1.0 Purpose and Scope

Firstly, this document recognizes that the CAF is a community, from members undergoing their initial training to the most seasoned and high-ranking member. As such, the writing of this document reflects the connection, the immersion, and the ownership that each member, and each leader impacted by this document, possesses. This is our CAF, these are our members and we must always work towards providing the best military career experience to all its members.

Retention: The ability of an organization to retain its employees; wherein employees remain within the organization for the entirety of their career.

Attrition: The loss of members via resignation, retiring or dismissal.

Unhealthy Attrition: attrition that it is both avoidable (when the member chooses or feels forced to leave for reasons that are within the organization’s control) and dysfunctional (when otherwise-contributing members leave).

The purpose of this document is to guide the CAF in the development of strategic efforts to retain members.This will take the shape of targeted retention strategies and better Human Resources (HR) practices, informed by CAF evidence of member attrition and current retention efforts, as well as research into HR practices to influence the factors of retention that are within the organization’s control.

This document identifies what is retention and attrition in the CAF and why a strategy is needed – the CAF, overall, appears to have a good retention rate. However, as is demonstrated in this document, an overall high rate of retention can mask problem areas, and a lack of strategic oversight into resolving the issues can result in multiple disjointed or repetitive efforts that miss the mark on core problems. Further, maintaining a healthy organization means more than taking in the information as is. It requires consideration of the past, present, and future issues, efforts, and influencing factors. To continue to grow the force and keep it healthy, we must ensure we are providing valuable members with the best possible opportunity to stay within the CAF. In our steps towards addressing retention, we must adhere to key principles, laid out in section 5. By employing these principles within the activities that will support our LOEs, we can ensure that we are progressing towards our goal – to retain CAF talent and reduce unhealthy attrition.

1.1 What is Retention?

Broadly speaking, retention is an organization’s ability to keep its employees. Retention can be represented with a simple calculation: the percentage of its employees an organization has kept over a given timeframe. However, retention is more than just a number; it is also a sign of organizational well-being. Employees perform better and are more committed to remaining in an organization that values them as people, is invested in their well-being and growth, and offers a positive workplace. These aspects will, in return, increase retention. Increased and continued retention ensures a higher level of productivity with long-standing employees who have gained significant experience and specific qualifications.

Retention in the CAF is the continued employment of personnel with core capabilities and talents needed to conduct current and future operations. While the CAF aims to improve retention, it cannot be done at the cost of mission success. Instead, the aim is to have healthy retention within the diverse populations across various occupations, ranks, elements, and components of the CAF. Healthy retention can be seen as the continued service of members with the talent and capabilities needed to sustain the institution’s mission. It is not retention for its own sake, but rather retention with the purpose of ensuring the CAF can continue to meet its purpose in the defence of Canada.

1.2 Why We Need a Retention Strategy

Retention is not only about creating solutions for problems we are aware of, but also employing a strategy lens to both HR data and concerns of members in order to provide the best possible career experience, ensuring members are committed to a long-standing career in the CAF.

At any given time, the Government of Canada can call upon the CAF to undertake missions for the protection of Canada and Canadians and to maintain international peace and stability (Department of National Defence, 2018). As such, it is critical that the CAF builds and maintains full force. An essential component of this effort is to ensure that we are retaining our members throughout their careers. Retention is not only about creating solutions when there is already a glaring attrition issue, it is also about employing a strategic lens to the HR data and concerns of members. This will help ensure that we provide the best possible career experience so that members are committed to a long-standing career in the CAF. In developing a retention strategy, we must consider three key challenges:

  1. Operational Mandates and Requirements: Each of the Services and occupations within the CAF require a certain number of personnel to remain relevant and capable;
  2. Legislated Mandates: The CAF is a reflection of Canadian Society. Therefore our membership must reflect that society and the numbers of military members from the underrepresented groups need to be accounted for and may vary over time (e.g., women and Indigenous Peoples in the CAF); and
  3. Dissatisfiers: These are mostly the reasons why members want to voluntarily release from the CAF. Research has narrowed this down, and although further data analysis will be required, it certainly highlights areas for improvement to reduce voluntary releases.

While each of these challenges must be taken into account, the third one – dissatisfiers – is a key focus of the Retention Strategy. To improve our retention rate, we must address historical and current problems whilst confronting potential future problems pre-emptively. Moving forward, this Strategy requires that the CAF focuses on addressing three main areas: establish organizational means to respond to global changes by considering their impact on Canadian society and our operating environment; targeted retention efforts; and effective governance.

