This article appears courtesy of the Fleet Reserve Association
By W.D. Stevenson
On August 27, 1969, legislators established the office of the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard (MCPOCG) to provide the commandant with a personal advisor and assistant in matters affecting the active duty and reserve enlisted members of the Coast Guard and their families. The MCPOCG is the most senior enlisted member of the Coast Guard and typically serves in this role for four years. The assignment is designed to align with the years served by the commandant of the Coast Guard.
Master Chief Jason M. Vanderhaden became the 13th Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard on May 17, 2018, during a Change of Watch Ceremony in Alexandria, Virginia. A MCPOCG is chosen based on his or her professionalism, personal integrity and ability to be a living example of the Coast Guard’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty. As MCPOCG, Vanderhaden’s responsibilities include assisting in the development of workforce management policies; representing enlisted guardsmen in quality of life discussions at committees, forums and Coast Guard units throughout the country; testifying before Congress; managing the Command Master Chief program; implementing the Chiefs Call to Indoctrination Program and managing the Chief Petty Officer Academy.
As the new MCPOCG, Vanderhaden has been introducing initiatives to improve workforce readiness. Recently, he was on a rather busy travel assignment visiting as many units as possible.
“We went from Miami to Seattle, then Alaska, San Diego and then Florida,” said Vanderhaden. “I wanted to get out and meet the folks and to better understand what their needs are, so I can focus upon the mission and vision of the workforce throughout at least the next four years. That workforce consists of civilians, officers, auxiliary members and reservists—the entire workforce. I want a fully ready workforce, but that means a lot of working parts: financial, family, physical and spiritual. In order to meet that vision, they are going to need the training and tools to keep their focus.”
Readiness looks different in each area. There are 11 different missions of the U.S. Coast Guard, and each set has its own nuances to successful readiness. Pay scales are similar across the board and housing is the same with some differences in Basic Allowances for Housing. Several guardsmen are located in resort coastal areas of the U.S. that have no military base or housing, so housing may become limited.
“We were just in Alaska and what the workforce needs there is much different than what they need in Florida or San Diego,” said Vanderhaden. “We pay attention to that and the beauty of the USCG is our HR staff has the flexibility and is agile enough to be able to provide more resources in one area as compared to another. My chief network is small enough—we only have 360 master chiefs—that I have a direct connection to the workforce, so I know and get what our folks need to be mission ready.”
The Chiefs Mess
There are a few definitions of the Chiefs Mess. There is the conceptual idea of the network of trust between all chiefs. There is the physical location, which may have a sign and is where chiefs meet. And there is also the Consolidated Chiefs Mess, used to conduct the Chiefs Call for Initiation, where a guardsman is promoted from an E7 to a chief. It is a right of passage held twice each year to teach new chiefs about working together and building a network of trust amongst one another.
Chiefs understand how to speed up a process to get something done and these management skills keep ships running smoothly.
“Chiefs run the ship so officers can fight the ship,” said Vanderhaden. “When the officer hits the ‘Go’ button, everybody goes…[The officers] rely on the chief network to make that happen. There is nothing else like it in the sea services. The Chiefs Mess doesn’t exist for the chiefs, it exists for the mission and getting the job done.”
2020 will mark one hundred years of chiefs building trust and exerting their influence within the Coast Guard workforce. When asked, Vaderhaden says he really enjoys being a problem solver. You will often see a chief walking around with a cup of coffee, but that is only because there are no problems at that time. As soon as there are, the chief will set down that cup and roll up their sleeves.
“The Chiefs Mess has to have its eyes on all of the working parts. This is what I want the mess to be focused upon,” said Vanderhaden. “We are in a resource-constrained environment, since the USCG budget is not part of the armed forces build-up. We are operating under a Continuing Resolution within the Department of Homeland Security and a separate budget.”
Vaderhaden’s overarching goal is to maintain a ready workforce that can meet the nation’s needs. In order to do this efficiently, he needs an effective communication system that passes down information through every level of the Coast Guard in a timely and accurate fashion.
“I need to drive the behavior of the Chiefs Mess to create an engaged mess that truly understands the challenges and opportunities of the workforce,” said Vanderhaden.
