Meeting the Demand: Reserve command makes strides hiring full-time aircraft maintainers

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  • By Master Sgt. Chance Babin

For years, Air Force Reserve Command has struggled to hire enough Air Reserve Technician aircraft maintainers. However, due to the direct hiring authority to recruit ART maintenance personnel when and where they are needed and ART-focused recruiting efforts, the command continues to make strides in meeting AFRC’s need for full-time maintainers.

ARTs are full-time civil service employees who also have a military commitment and perform Reserve duty on unit training assembly weekends. They are responsible for training and ensuring the Reserve provides combat-ready Airmen. In recent years, the combination of a strong economy, robust commercial airline hiring and an antiquated system for hiring ARTs has made it difficult for AFRC to meet its need for ART aircraft maintainers.

In early 2018, ART maintenance manning was at 71% and there were 1,800 vacancies throughout the command. In 2017, AFRC Recruiting Service created a special group of recruiters dedicated to the ART mission. Then in early 2019, the command received direct hiring authority granting hiring officials a streamlined path to hire ART maintainers when and where they are needed. Thanks to these two initiatives, in October 2019, ART maintenance manning across the command increased to 78% and vacancies decreased to 1,356.

Direct hiring authority was included in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. “Direct Hire Authority enables DOD to recruit and appoint qualified persons directly without applying competitive rating and ranking procedures,” states a Nov. 27, 2018, Department of Defense letter.

This allowed AFRC Recruiting Service and the Directorate of Logistics, Engineering and Force Protection, known as A4, to team up to attack the maintenance shortage.

“DHA enables hiring officials to select candidates for hire based on qualifications reflected on their resumes,” said Maj. Monica Lombardo, A4’s chief of maintenance force management. “This opens the candidate pool and, in some locations, allows hiring officials to go to the aircraft mechanic school nearby and offer recent graduates a developmental position. Overall, this reduces the hiring process significantly – almost right down to on-boarding.”

DHA has proven a very successful tool, Lombardo said. “At the command level, we are working with the units to ensure we are providing resources, such as developmental position descriptions for a wider range of Air Force specialty codes, to keep DHA beneficial as local candidate pools run low and vacancies remain,” she said.

Prior to DHA, commanders often had to bring in traditional Reservists on orders to keep the mission going.

“The civilian hiring process timeline prior to DHA was very long and drawn out, causing a backlog of unfilled positions,” said Col. Scott Briese, commander of the 944th Maintenance Group, Luke Air Force Base, Arizona. “In order to have enough manpower to complete our mission, we were required to put members on orders while they waited on the hiring process to run its course. By having members on orders, we had fully qualified aircraft mechanics working our mission and we were helping them keep food on their tables while they waited for the hiring process to finish. But this was not a secure situation for the Airmen or their families. It was also a concern for us because we knew they were being recruited for other opportunities.”

With DHA, units are able to be more competitive in a thriving economy and hire qualified candidates in a timely fashion.

“Direct hiring authority can be compared to how corporate America hires,” Briese said. “With a resume and military qualifications, a member can be brought on board in 60 to 90 days. The old process could take upwards of 180 days. I know throughout the ART maintainer enterprise, the HQ AFRC initiative of selective reenlistment bonuses for ARTs, DHA and several hiring incentives have turned a plunging line into a rocket to the moon.”

Master Sgt. Marsi Smith, the ART recruiter for Luke, has been busy since the DHA was authorized.

“DHA has been instrumental in getting Luke’s numbers to where they are today,” she said. “With DHA we have been able to hire 21 members in April, 14 in May, six in June and eight in July. This was huge because we were able to hire all the traditional Reservists who were on orders pending getting hired.”

The 944th Maintenance Group went from being 40% ART maintainer manned in March to 63% manned in September. The Reserve maintenance units at Pittsburgh International Airport Air Reserve Station, Pennsylvania; Nellis AFB, Nevada; and Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, have also seen more than 10% increases in their manning since DHA was authorized for maintenance.

Along with Luke, Pittsburgh, Nellis and Little Rock, maintenance units at 11 additional Reserve locations across the country were prioritized through April 30 in the DHA authorization in order for their DHA packages to be processed first. Then it opened up for all Reserve maintenance units.

“If we can continue to be energized and innovative in our recruiting, position descriptions and communication, DHA will endure as a positive contributor toward resolving the maintenance manning shortfall,” Lombardo said.

Lisa Armes, chief of staffing and affirmative action for AFRC’s Directorate of Manpower, Personnel and Services, A1, said DHA makes filling open positions faster and easier.

“Historically, ART positions are harder to fill than traditional civilian positions,” she said. “DHA has made a tremendous impact on filling the command’s large volume of maintenance vacancies. The benefit to applicants is the faster hiring process. Most applicants are looking for a job immediately and can’t afford to be without a paycheck for the months the traditional hiring process takes.”

Between January and August of this year, the median fill-time for AFRC DHA actions was 56 days.

“We frequently lose applicants because of the long hiring timeline,” Armes said. “DHA allows us to offer a job and bring the applicant in quickly. DHA puts hiring control back in the hands of the hiring manager. It allows them to identify and select the best candidate for the job and bring them on board in an expeditious manner. It’s a huge win for both the candidate and the manager.”

Before DHA, traditional Reservists applying for an ART position might not qualify for the referral certificate due to lack of deployment or other experience-based issues.

“DHA allows the hiring official to make selections without the need of a referral certificate and thus opens up the ART opportunities to qualified traditional Reservists more easily,” Armes said.

“With DHA, traditional Reservists are prime candidates and comprised the majority of the first wave of hiring actions,” Lombardo said. “From March to August, we had more than 400 hires under DHA. Just under a quarter of those hires were previous maintenance ARTs. With additional developmental position descriptions being processed for classification, we’re hoping to push recruiting efforts out more to the private sector and gather young talent out of the schools in addition to our more traditional recruitment pools.”

“We are currently seeking classification of several developmental position descriptions which will enable us to grow our own ART mechanics,” Briese said. “These developmental positions will enable us to team up with recruiting and hire before technical school or upon graduation.”

Team Luke held several ART recruiting events that led to hires, but they also generated interest from people more interested in becoming a traditional Reservist.

“We had a local event on Luke in which all of the 944th maintenance members and their families were in attendance,” Smith said. “Col. Briese talked about the ART program, and I had a table set up and provided info on the ART program. We also attended several schools where we promoted the ART program and generated leads on the traditional Reservist side.”

Hiring several traditional Reservists at Luke helped ease the burden for maintainers working on man-days.

“It relieved a lot of the stress for the members who were on orders in hopes of getting hired,” Smith said. “Funds were running out and we were not going to be able to keep these members on orders for much longer. DHA came in the nick of time!” #ReserveReady #ReserveReform

(Babin is assigned to the Air Force Recruiting Service public affairs office, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, Texas)