The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Officer Corps continues to add to its ranks. But not fast enough.
Onboarding new servicemembers takes time, and those already in uniform are contending with a packed and evolving workload in the face of extreme weather and evolving weather patterns.
“The demand for officers is just growing exponentially,” said Rear Adm. Nancy Hann, director of the NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps.
Hann, who is also a member of MOAA’s board of directors, is in the process of launching several new personnel policies to help strengthen the force and retain its members. There are also new ships and aircraft on the horizon to support an evolving mission set.
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Climate change is having “impacts on extreme weather, the severity of extreme weather, the occurrence of extreme weather,” Hann said, making NOAA Corps’ research and surveying in high demand.
“We’re seeing demand increase in all extreme-weather forecasting,” Hann said.
This includes areas like snow melt, flooding, fish movements, wildfire predictions, and coastal resilience. This data has both economic and national security implications, Hann said.
“Our job is to figure out what’s happening and how we can prepare,” she said. “How we can prepare the American public as well as work with our allies to share our best practices and our knowledge.”
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Two new research vessels will be added to the fleet, one in 2025 and the other in 2026. A new King Air 350CER is arriving this year to support snow and soil moisture surveys and coastal mapping. A new Gulfstream G550 will support atmospheric research and should be ready for the 2025 hurricane season. And the service has plans to transition from its aging WP-3D Orions to C-130J aircraft. These upgrades signify important advancements for the service, but the service needs people to operate them.
Strengthening the Force
The MOAA-backed NOAA Commissioned Officer Corps Amendments Act of 2020 allowed for the service to grow from 321 to 500 officers. Progress has been slow but steady, Hann said: The service has 342 members, 43 shy of its goal.
“We’re working to fill the gap as quickly as we can,” Hann said.
Officer candidates train at the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., and there are only enough spots for 22 NOAA Corps officer candidates per class. Filling these seats has not been an issue, Hann notes, in part because of expanded qualifications. NOAA Corps recently “opened the aperture” on technical requirements, expanding beyond engineering, math and physics to include areas such as airframes, powerplant mechanics, and uncrewed systems. The first class that includes these skills will arrive at the academy in July.
“I'm very grateful that our recruitment has never been higher,” Hann said. “We've never had more candidates, we've never had more interest.”
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Another change to personnel policies is the implementation of a physical fitness program, expected to launch in about six months. NOAA Corps is following the Coast Guard evaluation and including annual body mass index (BMI) testing.
“We’re really focused more on people proactively having fitness programs that they stick to and they’re accountable for,” Hann said.
To prepare, every ship was given a $25,000 allowance to purchase exercise equipment and equip their galleys to prepare healthier foods.
When it comes to accountability, Hann has also aggressively sought to end sexual harassment in the Corps. For her efforts she is a finalist for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal, recognizing excellence in the federal government.
“Nancy Hann took the reins and almost singlehandedly helped transform the whole organization and its culture so that sexual harassment will no longer be tolerated,” said Benjamin Friedman, NOAA’s deputy undersecretary for operations, in Hann’s nomination for the award.
Hann, who said she has faced harassment in her NOAA career, is credited with hiring a former FBI agent to conduct investigations. She has fired 23 people since 2019 for conduct-related offenses, her award nomination states.
“We could do better and we should do better, and we owe our team now and our next generation better,” she said.
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To boost quality of life and support families, NOAA Corps has increased maternity leave and introduced paternity leave, Hann said. Ships are being upgraded with better satellite services and bandwidth to foster better communication with family and friends.
A sabbatical program is planned but on hold until the force is fully staffed, Hann said. The goal is to identify areas both big and small that can make a difference for her officers, while also keeping the training pipeline of new recruits in motion.
“There’s a heavy demand on our officers,” she said, “so we're working to fill that gap as fast as we can to give them a sustainable workload.”
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