A military service and a business compete to recruit and retain the best personnel, but these organizations are fundamentally different. To build the highest quality workforce for the 21st century—especially to retain qualified mid-grade petty officers and commissioned officers—the Coast Guard must recognize and highlight these differences.
Getting and keeping a full workforce is one of the Coast Guard Commandant's top priorities. Already he has implemented aggressive measures to step up recruiting and retention, to bring force levels to full strength by October 2000. The Coast Guard created 125 more recruiter billets and 37 new recruiting of fices. An incentive program gives military awards to personnel who convince others to enlist, waiver polices have been relaxed (e.g., permitting enlistment by Ritalin users), and Coast Guard recruiting spots ran on a popular national professional wrestling program. These steps and others appear to be generating results: enlistments increased dramatically in fiscal year 1998 and in fiscal year 1999 many recruiting goals were met.
On the down side, many of these initiatives have generated controversy within the service. Some believe the Coast Guard is pushing too hard, too fast, sacrificing recruiting the highest quality people to fill empty slots. In addition, these measures are not necessarily designed to retain the best people. The suspension of high-year tenure and centralized first-term reenlistment review, for example, will help the service retain people, but not necessarily the highest quality people. In any event, civilian companies always will be able to offer higher pay, greater benefits, geographic stability, and fewer hardships. As the old saw goes, you don't join the Coast Guard to get rich.
So how does the Coast Guard market itself to compete head to head with the private sector in recruiting and retention? Simple: we don't.
The Coast Guard Isn't an Employer
The Coast Guard will never succeed in comparing itself to the private sector as an employer because it's not a business. Its product is public service rather than profit, so it cannot offer the same level of compensation or benefits. But in that distinction also lies the Coast Guard's greatest strength in recruiting and retention.
Throughout its history the Coast Guard has been dedicated to maritime public service, and it continues to perform a broad range of missions—military operations, search and rescue, maritime safety and law enforcement, and environmental protection, to name a few. The ideal of selfless public service is so ingrained in our culture that it is more than what we do; it is our very ethos. That essential organizational trait makes us unique, distinct from the private sector (and in many respects from the other military services, as well).
Coast Guardsmen don't do what they do for the pay or benefits. Consider the rescue swimmer who drops from a helicopter into raging seas to rescue a sailor in distress, the marine inspector who crawls through tank barges in 110° heat to ensure a vessel's safety, or the seaman who feeds and cares for Haitian migrants interdicted at sea. There is no direct correlation between the sacrifices and hardships these Coast Guardsmen endure and what they are paid. No monetary compensation can match the sense of accomplishment and the impact of rescuing persons from a sinking vessel at sea.
By maintaining and emphasizing what makes being a Coast Guardsman unique the service will attract highly qualified people who will commit to its core values: Honor, Respect, and Devotion to Duty. With that the private sector simply cannot compete.
If You Build It, They Will Come
Will today's youth respond to the Coast Guard's call for selfless public servants? The conventional wisdom tends to stereotype young people—Generation Xers questioned authority; Generation Y is less antagonistic and more independent. The Coast Guard must not buy into this marketing psychobabble and seek to change its identity to appear trendy or cool. In the 1970s the Army instituted a new recruiting campaign based on studies that said young people were nonconformists who wanted to retain their individuality. The service changed its message to "The Army Wants to Join You." The result was an unqualified disaster.
It is folly to paint generations with such broad strokes. Each person is an individual shaped by his or her own values, beliefs, and experiences. Young people today are the same diverse mix as each generation that preceded them. Some are motivated by profit, some by a calling to public service, some are not motivated to do much of anything, and others simply don't know—not much different from any other generation. Young people who will commit to the Coast Guard's core values are out there. They will choose to join the Coast Guard not because it is easy, because they can make a lot of money, or because of the benefits, but because it is challenging and offers a tremendous opportunity to perform meaningful service to the nation.
Certain organizations, such as the Boy Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of America, teach and reinforce strong ideals that parallel the Coast Guard's core values. Such organizations offer a pool of young adults with tremendous potential, and we should explore forming quality partnerships with these organizations. In addition, we should expand our junior ROTC program in high schools to better introduce the service to young adults exploring future careers.
In a recent study on the competition for talent among North American companies, the top two factors cited in attracting and retaining talent were (1) having a strong, positive organizational identity that attracts the kind of people the organization wants to hire and retain, and (2) maintaining a talented team so talented people will seek to be part of that team.4 Being a Coast Guardsman offers young people these things and more, but only if the service continues to maintain and demonstrate its unique organizational identity and hires and retains talented people.
A Core Competency
The Coast Guard must strengthen its organizational identity, but the diverse nature of the organization makes this difficult. We are an armed force, a federal law enforcement agency, and a humanitarian organization—all at the same time. Beyond our mission, however, the fundamental characteristic that joins all Coast Guardsmen is that we are maritime lifesavers. All Coast Guard missions can be traced to this role. Lifesaving has strong roots in Coast Guard history and tradition and is the most common perception Americans have of Coast Guardsmen.
Cementing the Coast Guard's identity as a lifesaving service may appear risky. Creating a single identity for the service could paint us into a box, limiting resources for those missions not directly attached to lifesaving. This is a groundless fear. The Coast Guard will lose missions only if they no longer are needed or another organization can perform them better. So far there doesn't appear to be much danger of either. The greater danger lies in not having a distinct identity that people and Congress will recognize, appreciate—and fund.
The service also must strengthen its internal identity by requiring Coast Guardsmen to learn and maintain a core competency: boat crew seamanship. One characteristic of a strong organizational identity is that a group's members share a single goal or a common bond, no matter what their assigned duties. When a janitor at NASA's Cape Canaveral during the Apollo program was asked what his job was he replied, "Sending men to the moon." That's singularity of purpose. Because the Coast Guard's missions are so diverse a single goal is hard to define, but we can build and maintain an internal identity by requiring a common competence.
A boat crew seaman is required to learn and demonstrate physical fitness and survival skills, basic seamanship and navigation, and conduct of underway operations and watches.5 Recruits, cadets, and officer candidates already receive much of this training. Although completion of the crewmember qualification is not realistic during all accession training, each new Coast Guardsman should be required to complete the majority of non-area/vessel-specific items. Building on that foundation, the Commandant should require personnel to complete periodic (e.g., every five years) refresher training at an operational unit.
Although we cannot compete with the private sector in very many ways, the Coast Guard offers young people an unmatched opportunity to serve the nation. The Commandant's work to improve pay, benefits, and quality of life for personnel is critical, but the call to be a Coast Guardsman, to accept the challenge as one of the nation's lifesavers, will be the primary magnet that attracts the best people and lays the foundation for the Coast Guard's workforce in the 21st century.
Commander Lunday, a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, is the legal officer to U.S. Coast Guard Training Center, Yorktown, Virginia. He is a graduate of the Naval War College and served as commanding officer of the USCGC Point Martin (WPB-82379) and as operations officer of the USCGC Sweetgum (WLB-309).