Nobody Asked Me, But . . . - The U.S. Coast Guard Must Retain Its Most Talented Officers

By Captain Stephen Chamberlin, U.S. Coast Guard (Retired)

In a service anchored in tradition, it is difficult to accept wholesale change of processes we have used for decades. But I believe we can improve the way we assign and promote officers, thus creating a more satisfied team of leaders. At the same time we can make the Coast Guard more attractive to top talent.

In his book Bleeding Talent (Palgrave McMillan, 2012), Tim Kane proposes a system called the Total Volunteer Force (TVF), which advocates decentralizing the assignment and promotion systems, allowing promotions to occur on merit. TVF urges job selection based on matching skills with positions, enabling officers to stay at the same grade by choice. TVF deserves serious consideration.

Talented professionals in the private sector are heavily recruited, well compensated, and willing to change jobs frequently. The Coast Guard risks falling behind in this rapidly changing environment if it continues to handle officer promotions and assignments as it has for the past 50 years. Consideration should be given to eliminating or minimizing precedence as a factor in promotion. Small errors in judgment should be forgivable, particularly early in a career. Supervisors should rate officers accurately and be held accountable when they do not. Commanding officers, who are selected for having demonstrated competency and integrity, should have some latitude in determining whether an officer’s career track or past justifies an assignment. In other words, provide commanding officers with hiring authority.

These proposals are not perfect, nor are the current systems. One thing is certain: A discussion on the merits of modernization with regard to assignments and promotions is needed.

Captain Chamberlin retired from the Coast Guard in June as commanding officer of the Maritime Intelligence Fusion Center–Pacific. He previously served as the Response Operations Department Head at Cosat Guard Sector Miami and also has served as a deck watch officer.


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