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Monday, April 22, 2024

GAO: Coast Guard Should Address Workforce Recruitment and Retention Challenges

Maritime Activity Reports, Inc.

February 27, 2024

  • Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Studie climbs a Jacob's ladder to perform a vessel inspection. Marine inspectors board boats in dry dock, moored at a pier, anchored and in rare occasions while underway. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Darryl W. Bradshaw)
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About the Author: Heather MacLeod is a Director in GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice team. She oversees Coast Guard and maritime security issues, including Coast Guard workforce and strategic planning efforts, and maritime port and supply chain/cargo security.
  • Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Studie climbs a Jacob's ladder to perform a vessel inspection. Marine inspectors board boats in dry dock, moored at a pier, anchored and in rare occasions while underway. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Darryl W. Bradshaw) Chief Warrant Officer Aaron Studie climbs a Jacob's ladder to perform a vessel inspection. Marine inspectors board boats in dry dock, moored at a pier, anchored and in rare occasions while underway. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Darryl W. Bradshaw)
  • 
About the Author: Heather MacLeod is a Director in GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice team. She oversees Coast Guard and maritime security issues, including Coast Guard workforce and strategic planning efforts, and maritime port and supply chain/cargo security. About the Author: Heather MacLeod is a Director in GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice team. She oversees Coast Guard and maritime security issues, including Coast Guard workforce and strategic planning efforts, and maritime port and supply chain/cargo security.

The Coast Guard has struggled for years to recruit and retain a sufficient workforce. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the non-partisan, fact-based arm of the Congress, has published multiple reports related to the Coast Guard’s workforce including recruitment and retention challenges. 


Three of these reports published in 2022 and 2023 have resulted in 17 GAO recommendations to address these issues, but as of today, 16 remain open and need to be addressed. Implementing these recommendations is key to the Coast Guard’s ability to recruit and retain the personnel necessary to conduct its diverse array of mission requirements.

The Coast Guard — a multi-mission military service employing more than 55,000 personnel — has reported that it is about 3,500 enlisted members short and has missed its recruiting targets for the past five fiscal years. Some of the Coast Guard’s recruitment and retention issues fall within critical areas of expertise such as its cyberspace and marine inspections workforces. Competition with higher paying jobs in the private sector, limited opportunities for promotion, and long work hours have made it challenging for the Coast Guard to recruit and retain these personnel.


Cyberspace Workforce. In 2015 the Coast Guard established cyberspace as an operational domain to help protect the marine transportation system from threats that could be delivered through the internet, telecommunications networks, and computer systems. GAO’s September 2022 review found that the Coast Guard had determined that nine percent, or 412 of its 4,507 funded cyberspace workforce positions, were vacant.
GAO’s review also found that the service had not followed its own guidance that calls for it to assess and determine necessary staffing levels and skills to meet mission needs. For example, as of February 2022, the Coast Guard had not used its workforce determination process to assess 55 percent of its cyberspace workforce positions. Until such analysis is completed, the Coast Guard will not fully understand the resources it requires, including those to protect its information systems and data from threats.

GAO made six recommendations aimed at improving the Coast Guard’s workforce planning process for cybersecurity personnel, including assessing it needs, collecting data, and developing a strategy and metrics that could better inform its efforts to recruit these personnel.


Marine Inspectors. The Coast Guard has faced long-standing challenges maintaining an adequate staff of experienced marine inspectors who board vessels to determine whether they meet safety, security, and environmental requirements. A January 2022 GAO report found that the Coast Guard’s marine inspection program has had similar recruitment and retention challenges over the past decade—showing a shortage of more than a thousand marine inspectors.

GAO also determined that the Coast Guard had collected and analyzed limited data to forecast future workforce and industry trends that could affect the supply and demand for marine inspectors. For example, the Coast Guard collected industry data to forecast workforce needs for certain vessel types (cruise ships) but not others (freight vessels). The Coast Guard also did not regularly collect and analyze other data, such as future potential retirements of Coast Guard personnel that could affect its supply of marine inspectors.

GAO concluded that collecting additional data to forecast future trends in the maritime industry and its marine inspection workforce would enhance the Coast Guard’s ability to identify its potential future workforce needs. GAO made five recommendations to strengthen the Coast Guard’s workforce planning efforts, including that the service collect additional data to forecast future industry and workforce trends.

Quality of Life challenges. Challenges related to quality of life factors also affects the Coast Guard’s ability to retain personnel. For example, in April 2023 GAO found that Coast Guard personnel stationed in remote areas may experience challenges accessing medical care. Specifically, 17 of 43 Coast Guard clinics were located in medically underserved areas, which indicate a shortage of primary care services. An additional 11 of 43 were located in areas with a shortage of at least one type of health provider—including primary care, mental health, or dental.
Coast Guard health officials and officials from selected clinics also reported facing persistent staffing challenges, including recruiting and retaining public health service providers who typically serve as the medical and dental providers in Coast Guard clinics. GAO found that the Coast Guard had taken steps to mitigate this challenge, such as initiating its own Health Service Officer Program, but it had not examined reasons for public health service recruitment and retention challenges.

GAO made six recommendations that the Coast Guard, among other things, obtain, share, and monitor several types of data including information on heath care access and the reasons for medical provider recruitment and retention challenges. Doing so would help the Coast Guard determine what, if any, actions it can take to address these challenges and help better ensure its clinics have sufficient staff to meet its medical mission. Challenges related to housing, child care, and education also affects the Coast Guard’s ability to retain personnel. GAO has reported on issues with the appropriateness of the housing allowance for military personnel and has also found that the rising cost of child care nationwide was among the most formidable challenges Coast Guard families face. Additionally, military families frequently cited education issues for their children as a drawback to military service.

GAO has additional ongoing studies reviewing Coast Guard recruitment and retention efforts and other factors that may affect this. Currently, reports on these types of issues are expected to be released in 2024 and 2025.

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