Short Leave: House Committee Addresses Recruitment and Retention in USCG

The House Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation held a hearing on May 11 to discuss the shortage of United States Mariners and recruitment and retention in the United States Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is currently operating with a shortfall of more than 4,500 service members, while the Merchant Marine is facing a shortfall of an estimated 1,800 qualified Mariners. The hearing considered the causes of the shortage, and what can be done in response.

Four witnesses testified during the hearing:

  • Vice Admiral Paul Thomas, Deputy Commandant for Mission Support, United States Coast Guard | Written Testimony
  • Rear Admiral Ann Phillips, USN (Ret.), Administrator, United States Maritime Administration | Written Testimony
  • Heather MacLeod, Director, Homeland Security and Justice, United States Government Accountability Office | Written Testimony
  • Beth Asch, Ph.D., Senior Economist, RAND Corporation | Written Testimony

Subcommittee chairman Daniel Webster (R-FL), opened by applauding the recent bipartisan, two-year Coast Guard and maritime policy reauthorization bill (H.R. 2741) approved by the House on April 26. The “Coast Guard Authorization Act of 2023” was reported to authorize $12 million to fund additional recruiting personnel and offices for the Coast Guard Recruiting Command and another $9 million to enhance Coast Guard recruiting capabilities. Rep. Webster also referenced “provisions to reduce bureaucratic delays and barriers to Americans seeking a seagoing career” and the authorization of $11 million to upgrade the Coast Guard’s IT infrastructure for the Coast Guard’s Merchant Mariner Licensing and Documentation System. The updated system would allow better understanding of the qualifications of the current Mariner workforce, and future needs.

Rep. Rick Larson (D-WA), full committee ranking member, further framed the workforce shortage issue the bill claims to address, saying, “The Coast Guard often prides itself on being able to do more with less. They’re a fraction of the size and budget of other services, yet significantly have a wider mission set. Being Semper Paratus with insufficient resources is not sustainable.

He continued, “Without affordable housing, Coasties are required to commute hours to work. Without medical access, Coasties go without Health Care. Without modern facilities and technologies, Coasties work in substandard conditions. Without adequate childcare, parents will simply leave the service.” Regarding the U.S. Merchant Marine, the challenges are similar. “To attract more mariners to the industry Congress and the administration must ensure stable employment opportunities. That means full and consistent funding for the Maritime Security Program and the Tanker Security Program. That means ensuring full compliance with cargo preference laws. That means sending a strong message that the Jones Act will not be eroded or repealed.”

Rep. Webster asked panelists directly, “Is the money we authorized increasing your recruiting numbers?” Thomas affirmed that the money has allowed for additional recruiting efforts and bonuses and that there has been an increase in the number of people entering boot camp.

Other features of the recent Coast Guard Authorization Act included provisions aimed to increase the pool of Merchant Mariners by removing licensing burdens and to allow people from American Samoa to join the industry, if the provisions become law.

Witnesses provided examples of efforts from the Coast Guard to address the shortages. This includes improved and modernized recruiting strategies, new recruiting locations, removing barriers through increasing age limits, reducing family size limitations, allowing for single parents, providing English as a Second Language, and providing an easier path towards citizenship for Legal Permanent Residents. Also mentioned was a contract to improve data collection to further understand future workforce needs.

Among the root causes given for the shortage was pay stability. Rep. Hillary Scholten (D-MI) and RC Jenniffer Gonzalaz-Colon (R-PR) mentioned the recently introduced “Pay our Coast Guard Parity Act”, which would ensure Coast Guard members be paid in the event of a government shutdown.

Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-CA), along with many of the witness testimonies, called for more diversity and inclusion within the Coast Guard, citing it as the “least diverse branch of the military.” He and others stated the need for a safer work environment and to address a culture of misogyny, sexual assault, and harassment. Rep. John Garamendi (D-CA) asserted that recruitment of women is crucial to filling the workforce gap. MacLeod shared that military service-wide, “female service members are around 28 percent more likely to leave military service than male service members. Some of the reasons we have found are related to work schedules, organizational culture, family planning issues, sexual assault, and dependent care.”

Rear Admiral Phillips highlighted a potential missed legislative opportunity, “To attract additional vessels to our flag, in 2020 the Biden-Harris Administration proposed that we eliminate the three-year period that vessels entering the U.S. flag must currently wait before they are eligible to carry civilian agency preference cargoes. However, though implementation of this proposal would have cost nothing, it was not adopted.” Phillips stated that more ships would generate more Mariners.

Despite the recent bipartisan Reauthorization Act, there was clear partisan disagreement about recruitment and retention strategies around diversity and inclusion. Additionally, Rep. Van Drew pointed a series of personal questions at witness Phillips and whether or not her career history is the reason for the Coast Guard’s support of the offshore wind industry. Rep. Van Drew asked Phillips to recall whether or not she had spoken with a series of individuals within the industry, and whether or not the administration had asked her specifically to support offshore wind farming. Rep. Garamendi defended Phillips and called Rep. Van Drew’s questioning inappropriate and unproductive and that the representative’s questions should be focused on policies rather than Phillips’ real or hypothetical personal involvement.

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