The sea has a poetry that attracts the whole human race, yet some souls just belong at sea. Whether it is the camaraderie of the crew, the sheer majesty of the ocean, or the smell of the briny air, underway is where they feel at home. That passion for the sea is inspirational; these are the cuttermen remembered for all the right reasons—their confidence, their mastery of their craft, and their knowledge of their ship—long after their careers are over. Then they are yanked off a cutter and placed ashore, all in the name of career advancement.
While every shoreside unit needs the injection of no-nonsense, action-oriented cuttermen to keep the service moving forward, not everyone wants or needs to advance to senior leadership positions. There is a considerable number of cuttermen, both enlisted and officers, who would choose to continue to serve afloat despite potential career progression limitations. As noted in the Coast Guard’s recently released Ready Workforce 2030, “The traditional up-or-out system may not serve all segments of our workforce.” In alignment with the service’s new talent management strategy, no option should be off the table in a service looking for individuals who want to serve afloat. The service should permit members who desire to stay afloat to specialize within the community at the rank commensurate to their desired position.
This is not a new concept. Tim Kane advocated for increased specialization within the officer corps in his revolutionary piece, “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving.” Through this type of specialization, the service benefits by capitalizing on talent retention and increased proficiency in both the officer and enlisted workforce. However, the service must offer incentives in return, such as providing these individuals with geostability for accepting a lifestyle that inevitably infuses a higher level of instability in their home life. It must allow these members to serve ashore when they desire to tend to personal needs or need a respite but harness their talent by placing them in positions that support the cutter fleet. As the Coast Guard builds out additional homeports for new surface assets such as Base Charleston, it needs to account for a shoreside personnel structure to enable geostability for all ranks, both officer and enlisted. This alternate path helps build an experienced, proficient core afloat workforce, as career cuttermen provide corporate knowledge of afloat expertise and afford better training for new personnel, while enabling other members to pursue a traditional advancement path.
Building this type of flexibility into the decades-old personnel management system will take effort. For an organization stuck between a rock and a hard place, the highest risk position is the status quo. Continuing to cling to these practices leads to cutters filled primarily with “select and direct” wardrooms, chief messes, and crews—a leadership situation that would challenge even the likes of Ted Lasso. Ready Workforce 2030 states, “The policies and practices that shaped successful careers in our past might constrain our workforce of today and that of tomorrow.” In that vein, we may need to put the need for continuous advancement aside. Allow those who love the sea to stay afloat. Build a professional and proficient core workforce; these will be the members who inspire generations and ensure the continuity of the afloat community.
Investing in Talent
Cuttermen are in demand outside of the afloat community. They are driven, talented individuals who deserve an organization that invests in their growth. In a cost-neutral world, bringing an effective talent development program for cuttermen to fruition is challenging. It is an uphill battle against all the other competing readiness demands of the service. However, in a blue-sky environment this would consist of a two-pronged approach of investing in the development of the community and individuals.
As much as it pains this cutterman to write this, the Coast Guard’s aviation community has it right when investing in talent. Aviation Training Center Mobile, their standardization program, and the Office of Aviation Forces have a symbiotic relationship managing requirements and readiness for their community. The standardization teams consolidate training deficiencies, which guides policy adjustments and personnel training—merging the feedback loop between policy, readiness, and operational capabilities. This holistic management of knowledge, requirements, and training results in continuous investment in aviation community development.
By contrast, there is no Cutter Training Center.
The cutter fleet takes a disaggregated approach with job specific training being conducted at a wide variety of Coast Guard and Navy training centers across the nation, and the primary afloat standardization visit (Command Assessment of Readiness and Training) is conducted by one of four regional afloat training organizations. These two elements of fleet training and assessment operate in silos. In the aviation community, training and policy is informed by trends from fleet assessments; however, in the cutter fleet, an assessment is simply a snapshot in time for an individual unit that is leveraged for officer evaluation report fodder. The feedback loop and ability to give the operational commander a true readiness assessment of afloat units is stifled in comparison with the streamlined efforts of the aviation community.
The cutter fleet deserves a dedicated training command that not only builds a consolidated approach but also helps prepare the unit for the respective mission with which the cutter is assigned with a tailored training package. This could be as simple as prioritizing cutter crew training at a Regional Fisheries Training Center prior to a fisheries patrol or obtaining the necessary warfare area training courses for cutters deploying in support of U.S. Central Command or Indo-Pacific Command operations. An overarching training command that advocates for respective knowledge management is a more effective mission-support model.
However, the responsibility of a potential Cutter Training Center is not solely about developing units and task-specific training but also professionalizing the community. The Coast Guard’s aviators have an obligated service payback period to ensure they do not take their flight school skills and transfer to the lucrative civilian field without the service earning a return on their investment. The maritime industry is just as lucrative. However, the Coast Guard does not have to worry about cuttermen jumping ship—until May of 2022 the service simply did not invest in licensing or credentials for ship drivers, which is confounding since the Coast Guard controls credentialing for the entire maritime industry through its National Maritime Center.
The service is taking a significant step forward by embarking on a pilot program to allocate $4500 annually for eligible Coast Guard members to provide credentialing assistance for training courses for a wide variety of credentials to include maritime licenses. While the Military to Mariner (M2M) program is making incremental improvements to leveraging shipboard experience for enlisted members, the progress is slow. The program only has three individuals assigned to crosswalk Coast Guard provided training courses to meet maritime credentialing requirements. As a result, through this newly instituted process the Coast Guard is essentially outsourcing its training to commercial providers to meet its own requirements the National Maritime Center declines to waive for their fellow servicemembers.
A Cutter Training Center not only could take the lead in expediting the M2M course cross walking process to capitalize on the training already in place towards credentialing opportunities, but it could also serve as a center of excellence for all to take advanced courses in the pursuit of their own qualifications. Coast Guard members sail alongside commercial vessels both domestically and internationally. Why not have them credentialed accordingly? Aside from the benefits of investing in cuttermen development through professionalizing the community, it provides the added benefit of bridging the historical gap between mariners and their regulators.
It seems unfathomable a commanding officer of a major cutter could retire from the service with more than 10 years of sea time and have absolutely no Coast Guard licenses documenting his or her proficiency of craft. Yet, this is considered normal. Conversely, the maritime industry pays for the training and credentialing process for their employees, as a necessary investment to ensure they have the right talent operating their fleets. The lack of investment in the service’s mariners sends an unfortunate message regarding the importance of their cuttermen.
The Coast Guard is asking its workforce to invest in the cutter community; however, the script must be flipped. The service needs to invest in the afloat community, not just the cutters. People are not interchangeable assets—they are the lifeblood of the service. The crew is the soul of a cutter and shipmates are who make this service worthwhile. The service is in an era of great competition—a competition for talented men and women. These talented men and women deserve to be appreciated, rewarded, and invested in. If the Coast Guard is unwilling to invest in this workforce, its competition surely will.