In January of 2020, the Wuhan, China government ordered a lockdown after evidence that a new and contagious virus was infecting the population at a seemingly unstoppable rate. Within 60 days, the entire world was reeling from the effects of COVID-19 and began a more than yearlong struggle to adapt.
At the start of the COVID crisis, much of the movement of people and material was restricted. This included the training and talent supply chains. Initial and advanced training courses were paused or drastically reduced. By summer, all organizations were asking themselves: How long can we survive without fresh, well-trained talent? Just as the human body requires oxygenated blood to survive, all organizations require a robust and timely talent supply chain. To the military, the talent supply chain is just as vital as war materiel. And, talent supply chains, usually represented by the “recruit, train, and retain” portions of an enterprise, must remain as adaptable and resilient as the military itself.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the adaptability shown by the Coast Guard’s aviation training enterprise at the Aviation Training Center (ATC) in Mobile, Alabama. With a professional cadre of nearly 650 members, ATC is the Coast Guard’s largest aviation unit and the sole source of talent development for air crews. Its training programs cover everything from basic air crew skills to advanced helicopter rescue procedures. It is a nationwide enterprise with locations from Cape Disappointment, Oregon, to Clearwater, Florida. Since 1966, ATC has endured countless challenges stemming from national emergencies, widespread natural disasters, and environmental catastrophes. However, 2020 and the COVID-19 pandemic proved to be the most trying time in ATC’s history.
Identify and Retain Vital Core Activities
ATC’s primary goal is to provide proficient, mission-ready crews to every Coast Guard aviation unit so the service and fulfill its missions of defending the homeland, saving lives, and protecting property and the environment. Early in the crisis, ATC’s first step was to determine what core activities had to be retained and what services needed to remain uninterrupted. For ATC’s customers, the 26 Coast Guard air stations and 43 flight-deck equipped cutters, the steady flow of mission-ready aircrews was determined to be priority one.
ATC faced the daunting challenge of how to continue to conduct in-person, hands-on training such as pilot simulator events, flight-mechanic hoist training, and high-risk, heavy-weather helicopter/surf training. The solution, led by ATC’s parent command, Coast Guard Force Readiness Command (ForceCom), was multifaceted. After determining what qualified as must-have training, ForceCom identified and modified some courses into a blended learning environment, using technology to mitigate the gaps of in-person learning. For other must-have courses, ATC created insulated, small-group training for students who showed up “guaranteed healthy and ready to train.” This involved an extensive restriction-of-movement (ROM) period before a student arrived to train—and then strict rules while conducting training. As an example, no member of ATC has seen the inside of a restaurant or off-base gym since March 2020.
Insulated groups became a key focus. Taking the worst possible situation—a COVID-19 outbreak at the unit—ATC developed a mitigation strategy matrix to contain an outbreak before it became widespread. This strategy led to the creation of training pods, with as few as four students and two instructors. When a student or instructor became symptomatic, the least possible number of team members were forced to quarantine, allowing the rest of the unit to continue training.
To Defer or Not to Defer?
After deciding what to retain, ATC identified what could be deferred. This required analysis of the relationship between risk to mission and risk to member. During COVID-19, the Coast Guard intentionally deferred training because of risks during travel, interactions between crew members, or increased risk of transmission because of a student’s locality before training. Never before had the training system wrestled with the notion that travel and human interaction could be riskier than the training itself.
Deferring an important training event is a decision that becomes a moving target when the duration of a crisis is unknown. In most military and corporate environments, the law of recency prevails—skills not frequently exercised perish with a rapid half-life. In aviation, this reality is absolute. ATC identified proficiency anchors—activities that increase aircrew proficiency on a recurring basis—and then determined the maximum acceptable duration between these events. Too long between anchors would result in decreased proficiency and an increased risk of a potentially deadly mishap. The concept of “acceptable risk” became a focal point in discussions about how long the Coast Guard could wait before resuming normal, or near-normal, training activities.
For example, one of the most critical proficiency anchors in the Coast Guard aviation community is a unit’s annual standardization visit. These visits, and others, were immediately halted at the start of the COVID-19 crisis. But after four months, the visits resumed after the service determined the risk of not doing these proficiency events became greater than the risk of doing them.
Conducting these visits safely was vital, and timing was everything. ATC moved some evolutions to the virtual environment, shortened others, and moved students into small training pods to limit exposure to other students. By moving some training into a blended learning environment, ATC identified lasting efficiencies that will be retained.
For example, all Coast Guard aviation instructors attend a 100-percent online Methods of Instruction (MOI)—a block of instruction aimed at developing instructors at all air crew positions throughout the fleet—which was previously an in-person course. An unintended benefit was better standardization of lesson delivery because there was more control over content development. Likely, this change is here to stay.
What Do We Eliminate or Replace?
The final step to weathering the storm was to assess what could be downsized, eliminated, or replaced. ATC eliminated large, community-style learning events (referred to as “all-hands”). All-hands have been replaced by prerecorded lectures, one-on-one training, small-group events (socially-distanced), and tailored self-study lessons. This move provided learning flexibility and made the point of learning much closer to the point of use for the knowledge.
Replacing in-person, mass gathering events with smaller, more controlled environments was not easy. One early success was the placement of relatively low-cost aircraft Desktop Training Devices in student-pilot rooms. Much of a pilot’s training course is now spent learning and practicing to manage onboard systems. And, with the typical motivated military student-pilot, placing these trainers yielded a far greater proficiency level earlier in the training process because of off-duty, frequent use. In-room trainers, blended learning, and other improvements are here to stay.
Stability During Times of Change
A final observation during a crisis was the restoration of cultural anchors. Unlike proficiency anchors, cultural anchors ground members’ value systems and leverage their desire to be part of the unit’s team and culture. During crises, the stability and comfort cultural anchors offer are essential.
In the first months of COVID-19, ATC forsook all group activities and saw a massive drop in morale, connectedness, and effective communications. Coupled with a rapidly evolving operational landscape, these changes negatively affected members—and their families. To this end, ATC reinstituted several activities (though modified) to restore people’s connection to the unit, and to the Coast Guard’s cultural framework and value system. An example of a restored cultural anchor was the observance of morning colors. This was put on hold at the beginning of the pandemic for fear of a mishandled crowd. However, with planning and execution guidelines, ATC is now back to regularly observing colors, and more people attend—safely.
Open for Business
Thanks to these frameworks, ATC was able to return to pre-pandemic operations within months. Preserving core activities, flexing on some, deferring others, and eliminating less-valuable processes returned talent throughput to what the fleet and nation needed. The road to restoration was not without its challenges, nor was there unanimous agreement on how to proceed. But in the end, restoring the talent supply chain became a source of pride for ATC members—who were able to do it by focusing on core activities and not forsaking our cultural anchors.
The challenge for leaders in an enduring crisis is identifying the most crucial elements of success and then driving the organization to get them accomplished. And while the more risk-averse option of doing nothing may be the right thing for a very short time—strategically pausing, perhaps—leaders need to quickly regroup and identify the crucial elements to success and relentlessly pursue them.