House Hearing Uncovers Concerning Recruitment and Retention Trends in the Coast Guard

House Hearing Uncovers Concerning Recruitment and Retention Trends in the Coast Guard
Coast Guard members conduct training from the deck of the cutter Waesche (WMSL-751) off the coast of San Diego on March 29, 2023. (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Taylor Bacon/Coast Guard)

Stark revelations of recruitment and retention challenges faced by the Coast Guard surfaced May 11 at a House Maritime Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee hearing – issues which leave the serve well below authorized end strength and put its overall mission at risk. 


[TAKE ACTION: Ask Your House Member to Ensure Coast Guard Members Are Paid During a Government Shutdown]


“The Coast Guard has been unable to meet its recruiting goals for the past four years and is unlikely to meet targeted goals again this year,” Coast Guard Deputy Commandant for Mission Support Vice Adm. Paul Thomas told committee members. “The current Coast Guard workforce shortage threatens the service’s ability to conduct missions which are vital to national security and prosperity.”


MOAA continues to be a strong advocate for the Coast Guard. Like the other uniformed services, it is vital to maintaining and sustaining the all-volunteer force and strong national defense posture. MOAA also ensures Coast Guard representation on its Currently Serving Advisory Council and board of directors.


The service’s 57,000 active duty, reserve, and civilian personnel, along with 21,000 auxiliary volunteers, provide vital homeland security and defense missions around the world. In partnership with the U.S. Merchant Marine, the Coast Guard supports transportation operations across the nation’s waterways. Its work provides essential economic prosperity in America by ensuring safe, secure, and efficient flow of cargo through the Marine Transportation System, which includes over 360 ports and more than 25,000 miles of river and coastal waterways that serve as a gateway for 90% of all overseas trade.


[RELATED AT MILITARY.COM: Part-Time Service Could Be the Future of the Coast Guard, Commandant Says]


Like most of the other military services, the Coast Guard struggles to meet recruiting accession goals. It missed by more than 25% in FY 2022 and is now 10% below authorized enlisted end-strength; a figure expected to reach 13% by the end of this fiscal year without immediate mitigation measures.


Recruiting shortages for the Coast Guard started well before the COVID-19 pandemic and continue to worsen, which could hurt the service’s operational capability.


GAO Assessment

Personnel and quality-of-life support services are key to maintaining a strong and viable all-volunteer force, and Coast Guard leaders recognize housing, health care, and child care services are among essential programs to help prevent personnel losses. In its assessment of various recruiting and retention reports from November 2019 to April 2023, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stressed the need for the service to balance recruiting new members and retaining already trained servicemembers to accomplish its mission.


Several quality-of-life factors also may be affecting the Coast Guard’s ability to retain servicemembers, according to GAO.


“In April 2023, GAO found that Coast Guard personnel stationed in remote areas may experience challenges accessing medical care,” Heather MacLeod, director of Homeland Security and Justice at GAO, noted in her testimony. “Specifically, 17 of 43 Coast Guard clinics are in medically underserved areas and 11 of 43 were in at least one type of health provider shortage area.”


To a lesser extent than the other military services, the Coast Guard has a limited understanding of its workforce needs, having conducted assessments of only 15% of its units. Such assessments are valuable in determining recruiting goals.


GAO recommended the Coast Guard improve its workforce planning processes and data monitoring and collection, including health care and other quality-of-life program data, to better identify and address potential access concerns which could impact retention.


Further, GAO recommended DoD establish and implement a process for using quality information to set housing allowance rates to help ensure they reflect current housing costs — the agency found in January 2021 that DoD had not consistently relied on quality data to set accurate housing rates for the military services. The Coast Guard uses DoD rates in its housing allowance calculations.


RAND Assessment

Many point to two key factors contributing to recent recruiting challenges: The propensity of youth to enlist, and the  low number of youth who would be eligible to enlist if interested.


However, Dr. Beth Asch, Ph.D., a senior economist for the RAND Corporation, said in written testimony that these weren’t the main reasons for the recent recruiting crisis.


“Research indicates that only 23% of American young adults in 2020 would meet the enlistment standards of the military services without a waiver, but a fraction of the eligible population has been low for decades,” Asch stated in her testimony.


As for propensity to serve, Asch countered with two reasons why propensity does not support the recent recruiting crisis.


