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This article was published 10/1/2018 (1053 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A air force base in Winnipeg is taking part in a literal pilot project: employing commissionaires to take over roles usually staffed by military members.
Pilots, air combat systems operators and air environment controllers typically work in 17 Wing's 24/7 operations centre. But due to "manning woes" over the last year, the base restructured, shuffling members to higher priority positions and bringing in commissionaires for some desk work, said Capt. Ryan Port, who leads the Winnipeg "ops centre."
Commissionaires are usually ex-Canadian Forces members, police officers or government workers, who provide security services, make identification tags or do background checks.
Tom Reimer, a navy veteran and chief executive officer of Commissionaires Manitoba, said the local chapter specifically chose those with air force backgrounds to help in 17 Wing's new ops-centre roles.
Port said some of his crew was previously working up to 24-hour shifts answering the phone in the centre, before the six new commissionaires arrived. Four full-time and two part-time staff started Nov. 27.
"Because of manning woes I guess you could say... we’re not getting those backfills that we should," Port said in an interview Monday.
The captain said 17 Wing debated shutting down the 24/7 centre, but that wasn't a popular decision.
"None of us ever want to shut an ops centre down just because of the ‘what if’ factor. We don’t want to fail Canada or Canadians by us not being there, or having an answering machine answer the phone," Port said.
"We’re really basically going to do whatever we can to man that position and (hiring commissionaires) is the actual best deal when you think about it. And we’ve looked at all the courses of action out there. This is the best deal we could do for Winnipeg."
The commissionaires' contract is valid until the end of the base's fiscal year March 31, 2018, at which point 17 Wing will re-evaluate.
"This is a temporary manning challenge," Port said. "Whether it continues on for another 10 years, who knows. Or if it just continues on until we see more military members show up, we don’t know. That’s way above my pay grade, I would say."
A 2016 auditor general's report showed the Canadian Forces were short thousands of personnel for at least four years. The forces' target was 68,000 members, but the ranks hovered around 60,500.
At the end of March 2017, about 450 more military personnel were added, representing the first real growth in numbers in several years. Yet officials are unlikely to celebrate, as the military is still short about 2,000 regular-force members and 5,300 reservists.
The Department of National Defence did not return a Free Press request for comment about recruiting strategies.
Christian Leuprecht, a professor of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ont., expects the Forces will have an even tougher time recruiting amid a steady jobs market. In December, the national unemployment rate was only 5.7 per cent.
"As the labour market tightens, that also means the private sector is going to be looking to pay higher wages. The government has greater difficulty competing there, so we’re probably going to see more of those shortages," Leuprecht said in an interview Tuesday.
Whether other military bases will also rely on more commissionaires' handiwork remains to be seen, but Leuprecht said he likes the idea.
"Lots of people talk about, 'We want to have bigger armed forces and we should have more soldiers and what not.' I’m actually an advocate of... smaller armed forces, but more specialized," he said.
"Think about all the stuff that we can ditch that we’re currently doing that maybe we don’t really need someone in uniform doing," Leuprecht said. "Do we really need the ops centre staffed by some fit 25-year-old infantry guy, for instance?"
Port said Forces bases across the country are taking notice of what's happening at 17 Wing and considering similar tactics.
-- with files from The Canadian Press