By Jasper Campbell and James Martin
As the U.S. Coast Guard undergoes a period of “prolific” acquisitions, the service must resolve a lurking specter: How to fill all of these ships with qualified personnel? At a time when the U.S. Coast Guard afloat community, known as cuttermen, are set to receive the largest influx of cutter classes since the Vietnam War, the Coast Guard is struggling to fill critical billets at the O-3 and O-4 levels, despite projecting having 10,000 afloat billets service wide by 2030. There has been considerable discourse on so-called “sea service attractiveness,” though no discrete proposals have been offered to tackle the problem. The proposals that have been put forward focus less on metrics than conceptual shifts targeting shipboard climate, unit pride, or paradigm shifts in officer promotion and graduate school selections.
But, while the woes of the Coast Guard cutter community continue to make headlines, cuttermen do not face their demise in a vacuum. Their infirmities take place in the context of an organization whose workforce is hemorrhaging across specialties and demographics. These reverberations are felt more acutely in certain demographics, such as women and minorities. Dogged institutional focus on the retention woes of a particular specialty, regardless of its contributions to service culture, ignores systemic issues plaguing the workforce. Therefore, a holistic approach to workforce retention may be the solution to meeting the Coast Guard’s “track line to 10,000” while simultaneously securing the future for myriad specialties. They are: foster geographic stability by creating centralized “hubs” for the Coast Guard workforce, buttressed by increased opportunities for remote and hybrid work and education.
With the release of the newly minted Coast Guard Strategy in October 2022, Commandant Admiral Linda Fagan has touted revolutionizing the Coast Guard talent management system and “transforming the total workforce” to account for modern socioeconomic realities. Employing centralized hubs to promote geographic stability is exactly the sort of initiative this strategy calls for, and the Coast Guard must adopt it as soon as practicable.
Coast Guard “Hubs”
There is hearty debate surrounding a perceived diminished “sea service attractiveness” of the U.S. Coast Guard’s afloat community. The basic line of reasoning goes, the ready availability of viable career paths ashore, stressful moves every several years, and sea tours where service members deploy throughout their tour combine to make sea service increasingly difficult to “sell” to families. Further, service members or their spouses must make tough career compromises to remain competitive in their respective fields. This is exacerbated in the modern age, where spouses typically fall into two categories: a) in the service along with their spouse or b) have their own civilian careers in professional fields. In fact, the number of dual-income households has significantly increased since the 1950s, the era in which the modern personnel system was created.1
A tangible way for the Coast Guard to conduct a meaningful course correction is to reexamine the much-touted concept of “geographic stability.” Geographic stability and centralization should be reimagined at a macroscopic level and seen as a tactic to revitalize the health of the afloat officer corps writ large. By aggressively working to consolidate billets at desirable geographic “hubs” that allow the afloat community to move along linear, successful, and promotable career trajectories, the Coast Guard has the opportunity to stem the growing gap between billets and cuttermen to fill them. These centralization concepts, desperately needed in the afloat specialty, can be replicated elsewhere across specialties.
Key West is the Model
Fortunately, the service need only look to Key West, FL as an ideal model that can be replicated elsewhere. Between a windfall of demanding afloat opportunities across multiple platforms, high-profile staff tour opportunities, and a desirable geographic location, Key West, Florida, represents the model “hub,” which, if emulated elsewhere, would require the following characteristics:
Multiple Fast Response and Medium Endurance Cutters
Sentinel-class, “Fast Response Cutters” (FRC) are O-3 commands and have O-2 Executive Officers. Both an XO and CO tour aboard a “patrol boat” are milestone career tours that afloat officers in the Coast Guard typically must attain to continue to progress in the cutterman community. Medium Endurance cutters (WMEC) also boast multiple junior career milestone billets, from mid-grade department head opportunities to more senior command billets.
Reputable staff tour with multiple O-3 and O-4 billets
Key West is home to both Coast Guard Sector Key West, which has some, but limited “afloat” staff billets, and Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATFS), which is a joint DoD command that falls under U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM). Long considered the gold standard of joint operations, JIATFS is home to 13 Coast Guard officer billets spread out across the J2 (Intelligence), J3 (Operations), J6 (Communications), and J7 (Innovations) directorates. In an increasingly complex world, the Coast Guard is called upon to conduct its work in a crosscutting, interagency fashion. Officers with joint or “purple” experience are prized for this unique experience. In fact, the Commandant’s annual Guidance to promotion boards and selection panels specifically highlights joint and interagency experience as something promotion and graduate school panels should focus on as positive attributes in an officer’s record.
Desirable geographic location
While geographic tastes are diverse, many would consider Key West a highly desirable location, devoid of snow and cold weather. Despite arguments to the contrary, attractive duty locations are an underappreciated recruiting and retention tactic, especially among the junior ranks, where the opportunity to be stationed in a vacation-worthy destination is a worthy tradeoff for the hardships of sea duty.
Key West, Florida, organically possesses all the ingredients for a centralized hub, where given the right portion of each, an afloat officer and their family can remain in one place for four to ten years and, importantly, remain competitive for promotion by meeting career milestones, including completing reputable staff assignments.