“First, enlistment propensity has been low for decades. The percentage of youth who are positively propensed increases and decreases over time but has been at most 15% since 2004, and the services have enjoyed strong recruiting for years. Second, research indicates most recruits come from the negatively propensed group — 90% in 2022, not from the positively propensed group. This implies that most enlistments would come from the negative group and helps explain why recruiting is so challenging.”


Recruiting efforts primarily focus on convincing youth who are “negatively propensed” toward service to enlist, RAND concluded. And the cost of recruiting is costly – the Army alone averaged $1.5 billion annually on recruiting between 2001 and 2014.


The large body of recruiting and retention research from the other military services can help inform the Coast Guard’s efforts going forward, as its recruits come from the same pool of prospects as the other services.


RAND offered short-and long-term solutions to help the Coast Guard address its recruiting crisis. In the short term, the service should: 

  • Meet end-strength requirements by increasing retention.
  • Offer more enlistment bonuses and increase the dollar amount of those payments.
  • Increase advertising and the size of the recruiter force.
  • Increase the share of recruits without high school diplomas by staying within the DoD guidelines to enlist at most only 10% in this category.


In the long term, the service should: 

  • Gain a better understanding of the factors causing the decline in labor force participation of young people and other labor market shifts.
  • Gain a better understanding of why public trust in the military has declined and how such factors affect recruiting.
  • Identify how to optimize marketing and advertising in the age of social media and develop effective messaging to connect with target markets.
  • Open the aperture of enlistment eligibility by validating current standards to determine if they are out of date or if they are screening out applicants who would otherwise be successful in the armed services.


Coast Guard Recruiting and Retention Work

The Coast Guard’s work to combat the recruiting crisis has included:

  • Establishing an incident management team focused on servicewide recruiting resources.
  • Upgrading messaging and recruiting logos to resonate with Generation Z and marketing through nontraditional media outlets. This would include a focus on removing barriers to enlistment (changes to accession standards, age limits, financial, and dependency statuses, and adoption of DoD standards for medical waivers, for example).
  • Opening additional recruiting offices.
  • Working to establish additional training resources and incentives for recruiters.
  • Expanding the number of JROTC units.


The Coast Guard has also been aggressively addressing retention challenges, looking to provide servicemembers more flexible assignments and careers. Other workforce and quality-of-life enhancements include modifying policies to allow for dual-military assignments, expanding the child care fee assistance subsidy program, and improving health care services and access to care.


“Access to health care particularly in remote areas is an acute challenge,” Thomas told lawmakers. “In the past we relied on DoD for medical care, but we need to build our own organic capacity so we have started hiring doctors and dentists in the Coast Guard, to wear the uniform, something we’ve never done before. We will need authority from Congress to treat that workforce differently. For the first time there is a pathway from our boot camp at Camp May, N.J., to medical school.”


The service also is training behavioral health technicians with corpsmen and using medical mobile units to get more care out into the field.


How You Can Help the Coast Guard

MOAA once again supports the bipartisan Pay Our Coast Guard Parity Act (H.R. 2693), reintroduced in this Congress by Reps. Hillary Scholten (D-Mich.) and Jenniffer González-Colón, (R-Puerto Rico). The bill states Coast Guard members should receive treatment equitable to that of other members of the armed forces and includes a provision to protect Coast Guard members’ pay in the event of a lapse in appropriations or shutdown.


Scholten brought up the bill during the hearing, asking what impact the legislation would have on the Coast Guard workforce and recruiting and retention. “We can’t afford to break faith with our workforce, and this legislation is one way to keep faith with our folks,” Thomas said.


As a MOAA member, your voice is powerful in getting things done in Congress. MOAA protects the earned benefits of all servicemembers, all ranks, enlisted and officer. We improve the lives of those who serve because collectively our membership has more influence in Congress. So join MOAA today in our cause to Never Stop Serving those who serve and have served. 


[TAKE ACTION: Ask Your House Member to Support the Pay Our Coast Guard Parity Act of 2023]


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About the Author

Cmdr. René Campos, USN (Ret)
Cmdr. René Campos, USN (Ret)

Campos currently serves as MOAA's Senior Director of Government Relations, managing matters related to military and veterans’ health care, wounded, ill and injured, and caregiver policy.