Responding ro Changes and Evolution in Canadian Society and the CAF Operating Environment

As the nature of the CAF operating environment changes and as society evolves, the CAF must look forward to how it can recruit and retain members who will continue to strengthen the force through their skills and experience and who reflect the values and diversity of Canadian society. The Retention Strategy responds directly to the retention initiatives identified in Canada’s Defence Policy, Strong, Secured, Engaged (SSE), and supports the ongoing diversity initiatives in the CAF. The complexities of these factors highlight the need for a focused and structured approach to retention. Although progress has been made through previous efforts, further retention success can be realized through overarching organizational changes and targeted retention efforts in order to address key problem areas (i.e., lack of diversity and representation or addressing stressed occupations) within the CAF. The CAF must adapt to the evolving needs of current members, and proactively prepare for the emerging or changing needs of prospective recruits, with a more comprehensive approach to retention in order to best sustain CAF capabilities.

The Strategy will strike a balance between supporting the needs of personnel with the requirements of the institution. The Retention Strategy provides the framework to guide and support efforts that must be planned, developed and delivered within the CAF in order to address current retention requirements and prepare for future CAF needs. The Strategy provides guidance on ways, means, and ends to ensure sustainable operational excellence at home and abroad through organizational change and targeted retention efforts.

Our success in retaining our members depends on continuous renewal of our commitment to provide them with an inclusive, welcoming, and healthy work environment with rewarding and meaningful careers, all while supporting their personal needs from enrollment to their last day in uniform. Ultimately, mission success is contingent on people as our most valuable resource, and we must value and rigorously support our people so that the dedicated, highly skilled and professional sailors, soldiers, and aviators are engaged and empowered in their duties.

Targeted Retention Efforts

Targeted retention, focusing on specific questions and detailed analysis, includes intersectional analysis on specific occupations, demographic groups and capability levels to identify key problem areas and will inform the development of effective and directed retention efforts.

On average, the number of CAF members who leave the organization is stable and represents only a small portion of the overall force – between 8 and 9% annually.Footnote 3 However, the low overall rate of attrition masks the impact that attrition has on critical capabilities and the overall operational effectiveness of the CAF. Furthermore, it is beneficial for the CAF to proactively develop and implement a retention strategy while attrition numbers are positive – it does not serve the CAF to be complacent until a problem develops. Capabilities and skills that are in high demand across Canadian society are equally in high demand within the CAF. Technicians, medical specialists, logisticians, and those knowledgeable in developing technologies and specific domains such as cyber operations, represent elements that speak to the requirement for focused retention: these individuals are challenging to recruit, critical to operational effectiveness, and possess skills in high demand across Canadian society.

Targeted Retention Example: Logistics Occupations: key questions would look to determine if there are identified issues existing across elements for which members are considering leaving the force, or this occupation. Are the cultural differences between the elements? Can there be aspects mandated to be the same for an occupation that spans all three elements? Intersectional analysis would be conducted to assess to see if there are differences between underrepresented populations/YOS.

In addition to these specialties, each CAF member has their own lived experiences and each individual adds value to our organization. Targeted retention efforts – developing retention efforts to address specific occupations, circumstances, or underrepresented populations – will also contribute to ensuring that the CAF is representative of Canadians by researching, analyzing, and addressing retention related concerns that affect underrepresented groups (i.e., women, Indigenous Peoples, visible minorities, LGBTQ2+ members, and PWD). Such concerns can be missed in the aggregated data, which often reflects the views of the majority. The CAF is strengthened by diversity and must acknowledge that in improving inclusivity, we better support our members and help the CAF to respond to demographic and operational changes going forward.

Effective Governance

CAF-wide strategies must take an over-arching view of the issues at hand, ensuring that the recommendations and decisions rendered are evidence-based with insights gained from research, in order to best inform decision makers and governance bodies. The strategies must incorporate internal research and analysis, along with best practices uncovered by external research published from credible sources. Such strategies must set up the institution for ongoing success and allow for growth and adaptability in order to meet current and future needs. To effectively move forward with the Retention Strategy, and to prevent a recurring need to redevelop a new strategy, there needs to be a dedicated governing body identified or developed to take on the implementation and ongoing maintenance of the Strategy efforts. This is reflected in LOE 1. In identifying this body of governance, the CAF will be able to build on existing investments, advancing a holistic approach that addresses both professional and personal dimensions of members’ lives. These actions, in turn, will allow the CAF to better harmonize policies and programs to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic sustainability within the institution.

