2.0 Where we are: Investing in Valuable Military Personnel

2.1 The Strategic Landscape

Two broad strategic considerations inform the Retention Strategy and will impact its implementation: the currentand future operating environment, and the institutional expenses and resource pressures created by attrition. The CAF must be able to maintain a skilled force across a broad range of capabilities while meeting requirements in critical occupations facing shortages. To better meet current needs or capability gaps as identified in SSE, Ombudsman reports, other HR Strategies, and related CDS Orders, the CAF must identify and address aspects of the CAF work environment that negatively impact retention. The CAF is committed to investing in a strategy to develop, implement, and sustain the environment, systems, and processes appropriately at every level of the organization. Such action is critical to our collective institutional health, as CAF capabilities suffer when essential members are compelled to leave due to organizational factors such as outdated personnel policies or lack of flexibility in our military personnel management system.

Research on CAF attrition and retention over the past three decades has shown that dissatisfiers related to attrition are largely unchanged. These include factors such as job dissatisfaction, geographical instability, lack of career progression, undesirable postings, and dissatisfaction with senior leadership. In 2009, a retention strategy was developed with a number of initiatives meant to address attrition factors including recruiting and selection, basic training, career/employment management, personnel tempo, career/family balance, and leadership. In two separate reports in 2016 (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2016a; 2016b), the Auditor General of Canada (AG) found that, even though overall attrition remained low, Army Reserve units had difficulty retaining their trained soldiers, and “several occupations have been understaffed for many years because of issues with recruiting, training, or retention” (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2016b, p. 12). They recommended that the CAF both design and implement a retention strategy for the Army Reserve and develop, implement, monitor, and evaluate measures to optimize retention for each occupation. The AG found that, while action had been taken on some aspects, the 2009 strategy had not been fully implemented. Since 2014, a number of initiatives have been rolled out, including a revision of the 2009 strategy, a call for retention tools and revised HR policies, a new recruitment and retention strategy specific to the Canadian Forces Health Services (CFHS), Op EXPERIENCE (an aviation-specific retention initiative), and the “Strengthening the Army Reserve” initiative (Office of the Auditor General of Canada, 2016a).Footnote 4

The future operating environment is complex and chal­lenging. The rise of adversaries who possess both economic and technological capabilities, the increase in urbaniza­tion, and the ever-growing lethality and complexity of weapons all combine to shift the human element of war. The future operating environment envisioned by the CAF is one where human skills and abilities remain key to success on the battlefield: whether that battlefield is vir­tual, conventional, or conducted within complex con­tested sea, air, and land environments. At the same time, resources required to recruit and train CAF personnel are finite and must be carefully conserved. Attrition, broadly, impacts institutional flexibility by consuming resources and training personnel unnecessarily.

To support new approaches that will emerge from the Force Mix and Structure DesignFootnote 5, there is an urgent need for focused efforts to address new and developing oper­ational shortages while operating in a resource-constrained environment where every training resource is critical. Experienced members are the backbone of the CAF – they represent a huge investment in training and the develop­ment of skills and deliver invaluable experience and know­ledge in support of CAF operations. While recruits are, of course, essential to the CAF, to expect recruitment of new personnel to fully compensate for the loss of experi­enced members is to invite greater expense, greater resource demands for training, and more importantly, the loss of expertise and knowledge that has already been cul­tivated. This balancing of the need to address operational shortages in the face of resource constraints shapes the Retention Strategy’s approach and perspective.

Underrepresented Populations (Women, Indigenous Peoples, Visible Minorities, LGBTQ2+ Individuals and Persons with DisabilitiesFootnote 6)


Retention efforts must speak to all members of the CAF, ensuring the CAF reflects Canadian Society, and supports the CAF in being a more welcoming and inclusive environment for all our members.
It is crucial to collect data to better respond to the concerns of underrepresented populations in the CAF, as they relate to retention.

The CAF must reflect Canadian society by becoming an increasingly diverse and inclusive community, and one which improves operations by recognizing the value of individuals’ unique experiences and backgrounds. While the retention efforts in the Strategy will support all mem­bers of the CAF, there must also be consideration of the retention issues affecting underrepresented popula­tions, as their experiences can identify different areas or add nuances to the vari­ous approaches to retention efforts. For the purposes of this Strategy, the term “underrepresented” will refer to those underrepresented in data, occupations, and in the CAF as a whole (women, Indigenous Peoples, visible minorities, PWD, and LGBTQ2+ individuals). The CAF has established rep­resentation goals for women, Indigenous Peoples, and visible minorities (25.1%, 3.5%, and 11% representation rates respectively) set for 2026. However, present rates of representation fall short of these goals. Currently, there are no CAF-set targets for LGBTQ2+ individuals or PWD.

