The Coast Guard motto was first bestowed by the New Orleans Bee in 1836, in praise of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Ingham. While on patrol off the Texas coast, the Ingham became the only U.S. vessel to fire a shot in support of the War of Texas Independence. The Bee declared the cutter “a vessel entitled to bear the best motto for a military public servant – SEMPER PARATUS.” The Coast Guard has staked its reputation on being “always ready” in the nearly two centuries since.
On March 21, 2019, in his first State of the Coast Guard speech, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz identified his top priority as the service’s new leader: readiness. For a number of reasons, he said – including an increasingly complex global environment, a rising demand for Coast Guard services, and operational funding that has stagnated in the category of “non-discretionary defense spending” since the Budget Control Act of 2011 – the service was in danger of being not ready enough.
“Our missions have never been more relevant or demanding than today,” said Schultz. “However, we face very real challenges – so much so that we’re approaching a tipping point.” The Coast Guard’s assets were aging and suffering from deferred maintenance; its workforce was strained and undersized; its information systems were antiquated; and its shore infrastructure backlog exceeded $1.7 billion.
Schultz remained optimistic about the future of the Coast Guard, and efforts to implement the guiding principles he identified upon assuming leadership in June 2018 – to remain ready, relevant and responsive – were well under way by the time of his address. While he and other advocates lobbied Congress for more support to modernize its assets, infrastructure, and mission platforms, other service members were at work implementing the service’s strategy for cultivating a “mission-ready total workforce.
As a federal employer, the Coast Guard has a lot going for it, boasting the highest employee retention rates among the armed services. Forty percent of its enlisted recruits stay for a 20-year career in the service, and 60 percent of its officers stay at least that long. But in striving to be what Schultz calls an “employer of choice,” the service isn’t merely competing with the other armed services; it’s competing with every other employer, public and private, in the United States. And it’s always looking to do better: In a period of constrained resources, it’s more important than ever that the service hold onto the resources it has – not only to save the expense of constantly retraining new recruits, but to retain valuable experience that will make its work more efficient and less risky.
The Coast Guard works hard to attract and retain people from underrepresented populations: outreach, scholarship and mentoring programs, training initiatives, and efforts aimed specifically at diversifying its officer corps. In 2015, it updated its Diversity & Inclusion Strategic Plan, aimed at “recruiting, retaining, and sustaining a ready, diverse and highly skilled workforce.” In May 2019, its Office of Diversity and Inclusion hosted its first-ever Affinity Fair, to help personnel network and connect with mentoring opportunities.
In spite of these efforts, disparities have persisted within the Coast Guard. Women and people of color – populations that each account for about half of all Americans – remained underrepresented in the service. In 2019, according to the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, 14.9 percent of Coast Guard personnel are women, and 14.4 identify as being of a racial minority.
The Coast Guard also knew it was retaining women at a lower rate than men, despite doing a good job of attracting women to the service (40 percent of Coast Guard Academy cadets are women, the highest of any military academy). For the first five years of their careers, retention rates for women tracked closely with those of men, but after that, retention dropped sharply among women. Compared to men, about 12 percent fewer women will stay in the service after a decade in uniform. About 23 percent of male officers will serve a 25-year career in the Coast Guard, while only 15 percent of women officers will do the same. Last year, the Coast Guard commissioned the RAND Corporation to conduct a study including 164 focus groups with 1,010 active-duty Coast Guard women, examining the reason for this loss of mid-career women in its ranks.
In his State of the Coast Guard Address, Schultz articulated a vision of an inclusive service that values each member as an individual, is free from threats and discrimination, and is committed to the success of members and their families. While the service awaited the results of the RAND study, it launched several new initiatives aimed broadly at realizing this vision – at being an employer of choice – service-wide. Among these was the formation of a seven-person team, reporting directly to Vice Commandant Adm. Charles W. Ray, that would work full-time to turn ideas into concrete changes strengthening the Coast Guard workforce. The Personnel Readiness Task Force (PRTF) was officially stood up in December 2018.
