12 October 2010 . . . Ocean Systems Technologist Second Class Ryan stood in front of a mirror, shaving. Today was a milestone—eight years of combined reserve and active duty in the Coast Guard. He had enlisted in the Reserve in '02 and spent two years honing and certifying his skills in shipboard electronics, computers, and communication operation and repair. When an active-duty opening for a third-class ocean systems technologist in seagoing aids to navigation came open, he applied and had worked in the Buoy Tender System in Portland ever since. A hard-working year afloat was followed by three years ashore in the maintenance facility with occasional, short trips afloat to keep his operating certifications current, six months of Class B and C training, and another year and a half at sea, the past six months as a supervisor.
Today would mark two occasions for Ryan: he was transferring to the Coastal Search and Rescue System (CSS) in Southern California, and he was going to reenlist-the first person in Portland to do so under the new indeterminate enlistment contract. Along with his promotion, he was going to a great job supervising a technology maintenance team for a big hunk of Southern California. He would be responsible for seeing that all the assets in his assigned area could link to the real-time on-line data network, whether they were floating, flying, driving, or on foot.
It was a big responsibility but Ryan felt prepared, and he knew he could get additional training when he needed it through TRANET Keeping his skills up to date was important if he were going to continue getting skill differential and performance pays at his current level and preparing for a variety of challenging assignments for the next eight years in CSS. Ryan likely would spend two of those years doing staff analyst work—and he knew he would need those skills and also to work his associates degree into a bachelors, to continue to progress after this tour. That was another reason behind his decision to transfer—plenty of opportunity to attend classes. Some skills just can't be learned through distance learning. He also liked the team orientation of a classroom environment. He and his wife would be able to attend those classes together, knowing that their toddler was safe and sound in the Coast Guard's local dependent-care facility. That was one program he really liked, joking that his kids probably would be dropping him off there someday on their way to work!
With clear personal and professional goals, and his career largely mapped—not to mention the confidence that his family would be assured health care and other necessities—Petty Officer Ryan was looking forward to his new job. He'd be the first to argue that he didn't get paid enough, but he and his family felt comfortable, secure, and had even saved a little for their dream home. He knew he would have a challenging job that contributed to an important mission—and you couldn't beat that. Besides, the Coast Guard had come a long way toward supporting families. He had no idea how his uncle had managed, packing up and moving every two or three years. Sure, Ryan thought, he'd have a number of different jobs in the next eight years, with each building on his skills and experience, but he was pretty sure they wouldn't have to move—good thing, since his wife's career was just as important to her.
How did the Coast Guard become this organization? By setting a clear course well over the horizon and making sure everyone knew where they were going and how their efforts contributed to the journey. The Coast Guard is its people, and managing the human resource (HR) system to balance the needs of people and the needs of unit commanders is far too complicated for any single person or group. Every day, people make thousands of decisions that will affect their careers, and the processes that make up the HR system result in thousands more. Only if everyone knows where we are going can we make those day-to-day decisions in a fair and consistent way to keep us aimed at the same goals.
With an amazing breadth of operations, an infinite array of operating conditions, and uncertainties in the political and budget environments, the Coast Guard is unimaginably complex. People still accomplish the mission, but increasingly our success is less a result of physical labor and more a function of their knowledge and intellectual effort. Our people are assets—irreplaceable assets—that must be nurtured, developed, given the resources, and enabled to act in the best interests of the organization. Simply put, the Coast Guard must continually build its intellectual capital.
We decided to focus on building four strategic capabilities to make possible the 2010 scenario Petty Officer Ryan enjoys. We began with four premises:
- We must treat the human resource system as a system. Like an ecosystem, all of its parts depend on one another and must work together. Our HR strategies cannot reflect the traditional "stovepiped" lines of business but must be a coordinated piece of all other Coast Guard systems. We need to understand how today's actions will affect our future readiness.
- Successful organizations consider their human resource functions as partners in creating strategies. This is in contrast with past practices, when corporate strategic decisions were made in a smoke-filled room and then thrown over the fence to the personnel shop for them to develop solutions. That never worked very well. Our HR strategies must influence and be influenced by the service's strategies.
- Building the four strategic capabilities will position us to be successful in whatever challenges come our way.
- Our strategies must focus more on where we are going than on how to get there. This provides the latitude for our people to be innovative in their solutions to the tough challenges we face as a service.
Our four specific capabilities are:
The capability to acquire the workforce of the future. We will know we have this when all Coast Guard jobs are filled with people who have the right competencies; when unit commanders are satisfied they have—and will have—the people they need to get their jobs done; when team members are confident in their opportunities; and when program managers are satisfied that the missions for which they are responsible are enabled (not disabled) by people.
To meet these goals, we must ensure that all workforce components (civilian, active, and reserve military) are at full strength by the end of fiscal year 2000, that we have attracted sufficient auxiliarists, and that we have a balance in each component of experience and renewal. We must better understand, plan for, and communicate future needs, and build a stronger partnership with field and program managers. We must tap nontraditional labor market segments and renew our efforts to better reflect U.S. population demographics. And once we acquire our work force, we must provide them with growth opportunities.
The capability to prepare and deliver people for the work of today and tomorrow. We will know we have this when unit commanders and program managers are satisfied with our efforts to prevent potential human performance problems and troubleshoot existing ones; when team members are confident of equitable opportunities for career development, professional and personal growth, and lifelong learning; when unit commanders are satisfied that their people have the skills they need to get the job done; and when program managers are confident that the human resource system will be able to anticipate changing needs and opportunities.