While the Employment Equity Act (EEA) imposes a legislative requirement to address underrepresentation for persons in designated groups (women, Indigenous peoples, visible minorities, PWD and LGBTQ2+ individuals), the CAF is committed to going beyond the parameters of the EEA. While neither LGBTQ2+ nor PWD is identified as a Designated Group within the CAF, the Retention Strategy recognizes that these groups remain underrepresented in the related data, and provides direction to address this and better serve our members.

Statistics Canada (2021e) has identified that lesbian, gay, and bisexual members represent about 3.3% of the Canadian population,Footnote 7 and as Canada becomes a more accepting and inclusive country we can expect that this number will increase as people feel more comfort­able identifying as their true selves. As such, we can also expect that there will be an increase in potential recruits who identify as part of the LGBTQ2+ population. While it has not been deter­mined whether representa­tion goals will be established for this particular group, we must ensure that the CAF is a welcoming and inclusive space such that LGBTQ2+ individuals are accepted, safe, and encouraged to join and maintain a career with the CAF. PWD are also identified as part of our underrepresented populations in the Retention Strategy. PWD encompasses not just disabilities which are physical, but also mental, sensory, learning, or psychiatric. The CAF has a duty to accommodate disabil­ities to ensure that members and applicants are able to serve while still subject to Universality of Service. The CAF also has a responsibility to ensure that injury is pre­vented to the extent possible and that members who suffer injury or disability in service – mental or physical – receive proper care. Data related to attrition and retention dis­satisfiers for PWD is limited and needs to be investigated further. As with the other groups, additional data collec­tion and research are needed to effectively support PWD and ensure that those who are able to serve in the CAF are enabled to do for the extent of their career. 

The CAF is committed to being inclusive of all its current and future members. In order to be inclusive, the CAF must acknowledge that underrepresented populations within the organization face unique or disparate challenges while serving. These challenges might include increased risk of being victims of misconduct, harassment, and dis­crimination; facing barriers to progression; and/or differ­ing senses of belonging or alienation dependent on the level of inclusivity in the workplace. Currently, there are broad efforts underway to change the CAF culture to better support and reflect the needs of all who wish to serve. It is the responsibility of the organization to assess the factors influencing attrition and retention for under­represented populations to ensure that the various groups of individuals who make up the CAF are appropriately considered when developing retention plans. In so doing, the CAF will strengthen its membership and will improve its attraction and retention of diverse members.

Ongoing and developing strategies addressing these issues:

  • The Path to Dignity and Respect: The Canadian Armed Forces Strategy to Address Sexual Misconduct
  • The Sexual Misconduct Response Centre
  • The CAF HR Strategy
  • Defence Team Total Health and Wellness Strategy
  • Integrated Conflict and Complaint Management (ICCM) Program
  • DND and CF Code of Values and Ethics
  • The Canadian Armed Forces Ethos: Trusted to Serve
  • Workplace Harassment and Violence Prevention (Bill C-65)

Hateful Conduct (DAOD 5019-0, Conduct and Performance Deficiencies and CF Military Personnel instruction)

In development:

  • Chief Professional Conduct and Culture
  • 2020 CAF Inclusion Strategy AKA Diversity and Inclusion Strategy
  • Code of Professional Military Conduct – Concept Paper

Culture Change (Sexual Misconduct, Hateful Conduct, Discrimination, Harassment and Violence, Employment Inequity, and Abuse of Power)

Culture is a key driving force for effective retention. The CAF culture does not currently reflect an understanding and compliance with CAF values and ethos. This includes a recognition that inclusion, equality and diversity must be fostered in order to maximize operational effectiveness. Moreover, unacceptable rates of harassment, discrimination and sexual misconduct threaten the creation of a truly inclusive environment. Recently there has been a call for the CAF to undergo significant culture change such that it eliminates harassment, discrimination and sexual misconduct and embraces the diversity and values of Canada, where members will feel safe, valued, and welcomed. We recognize that in light of the current crisis, trust in the Defence Team leaders has been negatively affected, and thus must be rebuilt. We also acknowledge that CAF members have previously shared their dissatisfaction with senior leadership via the CAF Retention Survey – making this a longstanding issue. To eradicate unacceptable behaviour and practices and ensure systemic barriers and inappropriate conduct are dismantled, the CAF has stood up a new L1 organization – Chief Professional Conduct and Culture (CPCC) – to help address these critical shortcomings. The mission of the CPCC will be to “align Defence culture and professional conduct with the core values and ethical principles we aspire to uphold as a National Institution.” The overall vision is that the “CAF will continuously progress their culture and governance to better embody shared professional values and ethos that embrace the diversity and values of Canada, wherein all members thrive in a dignified, equitable, respectful, and inclusive institution, while continuously delivering and supporting operational excellence.” (Department of National Defence, 2021). In light of this, the Retention Strategy itself is designed to be one of a number of enablers of culture change. Through effective governance, targeted retention, subsequent action items, and other efforts, the Strategy will support a culture in which members can thrive in fulfilling careers, where the CAF will represent an employer of choice as a respectful and inclusive institution.