Action Items: The Near Term
Due to the longest federal government shutdown in history, however, the Task Force didn’t begin work in earnest until February 2019. Led by Capt. Tom Kaminski, a Coast Guard veteran whose career began in the mid-1990s, the team hit the ground running, targeting the most doable solutions first: policy changes that would accommodate the evolution of American families and society while strengthening the Coast Guard workforce.
Though RAND wouldn’t publicly report the results of its women’s retention study for several more weeks, in late March, the team began its work based on an interim briefing, outlining issues women had raised about their work environment, career trajectory, and personal/work life balance.
One of the team’s first items of focus was an issue raised frequently by Coast Guard women: They did not think the service’s Weight and Body Fat Standards, based on measurements of body mass index (BMI), were equitable – and in fact, some women reported leaving the service rather than deal with the stress leading up to the biannual measurements. The Coast Guard’s own data backed this assertion: Between 2014 and 2018, women were about three times as likely as men to be separated from the service for failure to comply with the weight standards.
BMI, which estimates a person’s amount of body fat based on a height-to-weight ratio, has its detractors. It does nothing, for example, to measure a person’s muscle mass, overall body composition, or ability to do his or her job. There was also no denying, said Kaminski, that enforcing the Coast Guard’s BMI standard was having a disproportionate effect on women. “If you look at normalized numbers, based on their representation in the service, it’s about 3 to 1,” he said, “which means women failed to meet the standard three times as often as men did. It was clear we needed to do something.”
The PRTF worked with Coast Guard leadership to develop an alternative standard aligned with that used by the Air Force and Navy: abdominal circumference, which is a better predictor of health risks than BMI. Because the Coast Guard requires men and women to maintain a certain level of fitness to perform their jobs, the new standard would uphold these requirements while allowing for greater flexibility in BMI. The service rolled out a yearlong pilot program to evaluate the new standard – a maximum waist measurement of 39 inches for men, and 35.5 inches for women – in October 2019.
Another issue raised by women in the RAND study was a reluctance to have children while serving on active duty. The focus groups tended to express this hesitancy in terms of its negative impact on coworkers, who often saw their own workload grow when a colleague took parental or caregiver leave. This circumstance, Kaminski said, can impact the decisions of even unmarried service members, men and women alike.
To encourage service members to take the leave time allowed to them without negative consequences to their coworkers or their own careers, the PRTF pursued a solution – surge staffing for parental leave – that provides headquarters funding to backfill these positions with reservists. Ray announced the pilot in May 2019, and by Nov. 1, 2019, more than 80 service members had used the program to take time off from their jobs and bond with their new children.
The new surge staffing pilot is a good illustration of how the PRTF can bring about rapid, constructive change to sustain workforce readiness and improve its members’ lives. In monthly meetings with the vice commandant and his staff, PRTF members and leadership exchange ideas, identify possible solutions, and then begin internal discussions with the relevant program managers to game out how a solution might be implemented. The solution goes through deliberations at different levels, a legal review, and approval by top leadership before being finalized. Finally, the team crafts a communication strategy to get the word out to the workforce.
The women’s retention study is just one tool the PRTF is using to identify workforce issues, and its activities are not solely focused on women. It gathers intelligence throughout the service, identifying challenges that can be addressed in partnership with senior leaders. Policy changes the team has helped bring about in the past several months include:
- An update to the Coast Guard Housing Manual to include the Family Child Care (FCC) Service Program, which will allow a participating family to request assignment to Coast-Guard-owned housing that exceeds their bedroom qualification. This will enable a Coast Guard spouse, subject to background check and certification requirements, to open an on-base residential childcare center. “This will allow for childcare in Coast Guard base housing,” Kaminski said, “while offering an on-base employment opportunity for spouses. So it’s a win-win.” The Coast Guard Foundation is helping to fund this new program’s equipment and training costs.
