3.0 Retention vs. Attrition in the CAF

The landscape that we work within is constantly changing and we must be proactive in identifying and addressing CAF members’ needs in order to retain our personnel. The CAF must provide support to our members so that they can meet their full potential and serve for the full extent of their career with honour and satisfaction in their service. Retention is also about keeping the right people – those who positively support the organization with their skills, education, engagement, and dedication. When we talk about retention, it is with the understanding that although the CAF has healthy overall retention, there are still specific demographics and occupations in which unique attrition issues have been identified. 

A low attrition rate masks the impact of the loss of a few members in key capabilities. When a member leaves, they take with them years of knowledge, experience, education, and skills that are not easily replaced. Even members with fewer years’ experience represent the loss of unique skills, knowledge, and investment in training when they choose to leave the CAF. Members with the technical, cognitive, social, and leadership skills required to carry out the CAF mission must be selected, trained, and promoted from within the CAF at significant expense. The unanticipated release of personnel, even in low numbers, can create critical shortcomings in the ability to maintain operations and can take years and substantial resources (personnel, material and financial) to correct. This effect can be even more problematic with the loss of personnel with key skills and expertise in specialized domains – personnel whose skills and knowledge are also in high demand in Canadian society.Footnote 8

Despite the negative impact that attrition can have, some attrition is expected and even desirable. When members who are not performing as expected, or who decide a career in the CAF is not a good fit for them, are released, they open opportunities for new and existing members to prog­ress. Similarly, when members who have served and con­tributed to the CAF retire upon reaching compulsory retirement age (CRA), advancement opportunities are opened up. This movement of existing members and the influx of recruits are essential to reconstituting the CAF over time. It is not the goal of this Strategy to prevent all attrition. Rather, it is unhealthy attrition that is problematic and is the focus of this Strategy.

  • Unhealthy attrition: attrition that 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). 

However, looking solely at the attrition data only addresses the issues retroactively. Addressing unhealthy attrition and supporting the retention of CAF members depend on addressing the reasons for their departure. What resources must exist and be employed to ensure that our members receive the support needed to continue service in the CAF? Retention efforts must also incorporate the influencing factors of retention for a positive work experience. These factors support members in remaining employed by the CAF and may reflect what motivated a member’s decision to join the CAF in the first place.

Understanding Retention - Influencing Factors

Research in organizational psychology and human resour­ces suggests that when people feel valued, respected, and supported in the workplace, and perceive that their organ­ization and leaders care about their well-being, they become more engaged and committed to the organization (Allen & Myer, 1990), perform better (Riketta, 2008), experience greater job satisfaction (Riketta & van Dick, 2005), and feel a desire to remain (Allen & Myer, 1990). When employees do not feel included, val­ued, respected, or sup­ported, there are negative impacts on employee well-being (Hakanen & Schaufeli, 2012) and they become cynical and disen­gaged (Rahman & Nas, 2013). Furthermore, feel­ing unappreciated or undervalued is likely to spur employees to explore other employment options (Aquino, Tripp, & Bies, 2006). Other factors, such as personal suitability or per­son-job fit also play a role in retention and attrition. If someone feels incompetent, feels the job lacks challenge, or simply does not enjoy their work, they can be motivated to leave – even if they feel supported by the organization.

These and other variables can be influenced by either the organization, through its processes, policies, and support systems, or by leaders through day-to-day interactions with employees. Some of these factors have been previ­ously categorized as transactional (referring to pay, bonuses, and tangible benefits and interactions) or rela­tional (referring to interpersonal relationships where trust, agreements, and commitment are built) (Department of National Defence, Military Personnel Generation, 2009). The significance and role of leadership in this aspect must be recognized, due to the substantial influence leaders have in the interpretation of policies, the assignment of work, and in fostering a positive (or negative) work environment.

“Even when employees feel a lack of support from their organization, leaders play a critical role by buffering those effects with positive interactions through their subordinates.” 

