The struggle is real: RPA maintenance accomplishes mission despite low retention

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christian Clausen
  • 432nd Wing/432nd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
The constant and insatiable demand for remotely piloted aircraft airpower, places stressors on nearly every career field within the RPA enterprise. For some of the Airmen of the 432nd Maintenance Group, the fast-paced deployment rotation, constant shift work, time away from family, limited assignment options and struggle of daily process changes, are more than enough to make some choose not to reenlist.

Instead of reciting the oath of enlistment again, a number of Airmen choose to separate from the military entirely or go work for a DoD contractor doing the same job. The 432nd MXG is comprised of nearly 20 different Air Force Specialty Codes and is responsible for maintaining the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.

"We're definitely seeing some issues with retention here in RPA maintenance as well as the rest of the Air Force," said Chief Master Sgt. John Burks, 432nd MXG chief enlisted manager. "There are a lot of job opportunities where the Airmen can continue to do great work in the RPA enterprise but through DoD contractors. At the end of the day, these Airmen are going to choose what's best for them and their families."

In a recent study Air Combat Command discovered the MQ-1 and MQ-9 maintenance retention rates were lower than any fighter aircraft with approximately 32 percent of first time enlistees and 14 percent of second term enlistees reenlisting.

These rates are roughly 15 percent lower for first term and 36 percent lower for second term enlistees versus the rates of the next aircraft platform with the lowest retention rates.

"Most of the Airmen leaving the military are senior Airmen and staff sergeants at the end of their first enlistments and they can take their military training and apply it relatively quickly in a contracting job," said Chief Master Sgt. Stacy Dent, 432nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron chief enlisted manager.

Some Airmen within the 432nd MXG said it's hard to want to stay in the military when they could take their degree to a civilian company and have a more stable schedule and workload, as well as be paid a larger amount of money. 

Some of the Airmen who plan on leaving say it's because they have only three assignment locations available within the RPA career field. Each location is in a desert environment, with low-manning, calling for 12 hour long duty days with two hour transit to and from work, little time at home between deployments, and lack of incentives to stay in despite the need for their career field.

The loss of the young Airmen and non-commissioned officers takes a toll on the rest of the force and creates an environment where it's challenging to keep a high level experience within the career field.

"A lot of skills and techniques take time to acquire," Hill said. "It takes doing the job over and over, and if we don't have the people doing that and you lose that expertise, mistakes will happen eventually, and we don't ever want to get to that point."

The struggles aren't going unnoticed. Leadership from the Air Force, wing, group, squadron, and units are taking action.

"There is a lot that the Air Force, Wing, and squadron leadership is doing," Burks said. "First the commander of Air Combat Command implemented the Cultural Process Improvement Program which is an initiative to assemble subject matter experts across the Air Force for base visits and interviews so we can take actionable ways to improve the RPA enterprise."

Burks went on to say the wing leadership is also continuing to argue for selective reenlistment bonuses for RPA maintenance to help with retention.

The leadership also tries to make sure the Airmen know how they are making an impact in the world, no matter how monotonous or mundane a task may seem.

"These Airmen are saving lives every single day and enabling others to save lives," Hill said. "The maintainer who thinks they're just fixing a maintenance stand is actually fixing the stand so that a crew chief can get the plane to fly, so the aircrew can train and gain experience flying, so they can keep someone on the ground safe downrange and be able to return home to their families."

Not only are the 432nd MXG maintainers saving lives daily, they're laying the foundation of remotely piloted airpower for the future.

Despite the challenges of the 432 MXG they continue to complete the mission and pass inspections with over 90 percent mission capability rates.

"I have never been with a more skilled, disciplined, professional group of warriors than here at the 432nd Maintenance Group," Burks said. "Every day they are phenomenal and I could not be more proud to serve with the men and women of the 432nd."