COVID-19 – A Learning Opportunity About Retention in the Face of Global Events

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique opportunity to consider the actions and flexibility needed to ensure retention in the face of large-scale events that have national and global impacts on health and the economy. The COVID-19 pandemic has had undeniable impacts across the nation and the world. Throughout Canada, COVID-19 has widely impacted people’s physical and mental health, as well as affected the economy with emergency shutdowns, quarantine orders, and business closures. The full impact of the pandemic has yet to be realized, how-ever, the CAF should be prepared to feel the broad ripple effects of this global outbreak for years to come, whether they be in the economy, facing the greater Canadian population, or the CAF’s own members.

The effects of the pandemic on Canadians encourage us to take a critical look at how the CAF can best support members in times of crisis. As noted in the 2020 Speech from the Throne, women have been particularly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily due to job losses from closures in public-facing industries. In addition, women have either reduced time in the workplace, left work entirely, or are not looking to return to the workforce due to a lack of dependent-care options or other financial considerations. Further, women were more frequently the primary caregiver for dependents and were responsible for the majority of tasks within the home, regardless of employment status (Statistics Canada, 2021c). The UN Women (as cited in Statistics Canada, 2020i) states that the uneven distribution of work at home and within society impacts labour force participation, job quality, and physical and mental health stressors for women. Inequitable work distribution (Statistics Canada, 2021d) contributes, in part, to the current body of evidence that those with children, and women in particular, are experi-encing significantly higher mental health impacts related to the pandemic than men and those without children (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2020; Statistics Canada, 2020e). The numerous influencing factors above might render it more challenging for a woman to continue her employment in the face of competing interests such as family or social responsibilities. If intersectional issues are not deliberately studied, and mitigated as applicable, women may repeatedly face greater push factors in times of turmoil, contributing to poorer retention outcomes.

Other groups within Canadian society may also face impacts from the pandemic differently than others, or in greater magnitudes than the average. Although there is no specific dataset related to COVID-19 as of yet, for some groups we can deduce from earlier and related data on the potential impacts. For example, identified LGBTQ2+ Canadians are primarily composed of subgroups (i.e., a younger age bracket and gender identity other than male) that are particularly impacted by factors such as job loss and/or lack of safe home space, leading to increased risk of homelessness, and increased experiences of harassment and/or discrimination (Statistics Canada, 2020j). Like LGBTQ2+ individuals, Indigenous people (Statistics Canada, 2020a), PWD, and some visible minority groups (Statistics Canada, 2020d) are disproportionately impacted by economic turbulence, with some of these groups experiencing higher rates of unemployment or reduced hours during the pandemic than the national average. This compounds the potential impact of COVID-19, as these groups tend to experience higher poverty rates, a greater likelihood of working in public-facing positions, and/or of having pre-existing health conditions. All of these factors increase the risk of disproportionately negative outcomes arising from the COVID-19 pandemic whether they be financial, physical, or relating to mental health. Further, LGBTQ2+ individuals (Statistics Canada, 2020j), members of the Indigenous population (Statistics Canada 2020c; 2020g), visible minority groups, and PWD (Statistics Canada, 2020g) were more likely to experience increased discrimination, as well as more likely to report increased symptoms of poor mental health during the pandemic.

When considering the potential impact on our own mem­bers, and how such events might affect retention efforts, some forward thinking is beneficial to better anticipate potential problems and prepare solutions. A sudden lack of childcare may cause unanticipated stress on military families, and diversity in the composition of families or family obligations will not affect each family equally. Either parent may have to make a decision to leave the CAF due to extended lack of childcare or when confronted with the emerging needs of their children during the pan­demic. Given the findings from the Speech from the Throne and the prevalence of indicating “support for family” as a concern in the most recent Retention Survey, it may be more likely for women in uniform to take on the role of primary caregiver, opting to leave the force for an undetermined amount of time. Emerging evidence suggests that additional workplace flexibility, family sup­ports, and mental health resources may be needed for members who form part of disproportionately impacted groups, or whose families include visible minorities, Indigenous people, LGBTQ2+ individuals, and PWD.