- A new program authorizing up to $750 a year to nursing Coast Guard mothers temporarily assigned away from home to cover the cost of shipping milk to feed their infant children. “If a mother chooses to travel for work,” Kaminski said, “this solution allows her to continue breast-feeding.”
- An update to the Coast Guard’s tattoo policy, which affects a growing number of young Americans – 38 percent of whom, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, have at least one tattoo. As Kaminski points out, making the tattoo standards more flexible will allow for a larger high-quality candidate pool. The new policy, while still prohibiting tattoos with objectionable content or messaging, allows greater flexibility in their location and visibility.
As Kaminski points out, many of these policy changes are gender-neutral, aimed at increasing inclusivity throughout the service. “Surge staffing offers men opportunities for secondary caregiver leave. And tattoos obviously impact everybody. We started our work with the women’s study findings, but a lot of these changes apply to everyone.”
A More Inclusive – and Communicative – Coast Guard
Meanwhile, the Task Force continues to gather information from all levels of the Coast Guard. On the heels of the women’s study, the service recently launched a similar study aimed at recommendations for retaining underrepresented minorities. Kaminski anticipates some initial findings from this study to emerge in the spring of 2020.
“I think we’re going to see some inclusion recommendations,” said Kaminski. “What are the things we can do in the Coast Guard, not only to recruit a diverse workforce, but to make people feel included when they’re with us?” Kaminski also believes the study will lead to a renewed effort to increase the participation of minority service members on boards and panels. The Coast Guard has assigned the Commandant’s Ethnic Policy Advisor, for example, to the Uniform Board, which periodically evaluates suggested changes to the service’s uniform regulations, but Kaminski thinks the service can go further. Uniform regulations govern not just the uniform itself, but also how people accessorize or wear their hair – and though it may sound trivial to people who don’t have to worry much about their hair, it’s a significant issue for some. “Without representation on the Uniform Board,” Kaminski said, “those issues are less likely to rise to the surface.”
Becoming a more inclusive and rewarding organization to work for – one that can compete with public- and private-sector employees alike – isn’t a simple task. Cultural inertia is a considerable challenge in a service that’s nearly as old as the United States itself. But in just a few months, Kaminski and the PRTF have demonstrated that a focused effort to bring about improvements, with commitment at all levels of the Coast Guard, can achieve real, lasting change.
New programs and policies alone won’t do much to improve Coast Guard readiness unless service members are aware of these changes – and promoting awareness is a challenge in itself. RAND’s recommendations for how to retain women in the Coast Guard, Kaminski said, include things the service is already doing, but not everyone in the Coast Guard is acquainted with them. For example, the study revealed concerns about co-locating spouses who both serve in the military – but the Coast Guard has data to demonstrate it does a good job of co-locating spouses who both serve in the Coast Guard. “Transparency has been a recurring theme that we’re trying to work on,” said Kaminski. “We have about 90 different channels through which we communicate to the workforce, believe it or not … when people look for internal news, they’re looking in a lot of different places, and there is a lot of redundancy and frustration.”
The PRTF is working with the service’s public affairs and outreach professionals to consolidate these internal channels into a single message platform, an online news source accessible on the internet and mobile devices. The tool promises to bring important information about workforce policies and programs to everyone affected by them: service members, spouses, families, reservists, and Auxiliary members.
Creating a single complete source for internal news may not seem like a big deal, but Kaminski believes it may be one of the most important things his team will achieve in its brief tenure. “To me, it’s perhaps the most impactful to the everyday Coastie.”
In a career that has spanned more than 25 years, Kaminski said, working on the PRTF “has been one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in the Coast Guard.” It’s the kind of experience the Coast Guard wants for all of its people, whose skill and expertise it hopes to retain and support throughout varied, challenging, rewarding – and long – careers. With such a workforce, the service is sure to live up to its motto.
This article originally appears in the 2020 edition of Coast Guard OUTLOOK, which can be opened using the viewer found below.
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