There are boundless possibilities when it comes to a career path. Obviously, there are other key considerations, such as graduate school and special “broadening” assignments, that officers aspire to. For those who prize the pressure relief valve on family life that geo-stability can afford, they can pursue it at no detriment to their career. The table below illustrates the versatility and longevity a “hub” can afford an afloat officer in the Key West Area.
|JIATFS Staff (O-3)||WMEC OPS||FRC CO||Transfer|
|FRC CO (senior O-3)||JIATFS Staff
|WMEC OPS (O-3)||FRC CO||JIATFS Staff
|JIATFS Staff (O-3)||FRC CO
|Chief of Enforcement, Sector KW (O-4)||Transfer
Table 1. Potential Key West Afloat Officer Trajectory.
While Key West contains many of the ingredients necessary to make it a centralized hub, a cutterman can make a home for more than two years, those ingredients can be expanded upon in certain areas to make an even more fertile hotbed for afloat officers. For one, additional medium endurance cutters and fast response cutters would significantly increase the number of first, second, and third tour junior officer opportunities to go to sea without having to conduct a permanent change of station move.
The Coast Guard could also immediately add a number of O-3 and O-4 staff officer billets to JIATF-S. After all, if the service is set to spend a combined $12 Billion on the Legend Class cutters, the service could make a paltry investment in comparison by adding subject matter experts to the command that is the primary controller of cutters deployed for the counter-narcotics mission. Further, the service could add additional Intel and Cyber billets to the JIATF-S staff. As the Coast Guard cyber and intelligence apparatus matures, having officers who have operated in the joint environment with seasoned intelligence professionals will yield enormous dividends for the service.
Key West is just one of many locations where the Coast Guard can look to implement geographic stability in the afloat officer corps. This “blueprint for success” of multiple opportunities for junior and senior command, a reputable staff tour, and a desirable geographic location can be replicated elsewhere with relative ease. Charleston, Hawaii, Miami, and Newport present opportunities for immediate implementation, all containing elements of the necessary ingredients for successful geographic stability. Others still, like Norfolk, Pensacola, and Los Angeles/Long Beach are missing one crucial element or another that can be easily remedied.
The Future is Remote:
Realizing “Hubs” Service Wide
Fully remote work and hybrid models are an obvious step towards rapidly scaling “hubs” across operational and mission support communities. Unfortunately, many still distrust the basic premise of remote work, citing that the military should be concerned with winning wars, not “keeping pace with big tech.” Others still acknowledge the manifold benefits of remote work but worry it would exacerbate a gap between “operators” and “supporting elements.” However, few can deny that it represents the future of employment across myriad industries.
Anyone who has visited Coast Guard Headquarters recently can attest to this phenomenon, as the home of nearly 4,000 military, civilian, and contractor staff members have been largely partially manned for the past three years since the emergence of COVID-19. Major mission support commands fulfilling critical C5I, naval engineering, and administrative support functions have performed exceptionally in remote and hybrid work conditions as well.
If willing to deviate from established norms, the Coast Guard is poised to offer hundreds, if not thousands, of enlisted and officer billets that can be staffed completely remotely. This number expands dramatically if it includes “flex” or hybrid billets that, with occasional travel, allow members to maximize geographic stability while maintaining successful, varied career paths. For instance, the C5I community is primed to offer a majority of its O-2 to O-4 billets remotely. Doing so would allow those desiring to maintain a “dual” career track (in a traditionally operational specialty such as afloat or aviation specialties and traditionally “non-operational” e.g. cyber, logistics, or legal specialties) to avoid alternating between the National Capitol region and coastal communities, a major known drawback. Simply put, if the Coast Guard is able to offer expanded remote opportunities, it should.
Geographic flexibility could be further enhanced by de-stigmatizing online advanced education opportunities by Coast Guard leadership (and be extension what promotion and assignment panels value). Additionally, geo-stability should take advantage of nonterminal expanded industry partnerships with major private companies (as opposed to DOD Skillbridge, which servicemembers can take advantage of during their last 180 days of service). Both are useful incentives which, if paired with reasonable corresponding obligatory service requirements, could allow servicemembers to significantly reduce the number of PCS moves made over the course of a full 20-year career while remaining competitive at promotion boards. The table below illustrates the “hubs” concept, expanded by access to fully remote billets, industry partnerships, and a greater acceptance of online graduate school opportunities:
|Year Range||Tour/Life Event||Location||Incentive|
|1-2||Div Tour aboard Offshore Patrol Cutter (O-1)||LA/Long Beach, CA||N/A – academy payback|
|3-5||Sector LA/LB Response Officer (shoreside) (O-2)||LA/Long Beach, CA|
|6-7||Information Assurance Grad School
|LA/Long Beach, CA||Open up more grad programs to online school|
|8-9||CGCYBER Division Officer tour (O-3)
|LA/Long Beach, CA
|10-12||Sector LA/LB Enforcement Chief (shoreside, makes O-4)
|LA/Long Beach, CA
|13-14||PCS to D.C.: CGHQ tour crafting CG Cyber Policy (O-4)
|15-16||Detached Duty, Pentagon: OSD Cyber Policy (O-5)
|D.C.||Joint Assignment; Centralized Hub|
|17-18||Response Department Head: Sector Delaware Bay (O-5)||Philadelphia, PA||Geo-bachelor (minimal weekend commute)|
|19-19||Industry Partnership at Microsoft (O-5)||D.C.||Expand industry partnerships program
|20-21||Special Assignment, National Security Council | The White House: Senior Director for Resilience Policy (traditional CG O-6 billet)
|D.C.||Competitive Special Assignment|
|22-23||CGCYBER Deputy Tour (O-6)
|Alexandria, VA (short commute)|
|24-28||Sector Commander: Sector Hampton Roads (O-6)
|Hampton Roads, V.A.