- Audenaert, Vanderstraeten, & Buyens (2017)

These and other variables can be influenced by either the organization, through its processes, policies, and support systems, or by leaders through day-to-day interactions with employees. Some of these factors have been previ­ously categorized as transactional (referring to pay, bonuses, and tangible benefits and interactions) or rela­tional (referring to interpersonal relationships where trust, agreements, and commitment are built) (Department of National Defence, Military Personnel Generation, 2009). The significance and role of leadership in this aspect must be recognized, due to the substantial influence leaders have in the interpretation of policies, the assignment of work, and in fostering a positive (or negative) work environment.

Including leadership, the factors of retention can be grouped into three categories which will help direct efforts and identify the most effective areas of impact when developing and managing overall and targeted retention efforts. These efforts, in turn, will be able to more effectively address retention issues. Key factors that contribute to overall job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and retention and attrition according to the literature, can generally be organized as follows:

  • Organizational (Transactional): including job design; workplace culture; training and equipment; and poli­cies and strategies;
  • Leadership (Relational): including fostering an environment of inclusivity, civility, and respect, trans­formational leadership, supporting members through, and maintaining flexibility and planning ahead to reduce the impact on families and reduce work-family conflict; and
  • Personal: including person-job fit, perceived fairness, morale, job satisfaction, and psychological distress.

Retention Issues for Underrepresented Populations

The low attrition rate of the CAF overall also masks the loss of members within underrepresented populations – for all of those members recruited, about half of the num­ber of designated group members release.Footnote 9Losing these members prevents the CAF from maintaining a pool of qualified personnel, while also perpetuating a lack of rep­resentation at senior levels, which also influences retention and recruitment activities. Issues of retention for under­represented populations broadly fit within the identified Organizational, Leadership, and Personal categories, how­ever, there are nuances to the issues affecting these groups. Underrepresented populations face greater challenges from harassment and discrimination than the majority, and may feel a lack of inclusivity in the cultureFootnote 10(e.g., address­ing sexual misconduct in the CAF, as well as cultural unsafe practicesFootnote 11and discrimination against Indigenous Peoples, visible minorities, and LGBTQ2+ members). These factors must be addressed through CAF-wide cul­ture change initiatives in order to have a lasting impact. The efforts stemming from the Retention Strategy must also support this culture change, ensuring that actions and initiatives fully incorporate the views and concerns of underrepresented populations, such that every member of the CAF is supported to thrive and have a full career in the CAF.

By better understanding the impact the organization can have when making adjustments to these variables and applying those adjustments through actions and initia­tives, we can contribute to a culture in which retention will be a key consideration when developing policies, processes, and initiatives. With this information guiding the CAF, the organization is better prepared to build on existing organizational efforts to ensure the CAF is not just a workplace that people want to join, but one where people want to stay.

To address these areas in which attrition is high, we must look at who is leaving and why. The data related to attri­tion, supplemented by the research providing insights on the experiences of different groups, is invaluable in devel­oping targeted retention efforts. By analyzing attrition data, specific demographics with particular irritants that impact attrition can be identified and appropriate actions crafted to address the identified issues.

3.1 Attrition in the CAF

The average rate of attrition from the CAF (Reg Force and P Res) is generally between 8% and 9%. This rate compares favourably with the Canadian labour market, including both the private (10.2%) and public sectors (4.7%) (Coburn & Cowan, 2019).Footnote 12The CAF rate of attrition is also lower than that of many of our allies.Footnote 13With such positive numbers, why does the CAF need a strategy for retention? These numbers hide areas of unhealthy attrition, areas that can impact how effectively the CAF can complete its missions, and how truly repre­sentative of Canadian society it can be. To identify where an attrition problem exists, we need to look past the overall number and dig deeper. CAF research identifies attrition by years of service, gender, occupation, and rank amongst other factors. Generally speaking, unhealthy attrition in the CAF can be identified in recruits within the first year; members with 20-25 years of experience; specific occu­pations; and women, Indigenous Peoples, and visible minorities in the CAF.Footnote 14

