Do you really have a training problem? Really? Ask yourself, “If I gave my people a million dollars to do that task, could they do it?” If so, you do not have a training problem. Yes, you have a problem; it’s just not training.
We all do a job. Our outputs become input to others so they can do their jobs. This chain goes on and on until we save that life, set that buoy, or stop that drug runner. The formal Coast Guard training system (TraSys) makes sure the outputs of some match up with the inputs of others. It is a generally well-designed system. It also is expensive. We need to be thoughtful in how we use it.
TRAINING SYSTEM 101
TraSys is not unit-level training. It is training requested by the member or unit, coordinated through the Education and Training Quota Center (ETQC), and executed using Allowance Fund Code 56 funding. TraSys produces all Coast Guard enlisted members at Cape May and 60 percent of the officer corps at the Leadership and Development Center in New London, Connecticut. All “A” and “C” schools are part of TraSys—even the contracted and Defense Department schools, if arranged by ETQC, are part of the formal training system.
This training system is financially constrained—and appropriately so. It does not build courses with bells and whistles. There are no “space available” seats. There is no fluff. Coast Guard programs pay for training they need to accomplish the mission in the field.
Training and education are not the same thing. With performance-based training, students come out of a course with the ability to do something they could not do before. Ideally, they will have demonstrated the ability to do that thing. With education, they may know how to do something and still not have done it. As the old saying goes, tellin’ ain’t trainin’.
THE TRAINING JUICE
As a former trainer, training analyst, and now chief of training for the Coast Guard, I know firsthand how addicting training can be—to the supervisor, subordinate, and trainer. I love training. I love that a wide-eyed Coastie comes to the training system and a few months later is a pilot. I love that 28,000 times a year a Coastie leaves home, gets on a plane, shows up at one of our training centers, and there is a desk and chair waiting . . . waiting for his or her next chapter in our great service. To learn a skill you did not have the day before is nothing short of a miracle.
Unfortunately, not everyone who comes to our classrooms is in need of training.
For some supervisors, sending their people to training is a reward for superior performance. For others, it is the last chance—fix your problems or find new work. Sometimes, supervisors send people to training to get them out of their hair for a time (it happened to me!). Sometimes people need a break and training seems like a good solution.
Coasties want training because they may need a break from a teammate or supervisor. Sometimes they like the location and the chance to visit friends, family, or wineries. Maybe they are looking to sharpen a skill or develop a new one that is not part of their current assignments. Maybe they are leaving the service and want a résumé builder or a place to mark time. Maybe they think it will give them an edge for promotion.
All these reasons are inconsistent with the Coast Guard training system’s philosophy. It is time we got off the juice.
COSTS OF NONESSENTIAL TRAINING
• Money. The more money that is spent on training, the less there is for accomplishing missions. The average travel and per diem cost per student is about $2,000. For years, TraSys budgets have been flat while the cost of conducting training has continued to rise. We simply cannot afford extra seats in the schoolhouse. As leaders, we are obligated to ask ourselves if we will get $2,000 of value from this person acquiring this set of skills.
• Lost Productivity. When we take workers away from their workplace, we lose their production. It is possible other workers can cover for the student in the short term; however, supervisors should not rely on this. Most organizational staffing does not allow individuals to take time off for unnecessary classes.
• Lost Opportunity Cost. While people are at training, they are not doing other things for your unit. A week of unnecessary training means pushing back a week’s worth of internal projects. In addition, unnecessary training means that seat is not available to another unit for a person who needs it. Students who are not likely to use their new skills on the job are disadvantaging another unit.
• Fixed (Overhead) Costs. This may seem to be a small consideration, but it adds up. Unnecessary students consume course materials, occupy classroom space, and so on. Overhead costs account for a large part of operating a formal training system and are not counted in the $2,000 average cost of training.
• Reality and the Imagined. Like many things in life, the prospect of having the thing (training) sometimes is more fun than actually having it. For example, a week in sunny California sounds great. However, packing, getting to the airport and through security, a five-hour flight next to a screaming baby, lost baggage, car rentals, missed turns, and late arrivals never play in the imagined picture. On top of all these issues, students still have tasks to learn and performance to demonstrate. If it’s not relevant to their jobs, they might just check out and take a mental vacation.
• Time Away from Family. Long-term training has a real cost to sailors’ personal lives. We owe it to our people and our service to balance work and life. Nonessential training is another straw on the proverbial camel’s back.
REALITY IS NEVER CLEAN . . .
Do I believe the Coast Guard training system fills all its seats with students who need the skills and will employ them immediately when returning to their units? No, although it is what we strive to accomplish, and every year we get better.
We all need to take a minute and think about training. It is expensive and important. It is targeted and limited. It is not a reward for good performance or a vacation from a stressful workplace. We have other systems for those issues.
While it would be cool to be an emergency medical technician (EMT), I sit behind a desk. I could rationalize having those skills: they would be beneficial in a series of high risk, low probability scenarios. However, I know we have just enough seats at EMT school to meet the needs of the Coast Guard workforce—no more, no less. I also would like to be a pilot. And a welder. Sometimes I say to myself, “It is time to get off the training juice.”
Captain Tipton oversees worldwide training and performance support for the U.S. Coast Guard. He has served 12 years in various tours throughout the Coast Guard’s training system, including at Training Center Petaluma, California, as an instructor at the Leadership Development Center in New London, CT; and as a human performance consultant, training analyst, and chief of distance education.