|Geo-bachelor (minimal weekend commute)|
Table 2. Highlights a theoretical dual officer career path in Cyber and Response Ashore specialties, enabled by centralized hubs, remote/hybrid work, and industry partnerships. As a result, the officer only needs to conduct a permanent change of station (PCS) move one time in a 28-year career.
Some will say that the U.S. military should not try to seek parity with private industry. Of course, while there will always be those few whose martial ardor is enough to make familial sacrifices, for many, “love doesn’t pay the bills,” and enthusiasm alone should not be seen as a universal retention tactic. In 2021, only 29% of American youth are eligible for service; the Coast Guard simply cannot afford to put on a “put up or get out” mentality that discredits the valuable service members who simply do not wish to move all the time and have a semblance of normal life in between sea or duty standing tours. What’s more, these attitudes would overwhelmingly affect women and minorities because of the lifestyle flexibility they offer with respect to family planning and make the Coast Guard a less diverse workforce. As the former Commandant, Admiral Schultz stated in the 2020 Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, part of being the world’s best Coast Guard is being the world’s most diverse Coast Guard.
Ultimately, geographic stability is not a silver bullet to solving afloat retention and bolstering sea service attractiveness. However, it is a simple, meaningful, and easily implemented tool for keeping seagoing officers afloat. The Coast Guard should look to Key West, FL, as a blueprint for success, and replicate this formula elsewhere. What’s more, centralized hubs should be seen as an easily implemented, repeatable, and concrete solution to addressing workforce shortcomings across all Coast Guard work specialties. The concepts illustrated can, in many cases, be easily carried over from the officer to the enlisted world. When bolstered by expanded hybrid and remote work and education options, these “hubs” will remove many service-imposed impediments to “normal lifestyles” that force otherwise willing and capable service members to choose between meaningful service and civilian life. The Coast Guard has all the tools it needs to address the retention crises it faces – it needs only implement them.
1. Concordia St. Paul, “The Evolution of American Family Structure,” CSP Online, 2022, htps://online.csp.edu/resources/article/the-evolution-of-american-family-structure/
Featured Image: Cutter crewmembers based out of Portsmouth, Va. stand at the pier, ready to assist the USCGC Northland (WMEC 904) moor in Portsmouth on Monday. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Brandon Hillard)
3 thoughts on “A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats: Strengthen the Afloat Community, Strengthen the Coast Guard”
I’ve not been able to find a logical explanation for the high frequency of moves the Coast Guard forces on its members.
I think it was Admiral Zunkunft that said his longest tour anywhere was less than two years, which is insane when you look at the career length of a 4 star.
Von Clausewitz talks about reducing friction in your forces. Constant rotation of leadership, the civilian side circus of eight to ten PCS moves in a typical career, and dealing with the overlapping learning curves of a new crew and AOR/Unit all produce a lot of friction in a member’s life and with their shipmates.
High friction translates to high stress.
We constantly train for high stress operational environments without ever making accommodations for the stress that a military career forces onto our personal lives, never mind the negative feedback loop that kind of life creates. Geo-stability would go a long way to reducing that stress.
A good article that explores some afloat staffing and retention solutions. I served on six cutters (XO on three WMECs and one WHEC) and 11 PCS moves in 24 years. I recommend we grow professional cuttermen and lengthen officer afloat tours to three years with fleet ups for XO to CO on similar cutters. The deployment schedule needs to be adjusted to allow more inport time for maintenance, training, and crew rest. Cutters should be co-located in desirable homeports. We could use a civilian engineer on larger cutters for continuity (e.g. retired CWO ENG) as SFLC Technical Specialists. While I enjoyed being stationed in Key West (JIATFS J3A) it cannot support more crews without major owned housing and facility construction. History has shown the skillset for afloat officers doesn’t translate well to Sectors where we need career response snd prevention officers.
If cutter duty was so amazing for the authors, why weren’t they career cuttermen? Only one of the authors spent significant time afloat. The Coast Guard needs to take a seriously introspective look on what makes afloat duty so difficult on its members. It’s not really the moves (although it certainly doesn’t help). It’s the crushing OPTEMPO and poor command climates that plague our afloat community, especially on white hulls.