The U.S. Air Force has fixed one of its lingering job shortages, the service's top civilian said Friday.
As the service works to restore readiness, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said there is no longer a gap in the active-duty maintainer career field.
"We were 4,000 maintainers short. As of December, we are fully manned in maintenance for our active-duty units. So we have closed that gap," she said during a Center for Strategic and International Studies event in Washington, D.C.
In 2016, the service said it was short roughly 4,000 maintainers across the ranks. It quickly began to prioritize staffing for air combat units with higher operations tempo, reshuffling more experienced maintainers throughout the force, with an emphasis on combat-coded units.
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"And now we have to season those people and make them exceptional airmen on the flight line," Wilson said, emphasizing that getting more experience for the maintainer ranks remains a priority.
According to a new government watchdog study, that experience may take a while to obtain and could create new gaps in the maintainer force.
"The Air Force has reduced overall aircraft maintainer staffing gaps, but continues
to have a gap of experienced maintainers," the Government Accountability Office said this week in a new report, "Strategy Needed to Improve Retention of Experienced Air Force Aircraft Maintainers."
As a result, the service "could face further challenges in managing its maintenance workforce, including ensuring there are enough experienced maintainers to meet mission needs," the report states.
As in its pilot ranks, the Air Force must focus on retaining more qualified airmen in maintainer positions, the report adds.
"In seven of the last eight fiscal years, the Air Force had staffing gaps of experienced maintainers -- those who are most qualified to meet mission needs and are needed to train new maintainers," it states.
The Air Force has not outlined a strategy to retain those airmen, according to the report.
The GAO estimates there are 100,000 maintainers across the Air Force's active and reserve components. "Aircraft maintenance is the Air Force's largest enlisted career field -- accounting for about a quarter of its active-duty enlisted personnel," the report states.
It urged the service to create better retention initiatives and develop annual retention goals for its maintainers based on their hierarchy and skill levels. The GAO said the service has concurred with both recommendations.
In December, Wilson said that overall readiness rates were on the rise across the service.
"The Air Force is 15 percent more ready today than when I was confirmed [as secretary in May 2017]," she said at the Reagan National Defense Forum, adding that roughly 75 percent of operational squadrons are ready to deploy at a moment's notice.
Wilson said in December that readiness rates are measured by C1 and C2 scoring methods. According to the Congressional Budget Office, a C1 score means a unit can fully carry out its wartime mission; a C2 score means a unit can carry out most of its wartime mission.
"That still means we still have work to be done … but that's where we have been putting our time, energy and resources," Wilson said.
On Friday, she reiterated that there must always be a focus on the airmen doing the missions. "Readiness is first and foremost about training people," she said.