The pandemic also highlights occupations that may need additional support due to their critical roles, such as the Health Services occupations which already face retention or staffing difficulties. Further, the potential risk of expos­ure that deployed CAF personnel may face in the line of duty (i.e., a maintained presence in long term care homes), and health complications arising from COVID-19 infec­tion, challenges the DND/CAF to take a renewed look at the protection of CAF members in responding to this threat, as well as the subsequent supports of those who fall ill and may be unable to serve in the same capacity following recovery. As CAF members and their families spend unprecedented time at their respective homes, and acknowledging that the individual living circumstances may present additional risks from prolonged confinement or unhealthy relationships, it should be recognized that CAF members and families may emerge from the pan­demic with previously unanticipated needs. A lack of acknowledgement of the risk our members are now taking at home, the impact on their mental and physical health, or limited options for those later impacted by illness, may result in the untimely loss of CAF members to carry out the next mission.

These examples suggest how global events, in this case, a pandemic, may affect members and the operations of the CAF overall in new and challenging ways. The CAF has made adjustments to existing efforts to better provide support to members during these unprecedented times, such as offering online fitness classes; advising members of the CF Member Assistance Program, and, of course, employing novel work conditions using digital working solutions with virtual meetings and regular staff check-ins. Further analysis will be needed to study the myriad of ways that COVID-19 will impact people, and how the findings could be extrapolated to other global events. Strategic thinking by leaders and clear communication of upcoming operational stressors and potential mitigations will be essential for the CAF to achieve its mission tasks in the face of such unprecedented circumstances.

Post-Pandemic Expectations

In addition to considering how the CAF is impacted and subsequently responds to major global events, we must reflect on the new expectations of our members as the world and Canada transition to a “new normal”. COVID-19 had a tremendous impact on organizational manage­ment and business continuity, forcing organizations to embrace new approaches to conducting business and delivering their mandates while supporting local and regional public health measures. Within DND, and par­ticularly the National Capital Region, numerous employ­ees and members have been able to utilize Alternative Work Arrangements such as working from home, working alternate or less typical hours, and employing technologies to collaborate with colleagues and advance work tasks. Although there were hurdles to overcome in the early stages of the Business Continuity Plan, working from home and some other alternative work arrangements have proven to be effective for a number of employees and members in supporting their personal needs, as well as advancing work in new and creative fashions. The flex­ibility in work arrangements that the pandemic encour­aged, and the effectiveness seen within DND in using these arrangements, even in greater numbers than ever seen before, makes it possible that such flexibility will become a more prominent factor for current and new employees and members. This is but one example of the changes implemented to address the constraints of the pandemic. Other changes include increased health meas­ures across Canada, such as reduced in-building capacity, the wearing of masks in close quarters, and the encour­agement of staying home with any sign of illness in order to reduce COVID-19 infection. Increased public health measures also considerably impacted the transmission of the more common flu (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2021), providing other incidental health benefits. The positive impact of these measures on our members’ and employees’ health may be worthwhile considerations to sustaining and improving a healthy workplace for all those working within the DND and CAF.

Looking ahead, solutions to complex and individualistic problems must be comprehensive yet flexible. Solutions must consider the future impacts of current events along­side the potential impacts of our actions taken, and seek out potential efficiencies between strategies, programs, and responsible authorities in order to best address issues and concerns which impact retention. The solutions pro­posed must meet both the needs of the organization and CAF members while allowing for the identification and targeting of specific occupations, ranks, demographics, qualifications, and skills. The Retention Strategy is not a single resolution to all retention and attrition problems, but rather provides a methodology to support a focused, sustained, and evolving engagement on retention issues. The Strategy requires regular and continuous assessment to identify impactful developments and emerging trends so that decisions and follow-on actions can be taken more rapidly and consistently.

2.2 The Way Forward: A Holistic Approach

Canadian society is ever-evolving, which is to say that demographics, and the perspectives and values of Canadians, have changed and will continue to change. Reflecting these changes and the impact of global influ­ences on military requirements in the future, how the CAF mandate is achieved will also evolve. Internal and external policy changes will impact how members are employed in the CAF and our efforts to retain our valued members must follow suit. Areas that influence retention are far-reaching and found in every step of a member’s journey throughout their military career. As such, the only way forward is to take a holistic view of retention. A hol­istic view considers both the work and personal environ­ments in order to identify the areas in which dissatisfaction resides and those areas that have the potential to become a future concern. It considers organizational efforts in the assessment of retention activities, promotion of the values and services of the CAF, prevention of attrition through proactive measures, and subsequent efforts in support of retention measures when members do choose to leave. This approach will ensure that the CAF addresses factors influencing retention wherever they may reside.