1.3 Who is this Strategy For? 

The Strategy provides direction to L1 and L2 organizations for the development and implementation of measures to improve retention within the CAF. However, the Retention Strategy will also impact the CAF at multiple levels – from influencing leaders and better informing decision-making within headquarters to the individual activities and interactions within formations and units. The ongoing development of an operational culture that emphasizes respect, equitable treatment, support for people, advancement of the team, and honour in serving Canada are all core elements influencing retention throughout the CAF. The role of leadership is central to the Strategy’s purpose, focus, and efforts in influencing retention. Moreover, leadership is critical to ensuring operational and strategic stability of key capabilities and organizational needs while advancing new initiatives.

The Retention Strategy is aimed at the retention of all CAF members within the Regular Force (Reg Force) and Reserve Force (Res Force) – men, women, Indigenous Peoples, visible and ethnic minorities, PWD, and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, two-spirited and other non-conforming or non-heteronormative (LGBTQ2+) individuals. People join the CAF for a variety of reasons (e.g., adventure, job security, career aspirations, lifestyle, benefits, etc.). Similarly, reasons for attrition vary. For example, family demands, work-life balance, and civilian opportunities can all impact individual decisions to remain or depart from the CAF. Management of these influencing factors is a core leadership responsibility that can help ensure that members are empowered to serve in a productive, respectful, and inclusive workplace that maximizes their contributions to the mission. In order to retain our valued CAF members for the full length of their careers, it is essential that we have a clear understanding of what prompts them to leave, as well as what draws people to join and remain a part of the CAF.

HR research shows that people are committed to their organization because they feel respected in a healthy work environment, their work matters and has purpose, they have trust in leadership, and the organization is caring, competent, and compensatory. These elements are the building blocks of a healthy professional culture. As such, culture is a core driving factor of retention – not only policies, pay, and processes. New strategies and initiatives within the CAF (and the Defence Team overall) are contributing to incorporating health, wellness, and reasonable accommodation into the culture of the CAF and Department of National Defence (DND). Our CAF culture strives to be one that champion’s teamwork, respect, and honour in, and for, our members who uphold service before self. The CAF’s culture is defined by its ethos – fundamental values and principles which include duty, integrity, teamwork, and humanity. The CAF culture is centred on members living and leading the profession of arms as the CAF grapples with the “paradox of people” – they are our greatest strength and our greatest challenge. The CAF is in the business of unlocking the potential from their personnel to ensure strength in our force and operational effectiveness.

The Retention Strategy considers how to support the needs of the individual in order to improve overall operational readiness and achieve the CAF mandate. Supporting and developing members who have internalized the purpose, values, and meaning of the CAF is a core element of successful retention at the individual and team levels. If we are to foster retention, we must impel our members to integrate our raison d’être – to embrace why people serve – in order to create unity of purpose and commitment and encourage members to maintain a career within the CAF over the longer term. At the same time, the Strategy must focus on the needs of the institution to develop those capabilities required for the current and future operating environments. This will enable the institution and its members to better support the CAF goals to defend Canada and support its interests and values at home and abroad.

1.4 Vision

As articulated in Strong, Secure, Engaged (SSE) (Department of National Defence, 2017a), the CAF’s objectives are to “keep our talented people in uniform with a welcoming and healthy work environment” (p. 22), “place a new focus on recruiting and retaining underrepresented populations” (p. 23), “aspire to be a leader in gender balance in the military” (p. 23) and “ensure a truly integrated [CAF] that provides effective operational output” (p. 68). To meet these and support other related SSE objectives, we must reduce unhealthy attrition and remove barriers for those who want and have the capacity and desire to continue to serve in order to better maintain operational effectiveness and achieve Canada’s defence mandate. The CAF Retention Strategy will exist within the broader CAF HR Strategy, which strives to optimize our workforce, increase our operational and institutional effectiveness, and ensure that we are an employer of choice within Canadian society.


A CAF environment – rooted in the strength of military families and relying on the professional excellence of its members – which considers the uniqueness of each member to effectively respond to operational and personnel needs, in order to achieve operational success at home and abroad well into the 21st century.

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