Vanderhaden provided specific direction on how to conduct a Chiefs Mess to help drive the flow of communication, and some of the policies he is working on are designed to provide a speedy communication network that identifies current trends. He noted that if you get enough feedback on a particular trend, you know it is factual rather than anecdotal, and can then put measures in place to mitigate it. Some of the trends being examined currently are low unemployment rates, the blended retirement system and a new credentialing process.
Retention Improvement Measures
Vaderhaden thinks the U.S. Coast Guard is a wonderful place to work, and enrollment in the Blended Retirement System suggests that many of his fellow guardsmen feel the same way. Only seventeen percent of the Coast Guard’s eligible population has opted in to the new retirement plan, which could mean that 83 percent of that population plans to stay in until reaching full retirement, and therefore feels that they would not benefit from the blended retirement system. Nevertheless, Vaderhaden is working to improve the Coast Guard’s rate of retention to retirement, which is currently 50 percent.
“Nothing is broken, we just want to go from good to great,” said Vanderhaden.
To reduce anxiety and encourage guardsmen to stay in, Vanderhaden is working with Coast Guard HR to improve flexibility in assignment advancement and work-life balance. For example, staying in one geographic location used to negatively impact a guardsman’s chances of advancement but this is no longer the case. Additionally, many guardsmen have a spouse who is also in the Coast Guard, so Vanderhaden remains aware of the unique challenges these workforce members face, such as significant distances between stations or mismatched work cycles.
When Disaster Hits
Since the Coast Guard has no garrison, everyone is in on the game; there is no bench from which to pull. Their reserve force is considered part of the workforce, even though they do not work for the Coast Guard every day. There are very few reserve commands and all of them are integrated into active duty commands. You cannot tell a reservist from an active duty guardsmen, since they all work together.
When a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, occurs, the U.S. Coast Guard can surge its workforce to meet the demands of that disaster. But even though not every guardsman will be sent to the affected areas when a surge has been initiated, the entire workforce will receive an award for responding to the disaster. This reflects the Coast Guard’s recognition that the service members who remain behind must pick up the workload left by those sent to the disaster location. So when a ribbon is issued, it goes to the whole team.
“During Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria, I was in a different role then, but I was manning the telephone bank speaking with people trapped in their homes needing help,” says Vanderhaden. “Here you have a master chief taking calls. Everyone is engaged in the mission.”
Goals and Initiatives
A current initiative Vanderhaden is considering involves changes to the practice of taking a service advancement test for the promotion from E4 to E5 twice each year. Based upon communication from his network of chiefs and feedback received during his recent unit visits, Vanderhaden feels there may be some benefits to testing only once per year.
“When I asked what they thought, 90 percent thought it was positive, with 10 percent having legitimate concerns. So I met with the folks in charge of advancement for USCG and shared the data. Now we go from there,” said Vanderhaden. He believes the best decisions for the workforce are the ones that include the workforce in the process.
The commandant wants Vanderhaden to do his homework before coming to him with a recommendation. It takes 18 to 24 months to initiate change, in part because extensive information must be gathered and analyzed, but also because the government’s budget cycles affect what funding is available for enacting proposed changes. Change can also be slow-moving if it is necessary to enact one change at a time in order to measure the impact of each change individually on a target outcome, such as retention.
Vanderhaden’s fifth standing order was designed to institute an advancement panel to rank order candidates for advancement and carefully select the best leaders. There will also be a similar process for enlisted guardsmen.
His early action items have all been comprised of personnel policy, human resource processes and infrastructure items. One example of Vanderhaden’s infrastructure initiatives was the setup of a Coast Guard base in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Currently, the location is supported from Miami, which is a logistical challenge. A similarly challenging situation is the way that the Coast Guard across the continental U.S. is supported from New Orleans. Vanderhaden reported that he was considering the possibility of building other support locations to better serve his workforce.
Vanderhaden closed by saying, “You are not going to see me working on lots of little things. I have my eye on the prize, which is a ready workforce, and I know the Chiefs will tell me where we are lacking in readiness. My predecessor, Steven Cantrell, did a magnificent job getting the USCG to the where it is today. I am just standing on his shoulders and am grateful for all he had accomplished.”