The value and necessity of retaining talent cascades through every element of force generation, force employ­ment, and force management. From recruiting, to train­ing, to employment, an emphasis on retention of the right capabilities, experience, and talents impacts the success of the institution.

The Interconnectivity of Retention

Retention is the outcome of multiple intersecting and influencing factors across the human resource space. Other strategic initiatives and efforts will impact elements of retention, and as such the Retention Strategy must work in collaboration and with awareness of the work being done in these and other related areas:

  • The CAF HR Strategy
  • The CAF Offer
  • The Total Health and Wellness Strategy
  • The Comprehensive Military Family Plan
  • The Employment Equity Plan
  • And other related initiatives, offices and efforts

Retention is the outcome of multiple intersecting and influencing factors across the human resource space. The importance of retention, and its impact on all aspects of the CAF, means that the responsibility of retention is not solely within this Strategy. Other strategic initiatives and efforts impact different elements of retention at the individual, group, or capability levels. These include recently developed and in-progress efforts such as:

  • The CAF HR Strategy: a strategy in development to adapt the Military Personnel Management System to meet the personnel domain requirements of the future, by concentrating on institutional needs while respecting individual aspirations, supporting the delivery of focused initiatives, and initiating collaborative efforts to amend major policy instruments to support and align with strategic objectives;
    • The Retention Strategy is a key element of the larger management program outlined in the CAF HR Strategy. The CAF HR Strategy will address many of the institutional factors that impact the development and retention of capabilities. Elements of retention, such as talent management and improving the organizational culture are developed and outlined within this meta-strategy.
  • The CAF Offer: the policies, programs, and practices that provide CAF members with tangible and intangible benefits they perceive to be of value in return for their contribution to the CAF and its goals, including all monetary and non-monetary offerings that the CAF provides;
    • The Adaptive Career Path (ACP) is the CAF employment model designed to provide an enriching career for CAF members. It enables personal aspirations and management of work-life balance, while ensuring operational effectiveness.
  • The Total Health and Wellness (THW) Strategy: a strategy developed to “create the necessary conditions which enable our CAF members and Defence civilians to better balance competing demands at work and at home, leading to greater productivity and success”;
  • The Comprehensive Military Family Plan: a strategy which includes Seamless Canada and Canadian Forces Base Canada, the plan aims to help stabilize family life for CAF members and their families who have to frequently relocate;
  • The Employment Equity Plan: a plan to support the legislative requirement to ensure the creation of equitable employment opportunities and overcome systemic barriers in employment experienced by designated groups, which will support meeting CAF EE goals; and
  • Numerous reviews and processes which impact the CAF such as Occupational Analyses, re-enrolment process review, and the Reserve Recruiting Process Review.

In addition to the activities listed above, the concept of retention is interconnected and works in tandem with recruitment and effective HR management. By addressing factors that influence attrition rates now, and proactively addressing those factors that may come up, we ensure that existing and potential recruits are less likely to be impacted by issues facing serving members today. Further, imple­menting adequate HR practices that apply across the CAF, outside of those currently identified as problems – or potential problems – provides greater support for our members and greater retention overall. This allows us the opportunity to demonstrate to potential recruits that the CAF is an employer that values, cares for, and supports its members. In addition, retention and recruitment efforts are complementary. As we address factors of reten­tion, we can better support recruitment efforts (i.e., if applicants need for more clarity about the military life­style). Furthermore, as new members join the CAF, dif­ferent needs and concerns related to factors of retention may arise or old ones may recur. As such we must be prepared to continually improve how the CAF relates to and supports members.

The growing attention to the member-organization inter­action contributes directly to establishing a culture that supports retention in the CAF. Implementing organiza­tional change will impact the overall culture and address broad issues that have an effect on attrition in the CAF. However, there are key groups that consistently experience higher rates of attrition than the rest of the CAF. These groups will benefit from a more immediate and targeted approach to resolve their attrition issues, while the over­arching organizational change will be a long term effort with lasting effects.

An effective Retention Strategy requires a dual approach. On the one hand, factors that affect CAF attrition issues can be traced to select occupations and personal circum­stances. Therefore, targeted retention is the most relevant, highlighting gaps currently requiring immediate attention (and ideally in advance of such a need) and focusing efforts on them. At the same time, high-level, CAF-wide dis­satisfiers are routinely identified by CAF members who share their views through surveys and focus groups, which are aimed at understanding the factors impacting the well-being of members and, ultimately, the drivers of attrition. Minimizing the cause/source of these dissatisfiers will help address general causes of attrition.

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