A better picture of who is leaving the CAF can be developed by regularly employing a Gender-Based Analysis Plus (GBA+) lens to the attrition data and con­ducting intersectional analysis. Taking a broad demo­graphic lens, Director General Military Personnel Research and Analysis (DGMPRA) analysis of attrition by gender and years of service already reveals women and men gen­erally have comparable rates of attrition up until 20 years of service, at which point the rate of attrition for women is markedly increased, and these departures tend to be senior ranking members. If we also consider attrition rates by gender and occupation, logistical occupations are iden­tified as having high attrition rates, which as of 2020, is comprised of an estimated 42% women.Footnote 15These pieces of information should be used as indicators of where and how analyses can be conducted to uncover more details on who it is that is leaving the CAF, providing us with potential targets for retention efforts. While broader efforts supporting gender equity would help the retention of women overall, and notably support those occupations with a higher number of women as members, inter­sectional analyses can also lead to findings requiring fur­ther investigation. Are there occupations where women seem unable to enter or are more likely to leave when they do get in? If so, we must consider why this is happening, and how best we can address it. These types of questions must also be posed in consideration of attrition related to other underrepresented populations in the CAF – Indigenous Peoples, visible minorities, PWD, and LGBTQ2+ members. While we have data on the attrition rate of most of the designated groups, (See Table 1) there is no reported rate of attrition for LGBTQ2+ members. Limited data is strongly impacted by the process of self-identification across Indigenous Peoples, visible min­orities, and some members of the PWD groups, and fur­ther limits how we can best identify and target areas to address in terms of retention.

Clearly identifying where we see issues of attrition is a critical component to address retention effectively in the future, however, it is not enough. To effectively target retention efforts and ensure that the influencing factors of retention are properly applied, it is necessary to delve into deeper analysis of the “why”.

Table 1: Average attrition rate by designated group, fiscal year 2017-18 - 2019-20

Average attrition rate by designated group in the CAF, FYs 17/18-19/20*

Designated Group
Regular Force
Primary Reserve
Cadet Organizations Administration and Training Services
Canadian Rangers
Indigenous Peoples
Visible Minorities
Persons with Disabilities

*Values include component and subcomponent transfers.

Attrition in the CAF - Why? 

DGMPRA provides a wealth of information on the CAF, including conducting and analyzing data related to attri­tion and retention via the Retention Survey, the Exit Survey, and other stand-alone targeted studies such as occupational analyses, which are aimed at understanding the factors impacting the well-being of members and the drivers of attrition. Over the decades of research related to retention and attrition, the reasons for dissatisfaction have largely remained the same: job dissatisfaction; impact of military lifestyle on spouses/children; career/occupation dissatisfaction, lack of career progression; and dissatisfac­tion with senior leadership.

When the analysis is broken into demographics, there are indicators for groups and factors which require further analysis to support the development of targeted retention efforts. Analyses conducted on Retention Survey data (Cheng, Myers, Musolino, Yeung, & Eren, 2020), found that there were few significant differences between men and women in their intent to leave the CAF. Where dif­ferences are found, analyses indicate that women tend to have higher levels of satisfaction with individual battle training standards, the effects of posting on family, pay and benefits, and organizational leadership compared to male personnel. However, analysis of the open-ended responses to the item “list and discuss the aspects a mem­ber is most dissatisfied with” did reveal differences. Here, someFootnote 16 women more frequently reported dissatisfaction with items such as: advancement/promotion/Performance Evaluation Reports (PER); training and development; workload and demands; organizational inefficiency; and lack of transparency/fairness related to occupation, in comparison to their male counterparts.