Meeting these goals will mean developing new ways of doing things. Again, strong partnerships with units and program managers are needed. We must make better use of the skills our people develop and reuse those skills when possible; we must exploit technology to provide training and education; we must reduce apprentice jobs and shift on-the-job training ashore; and we must ensure that accessions, assignments, training, and advancement are not working at cross purposes. Perhaps more important, we must prepare our people for change, for continuous learning, and for taking an active role in managing their own careers—which means we must provide them with the information they need to make informed career choices.
The capability to envision and create an attractive and effective workplace for the future. We will know we have this when all team members, whether or not they make the Coast Guard a career, see the service as an employer of choice; when all team members can focus on the mission, secure in the knowledge that they and their families are cared for; when everyone reports to their jobs ready, able, and willing to do their best; and when all team members are confident in equitable treatment and opportunities.
To meet these goals we are building our capabilities in three major areas. First, we must develop more control and influence over entitlements—pay, housing, health care, and retirement—to ensure a strong position in the labor market and to provide security and a standard of living as free from distractions as possible. We will have to examine new ways of using entitlements to build the most capable workforce.
Second, we need to anticipate the social, demographic, economic, and technological trends that will allow us to meet or beat the market with our work-life programs—benefits, security, balance of work and personal life, and other payments in kind. Members and their families must be prepared for the demands of military service, including deployments, moves, and fewer financial incentives than might be available elsewhere. We must provide diagnostic tools, training and counseling, and a broad array of new work-life practices.
Third, we must develop and maintain systems that result in enlightened leaders at all levels living and promoting the Coast Guard's values. Our people are motivated by challenging and meaningful work, equitable treatment, opportunities for growth, a sense of personal dignity and trust, and a sense of control over their destinies—all of which are largely functions of leadership and communication.
The capability to operate and improve the human resource system as a system. We will know we have this when the first three capabilities are achieved; when unit commanders, program managers, and our HR professionals are satisfied that they have and will continue to have good information and high-quality analyses and decisions; and when all team members feel they are supported by a consistent HR system that operates according to predictable, understandable principles.
These goals will be met by translating mission performance standards into people-performance standards; by providing appropriate HR information to all who need it when they need it; and by establishing clear causal links from policies and practices to capability and readiness.
To be successful, the HR system must be adequately staffed by human resource professionals, with adequate and stable resources. We must be smarter about how we invest in people, and we must develop the ability to determine costs, benefits, and the return on investment for every program, practice, process, and policy. We must explore new ways of doing business, new ways to meet the Coast Guard's HR needs, and design new ways to manage our work force and its structure. We must strike and maintain a balance between the needs of the Coast Guard and the needs of our people.
Some current and future efforts in this regard include developing provisions for lateral entry; enhancing opportunities for reservists and civilians; exploring tailored enlistment periods and new crewing alternatives to make sea duty more attractive; stabilizing assignments to reduce turbulence; and developing force-shaping tools such as emphasizing pay for performance and skills, modifying up-or-out practices for selective skills, and increasing the flexibility of the retirement system structure.
How Can We Make This Reality?
A few years ago the top human resource managers came to the realization that the HR system extends far beyond the Assistant Commandant for Human Resources, the Personnel Command, and even the Personnel Reporting Units. The HR system begins with our missions and includes anyone who engages in strategy development, planning, programming, or budgeting. It includes the chain of command from the Commandant to the officer in charge of a search-and-rescue station or the coxswain of a small boat. Every unit commander, division officer, leading petty officer, every supervisor—every leader is a key partner and stakeholder in the HR system. Every team member, whether military or civilian, active, reserve, auxiliary, or under contract, is a customer, stakeholder, supplier, partner, or manager of the HR system.
We will achieve our goals and realize the world in which OST2 Ryan lives when everyone in the Coast Guard commits to creating that future—when everyone commits to continuous improvement, lifelong learning, managing their own careers, challenging existing practices, taking reasonable risks, and moving ahead. We can't just hope for a better future; we must act to make it come to pass.
But getting back to our story . . .
A thousand miles away the commanding officer and executive officer of the USCGC Underway are wrapping up an early morning meeting.
". . . oh, don't forget that video link at 10, Skipper."
"Right," replied the CO. "I'm excited about that. When Ryan asked me to execute his Oath of Enlistment via streaming video on the net, I was tickled pink. You always feel good when the people who have worked for you respect you enough to da something like that. I admit I was skeptical about this coaching program when I first got involved, but the idea of having the same senior people commit to listening to and guiding you throughout your career has turned out to be a pretty good thing. I still call my first coach regularly, even though she's been retired for six years. I hope I can be as valuable a resource for Ryan and the two other folks I work with as Captain Carter was for me."
Things were pretty good for the Underway. The cutter had a challenging schedule, but morale was high and everyone was looking forward to doing something important. The skipper couldn't remember ever serving with better people—not only did they have all the skills they needed to get the job done, but they were committed to doing it. Sure, there were occasional staffing and supply glitches, but the coordinated efforts of local and regional support troops kept them from becoming a problem. It seemed people were willing to put their skills to use when needed, knowing that it helped keep them sharp. In fact, in '03, when the human resource system started delivering people with skills to units (instead of people with ratings to billets) things got better quickly. And putting information about units (operating profiles, who was aboard, and what skills they had) on the Coast Guard JOBNET gave people some real information to help them make their career decisions. The result was the realization of what must have seemed like just rhetoric just ten years ago—a Coast Guard where everyone was valued and encouraged to meet their full potential.
Admiral Ames is Assistant Commandant for Human Resources. Dr. Wehrenberg heads the Coast Guard’s human resources capability development staff and is a lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.