce and, of the three Canadian Armed Forces services, RCAF members are the most widely dispersed across our vast nation, often in more remote locations.

Developing these trained and intellectually accomplished, specialized aviators is a significant investment for Canada and our most powerful advantage—now and into the future.

However, as I and others have discussed in the pages of Skies Magazine, Air Forces and the civilian airline industry around the world are facing shortages of skilled personnel arising from an unprecedented growth in the global aviation industry.

The RCAF is not immune to the high demand for pilots, technicians, highly trained aviation specialists and support personnel, and we are facing a shortage of experienced personnel in many fields. We risk losing the priceless depth of experience that our more senior personnel possess and, thus, the ability to mentor, train and transfer knowledge to our newer aviators.

Last autumn, the Auditor General released a report focussing on the recruitment and retention of Fighter Force technicians and pilots and at that time I outlined steps being taken to address the concerns raised in the report. However, it is clear that these modern realities extend far beyond our fighter community.

Our declining experience levels may impact our ability to train, absorb, and employ personnel in certain areas. Without action, this scenario could further affect the RCAF’s operational output.

This situation is exacerbated by the very real fact that we “train our own”; we do not hire fully qualified personnel “off the street” and immediately put them to work. Even our members who graduate from civilian aviation training institutes have only begun their life-long learning experience. It takes special training, skills, and qualifications to perform these tasks in a military environment in potentially hazardous areas. The closest we can come to off the street recruiting is if we enrol fully qualified former RCAF members or members of Allied Air Forces—and even then it is quite likely that some level of recertification or refresher training would be required.

Moreover, the loss of experience levels creates a cascading effect that cannot be solved simply by increasing our intake and our training capacity. It takes time to build skills and knowledge. Our experienced members do the work to bring new personnel to operationally effective levels. Therefore, we must nurture an environment whereby the RCAF’s quality of life and the quality of service make it more attractive for our members to stay than to leave.

We are taking concrete actions to tackle the challenges of restoring and retaining our experienced personnel numbers across the board, working closely with departmental partners such as the Vice Chief of the Defence Staff, Chief Military Personnel, the Associate Deputy Minister (Materiel), and Associate Deputy Minister (Human Resources-Civilian).

The situation in the pilot occupation is our most acute. There are no signs of immediate relief in the international pilot shortage, and while we have experienced a pilot shortage over the past few years—although we have no lack of interested applicants and recruits—we have seen an increasing shortage of experienced pilots. Unexpected voluntary attrition of RCAF personnel to the civilian aviation industry has exacerbated the challenges.

Therefore, as directed by the Chief of the Defence Staff under what has been dubbed “Operation Experience”, we will implement initiatives to stabilize and rapidly increase levels of pilot experience across all our fleets. We have already initiated some of our targeted short-term objectives and, in the longer term, we will put in place holistic initiatives across all training functions and all operational aircraft fleets to ensure we continue to deliver effective air and space power.

These actions are nested within a broader RCAF campaign plan—“Operation Talent”—which focusses on the quality of life and quality of service of all our Regular and Reserve Force personnel and their families. Operation Talent addresses, in particular, the intake, training, absorption and employment of our aviators.

Although these two directives have been published separately, they address two aspects of a single challenge and the RCAF will implement measures in a seamless, mutually complementary and holistic manner.

The challenge is complex, however, and will require equally complex solutions. Our solutions will address the entire RCAF, not just one occupation, but I recognize that we first need to stabilize our most critical areas. As mentioned, we are already working on several initiatives to alleviate our situation; we will implement some of them quickly but others, I want to be clear, may take up to five to seven years to fully implement.

For instance, we’re already seeing progress on the establishment of a new Air Operations Support Technician occupation (Reserve Force) that will augment force protection capabilities and provide support to aircraft maintenance and search and rescue activities. This will allow our highly qualified Aviation and Search and Rescue Technicians to focus on their primary functions. We will begin accepting applications to this occupation this summer.

Planning is also under way to establish an Air Operations Officer occupation that will provide the RCAF an excitingly new employment field focused on enabling and supporting operations. The stand-up of this new occupation will also result in more aircrew being employed within our squadrons.

Some actions have already been initiated, including:
• Adjusting the policy on the obligatory service tied to certain commitments such as pilot training and international exchanges.
• Increasing the length of first aircrew tours in tactical squadrons to a minimum of four years, beginning with pilots.
• Contracting additional instructors for basic aircrew and Operational Training Unit production, while also exploring the creation of Public Service instructor positions.
In the coming year we will implement further initiatives, including:
• Enabling greater employment flexibility for reservists including how we compensate reservists employed on domestic operations.
• Explore training options with allies; seek methods to better recognize existing qualifications and experience of applicants; and re-enrolling/enrolling military skilled applicants who bring experience.
• Exploring more modern compensation and benefit models based on skillsets, rather than the current model which is based on rank progression, across RCAF occupations.