DGMPRA also conducts targeted studies for occupations to identify specific factors influencing retention and attri­tion, and is currently conducting Project Horizon – a longitudinal study of the early experiences of CAF recruits in the early phase of their careers, to gain a better under­standing of early-career commitment, retention, and attrition. These studies provide valuable insight, however, further work is needed in order to collect or collate infor­mation regularly which would allow disaggregation and analysis of issues for all sub-groups of members across the CAF. The 2019 Retention Survey analysis included a sug­gestion to conduct more qualitative studies via interviews and focus groups to obtain a clearer picture of what the issues are. Such analysis can lead to uncovering issues not previously considered. This can further lead to potentially investigating issues that are not currently covered and allow them to be considered from a strategic perspective.

Underrepresented Populations in Retention and Exit Surveys’ Data

Both the Retention and Exit Surveys provide the oppor­tunity for members to self-identify as a member of under­represented populations, however, the rate of self-identification of underrepresented populations in the surveys is quite low, limiting our awareness of retention dissatisfiers specific to those groups. This makes it challen­ging to come to conclusions that can be generalized to the underrepresented population and be effectively addressed within this Strategy. As such, and as discussed above, the results are not disaggregated by underrepresented popula­tions, with the exception of women in the CAF. To address this lack of data, a primary concern is to investigate how to collect information on underrepresented populations in greater numbers and analyze it more frequently. This may be possible through targeted outreach for survey response, more specific response options, or additional analysis via focus groups and interviews. This must be approached with sensitivity and awareness that respondents may be hesitant to bring forward information. They may fear the impact on their work lives or their career, or simply not be ready to discuss the issue in a formal format. This can be particu­larly true for victims of discrimination and/or harassment. It is crucial that members feel safe in sharing information, and that data and research are collected from a variety of sources if survey data is not available or feasible. Doing so will allow us to acquire a better understanding and create better actions to support our members and the broader culture change efforts in development.

In terms of general reasons why members of underrepre­sented populations leave, these include issues such as discrimination and harassment, barriers to fulfilling employment, and lack of inclusivity. Broad cultural chan­ges are needed to effectively address a majority of these issues – such as misconduct, racism, discrimination, and inclusion – and can be supported appropriately through the application of GBA+ at the outset of developing action plans for the Retention Strategy. We must ensure that the Retention Strategy works with other strategies and developments on culture change such that addressing systemic issues (such as discrimination, harassment, and bias) are supported within our efforts going forward. In other cases, there are aspects that can be specifically tackled within retention, for example, women report that there is a lack of detail, transparency, and accuracy in the information they receive regarding training (e.g., fitness training). For other groups, additional analysis is needed to identify specific issues. However, harassment and discrimination are identified as considerable issues for Indigenous Peoples, visible minorities, LGBTQ2+ mem­bers, and PWD. Targeted retention efforts must take into consideration the needs and concerns of these subgroups in order to ensure they are effectively addressed.

The Reserve Force

Attrition by component must also be considered when looking at attrition and retention data. While the overall rate of attrition from the CAF is quite low, when broken down between Res ForceFootnote 17 and Reg Force, there is a stark difference – the Primary Reserve (P Res) experiences an attrition rate almost double that of the Reg Force (an estimated 15%Footnote 18 vs. 8-9%) while attrition rates for Canadian Rangers (Rangers) (4.8%) and Cadet Organizations Administration and Training Service (COATS) personnel (9%) are comparable or better than that of Reg Force.Footnote 19 Res Force attrition, however, can be driven by different factors than those of the Reg Force – for example, Army reservists include a large portion of students who may leave the reserves for full-time work, or transfer to the Reg Force.

Broadly speaking, the dissatisfiers are similar for both components, with both P Res and COATS also identifying family-related concerns, lack of opportunities, and civilian obligations as reasons to leave (Pearce, 2020; Butler, Eren, Bremner, & Budgell, 2013).Footnote 20 However, it’s important to view Res Force attrition with a different lens than Reg Force. While there are similar reasons for leaving the CAF between Reg and Res Force members, the factors which influence Res Force members’ decision to leave can differ from that of Reg Force members. As recommended for the data on Reg Force members, deeper and more detailed collection and analysis into Res Force attrition data will provide a clearer picture of where attrition problems exist and how best to target retention efforts. Not only will this allow the development of more effective retention efforts for the Res Force, but by acknowledging the details that demonstrate the differences within similar dissatisfiers in broad CAF-wide efforts, it ensures that concerns within the Res Force are heard and can be appropriately addressed in order to have the best opportunity to retain Reservists.

