OTTAWA - The navy is enjoying a minor recruitment surge.
The increase in new sailors comes as the severely understaffed branch undertakes key quality-of-life improvements expected to make the salt-stained service a more attractive career.
As of September, the navy is 8.5 per cent ahead of its recruiting target for the current budget year and up almost 19 per cent when compared with 2008, newly released figures show.
"It could be the economy. Perhaps folks are finding it a little more difficult to walk straight out of school into a job," Vice-Admiral Dean McFadden told The Canadian Press.
The modest goal of inducting 400 new sailors by the summer of this year was surpassed by 34 candidates. But McFadden said he's not ready to declare the navy's critical shortage over.
"I'm buoyed by that. I'm pleased by that. I'm not yet confident enough to say we've turned the corner and are headed in the right direction," he said in an interview.
Attrition and missed recruiting targets year-over-year since 2004 have meant the navy is drastically smaller while still deploying to operations in far-flung parts of the globe.
An annual assessment by McFadden's predecessor, former vice-admiral Drew Robertson, painted an alarming picture of a force scrambling to crew missions and keep ships at sea.
It estimated the navy was short 954 sailors out of 8,541 regular personnel.
That shortage translates into four ship's companies, although some of the vacant positions were shore-based staff and planning jobs, said Maritime Command's 2009 strategic assessment, obtained by The Canadian Press.
No warships have been tied up or have missed deployments because the staff shortages, but it has meant sailors being shuffled between warships to make up crew deficits - something the navy calls "pierhead jumps."
And some warships have gone to sea at 13 per cent below established crew guidelines, said McFadden.
Given that ships can deploy for months, he said the service is being run at "an operational tempo that is too high" and sailors are under enormous stress, particularly senior technicians and junior petty officers.
The shortage is worse on the West Coast than the East Coast, only because there's a larger shore-based pool of sailors to draw upon in Halifax.
Federal documents that show the navy has become increasingly concerned about what it calls "volatility in ship crewing" and the possibility that an eroding quality of life could drive even more sailors out of the service.
"There is no task that I have that is of greater import or of greater interest to me than addressing what has been a progressive reduction in the size of the navy over the last five years," said McFadden, who has held town meetings on both coasts to hear grievances from all ranks.
To attract recruits, the service has been offering to subsidize students in technical community college programs and has brought in people with private-sector experience at higher ranks and pay grades.