Staff shortages slow service at Air Force facilities
Stars and Stripes March 27, 2006
RAF LAKENHEATH, England — Waited too long for a hamburger recently? You’re not alone.
The Air Force Services Squadrons — from housekeepers at the Air Force Inns, to cooks at the bowling alley and down to the cashier at the Knight’s Table dining facility — are having trouble recruiting workers.
The problem is most acute at the lower end of the pay scale, where entry-level jobs such as food service worker, recreation assistant and sales clerk offer wages as low as $6.75 an hour.
And it’s affecting service.
“It’s kind of tough, being shorthanded,” said 48th Services Squadron human resources director Daisy Espanol at Lakenheath. “Individuals are overwhelmed, but they are trying to make the best of it.”
The impact ranges from having to wait too long for pins to be reset at the bowling alley, to extended waits to be seated at Pinkerton’s, and even includes incoming airmen having to wait for a clean room at the Air Force Inn.
“It took me an hour to get two cheeseburgers for me and my son at the bowling alley,” said Tech. Sgt. Bryan Shipman, 31, who deals with the problem on both ends as an NCO at the Air Force Inn and a customer of on-base facilities.
“You can’t get too mad, though, because you know they lack the staff.”
It’s a problem affecting Air Force installations across Europe.
Open jobsSome managers say that staff shortcomings are the root of the program.
Gerald Gilkey, Air Force Inns rooms division manager at Lakenheath, said an insufficient staff has forced his housekeepers to have to clean an average of 20 rooms in a seven-hour shift.
The high tempo means the housekeepers often have to rush to finish rooms before check-in and can’t go that extra mile.
“I have a good staff, but I don’t have enough of them,” he lamented.
Rob Gleason, cook leader at the golf course, echoed familiar sentiments.
“From here to the clubs, to the bowling alley, there are just not enough people to cook,” Gleason said. “The manager of this restaurant is out there cooking steaks on Friday night because he can’t find anyone to come in and do it.”
While Lakenheath and Mildenhall have roughly 10 percent of their services jobs open, neither is crunched as hard as Aviano Air Base in northern Italy, which has 20 percent of its jobs vacant, according to base officials.
Stars and Stripes attempted over the course of two weeks to interview Aviano services officials but was unable to speak to anyone.
Only two Air Forces bases in Europe — Spangdahlem and Ramstein Air Bases in Germany — are running near full capacity.
The gradesMeasuring overall satisfaction, or dissatisfaction for that matter, is difficult.
The 48th Services Squadron and the 100th Services Squadron at RAF Mildenhall track customer satisfaction through comment cards at their facilities. The squadrons also employ electronic machines that collect customer feedback known as Opinionmeter results.
There is a clear correlation between the facilities that employ cooks, cashiers, waitresses and any other food service worker and lower customer satisfaction as tracked by the Opinionmeter. The Opinionmeter asks respondents five questions regarding customer service.
At RAF Mildenhall’s dining facility, for instance, roughly 33 percent of the 92 respondents rated the facility’s customer service as “poor” on all five questions. The Knight’s Table at RAF Lakenheath earned slightly lower numbers, but still scored higher than 23 percent as “poor” on all five questions. (It should be noted that dining facilities at both RAFs Lakenheath and Mildenhall claimed top honors at the annual United States Air Forces in Europe competition in the past several years.)
100th Services Squadron Deputy Director Paul Keenan said that any facility that received more than 20 percent “poor” rankings should be concerned.
“If we found there was a poor ranking of more than 20 percent, we would want to get with that manager and see what we can do to correct it,” Keenan said.
Compare that with the Child Development Center, Outdoor Recreation Center and Arts and Crafts Shop, as well as a handful of other Services facilities that received a “poor” ranking from less than 10 percent of the respondents.
Keenan, however, stressed that it’s impossible to know how accurate the Opinionmeter result are.
The causeIt’s clear a problem exists. What’s less evident is how to solve it.
Espanol said a number of factors lead to the staffing shortage. First, potential employees have a number of options across the base where they can find similar work at a higher wage. Numbers provided by the Defense Commissary Agency, for instance, show salaries that run up to $2 to $3 more per hour for similar work.
In England, the problem is compounded by the fact that Americans are permitted to work on the British economy. The currency exchange means that even a low-wage position in pounds equates to higher overall pay. And hiring workers from off-base isn’t an option, at least in England. Essentially, anyone not from the United Kingdom or another North Atlantic Treaty Organization country is barred from working on base. Even a candidate from the United Kingdom has to undergo a background check that can take up to six months for a simple housekeeping job.
“People are not going to wait around six months to see if they passed the check to become a housekeeper. They just go elsewhere,” said Air Force Inn General Manager Cori Esselman.
Esselman said new, even tighter security requirements enacted last year forced her to let go of a former “Employee of the Year” because she was from Thailand, and also not hire four others she was otherwise ready to employee as housekeepers due to their nationalities.
“Security requirements make a tough job even tougher for us,” she said.
For now, employers such as Espanol and Esselman are working hard to recruit new employees for these positions via advertising and job fairs.
“We’re challenged right now,” Esselman said.
By the numbers
Positions: 176Vacant: 17RAF Lakenheath
Positions: 400Vacant: 40RAF Alconbury
Positions: 171Vacant: 13Aviano Air Base, Italy
Positions: 334Vacant: 60Typical openings and wages at RAF Lakenheath