Going Forward

It is imperative that the CAF make effective use of the data it has at the strategic level. The CAF is fortunate to have a plethora of data within retention and exit data surveys, in addition to considerable research providing information related to the experiences of CAF members and the factors influencing retention. In many cases, this data can be paired with information on an individual’s marital status, age, gender, first official language, rank, etc. which should be taken into account when developing retention plans and initiatives. Additional demographic dissection and intersectional analysis of the “reasons for leaving” will give a better picture of who is most likely to leave and why.Footnote 21 Considering different occupations and demographics at different levels will uncover the areas where retention efforts will result in the most impactful and efficient results. Further analysis through other meth­ods of study such as focus groups, interviews, and longi­tudinal studies will improve our understanding of what is driving attrition. This will allow us to tease out the details of why members leave, or consider leaving, allowing for better application of the influencing factors of reten­tion and subsequent development of retention efforts.

Reasons for attrition and retention differ across the spectrum of individuals that make up the CAF. We must delve into diverse sources of data and integrate different methods to achieve a full picture of the problem space and develop better solutions to identified problems.

In addition to conducting intersectional analysis, we must carefully consider what is being asked in the surveys and other studies and seek opportunities to get more of the retention story, focusing on emerging issues impacting CAF members and their families. Although there is considerable disaggregation of data already (rank, gender, YOS, marital status), the Retention and Exit Surveys do not break down their results by Indigenous members, visible minorities, PWD, nor do they identify issues of harassment, although the question is asked in the surveys. This information must be considered as part of retention efforts, supporting current CAF actions, such as the Indigenous Strategy, the Policy on Hateful Conduct, and the amendment to the Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention Regulations (Bill C-65). It has to be kept in mind that the data collected from members is is voluntary and thus information availability is dependent on a member’s willingness to provide it. This can present challenges in the form of low response rates, particularly from members representing smaller demographic groups who are more often called upon to share their views through surveys and focus groups. Despite this difficulty, options must be considered and investigated regarding how to obtain relevant data so that it can be better employed in effective retention actions. Such options should include stronger and more frequent communica­tions on the purpose and use of research and the import­ance of engagement with all stakeholders, including members.

The CAF is a collection of communities, with different experiences, pressures, and career paths. The experience of a Cyber Operator, and their retention model, differs radically from that of an infantry soldier, just as that of a Reservist differs from that of a Reg Force member. Likewise, the pressures and demands that impact retention will be unique to each community. As such, retention goals and targets for occupations or demographics must be unique to each community. The focus on group behav­iour is foundational to the success of targeted retention programs. Individual decisions about whether to remain or to leave the CAF matter and are impacted by local factors. However, the pressures which drive attrition within specific communities, be it demographic groups or occupations, vary and require unique group-level approaches to address.

3.2 Current Efforts

Existing sources such as the Annual Military Occupation Review (AMOR) and the Preferred Staffing Level (previ­ously Preferred Manning Level) will be a significant part of the overall retention efforts, wherein the outcomes of these activities will help direct retention activities – iden­tifying where problems may exist and need further inves­tigation. Programs and processes such as these will be part of the broad network of information that is needed for effective retention. Currently, these processes guide efforts in personnel production and training and identify occu­pations experiencing operational shortages. In addition to these processes are the current measures relating to data collection and analysis which provide retention-related information – for example, attrition data, retention and exit surveys, and break out analyses by occupation. Other activities already work in the realm of retention and as such, communication and alignment with these activities is crucial to advance a comprehensive and unified approach. These include the CAF Offer which provides an inventory of programs concerning compensation as well as benefits and career and work/life balance, and more specifically the ACP framework, a CAF employment model designed to improve the ability of members to move between Reg and Res Force for a seamless transition between components. The ACP framework is designed to provide members with equitable access to the multiple career employment opportunities within the CAF. Once completed the ACP framework will provide considerable support to retention efforts as it will leverage a CAF mem­ber’s knowledge, skills, abilities, and other attributes com­mon to all CAF occupations, while recognizing that their capacity, family circumstances, or interests may change over time. The completion of the ACP framework will be a considerable step and a key component towards sup­porting the broader retention efforts.

Still in development, the CAF Offer embodies the philosophy that CAF members make a unique contribution to the Profession of Arms; that members serve under unique conditions; and there is a distinct impact of service life on their families. The CAF Offer represents the establishment, maintenance, and adaptation of a suite of programs, policies and practices, ensuring that all members and their families are appropriately recognized for their contribution to the Nation. The philosophy, as well as its guiding principles, and framework was approved as of June 2021.

Additional success has been realized in the development and upcoming release of the CAF Offer Interactive Guide: an online portal with which members can view all of the policies, programs, practices and other elements of the CAF Offer. Its release is anticipated in early 2022

The Retention Strategy recognizes the extensive work that is already being done to inform HR processes for the betterment of CAF members. There have been considerable efforts put forth to provide exemplary services to the members of the CAF. The Strategy aims to build on these existing efforts, to provide an overarching strategic view to the related data, and bring a retention lens to the collaborative development of ongoing and upcoming strategies, initiatives, programs, and processes so that identified dissatisfiers are incorporated and addressed. Additionally, it will provide the direction necessary to build in the tools to pre-emptively identify and address new or recurring dissatisfiers that can lead to unhealthy attrition.

The Retention Strategy will complement existing work, encouraging greater alignment between the new and exist­ing efforts, and allowing for the opportunity to develop new initiatives or programs as needed, to best address unhealthy attrition.

3.2.1 Strategies, Programs, and Processes (Underway and in Development)

There are numerous undertakings within the CAF that are in alignment with the approach of the Retention Strategy, some of which can have considerable and obvious impact on the influencing factors of retention. Others may be more indirect or subtle, but nonetheless are valu­able for their impact on factors of retention – the oppor­tunities to retain CAF members can be found in every interaction between the member and the organization. Projects, initiatives, and processes that work to improve that experience make the CAF a better place to work and contribute to improving retention rates across the CAF, both in targeted demographics and occupations, as well as broadly across the organization. The table below iden­tifies a non-exhaustive list of these enterprises.

With the collaborative work of the Retention Strategy and the various actions in effect or in development, the organization will be able to secure a comprehensive approach to overall retention, as well as support and guide targeted retention efforts.

Table 2: Sample of current actions which support retention (underway or in development)Footnote 22    

  • Defence Leadership Symposiums
  • Indigenous Strategy
  • Adaptive Career Path
  • My Transition Guide
  • Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) Modernization
  • Full-Time Summer Employment (SSE 81)
  • Compensation for Employers of Reservists Program
  • Total Health and Wellness Strategy
  • Seamless Canada
  • Balance: The CAF Physical Performance Strategy
  • Military Career Transition Website
  • Operation EXPERIENCE
  • CAF HR Strategy
  • Occupation Analysis studies
  • Employment Equity Plan 
  • Chief, Professional Conduct and Culture
  • Joint Directive on GBA+ and Implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolutions on Women, Peace & Security (UNSCR WPS) Agenda
  • Diversity Strategy (to be replaced by CAF Inclusion Framework and Action Plan)
  • Universality of Service Review
  • Canadian Armed Forces – Accreditation Certification Equivalency Improvement
  • Comprehensive Military Family Plan
  • Military Spousal Employment Network
  • Operation GENERATION
  • First Principles Review of Military Total Rewards (the CAF Offer)
  • Renewal of the CAF Ethos: Trusted to Serve
  • Canadian Army Modernization Strategy
  • Reservists’ Assistance Program

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