USCG Commandant Karl Schultz Finishes Strong, Releasing A New People-Focused Strategy

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The outgoing Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Karl L. Schultz, is in the home stretch, cheerfully running from one meeting to the next. Today, just two weeks from retirement, the Admiral is busy preparing for a smooth handoff to the incoming Commandant, the newly confirmed Admiral Linda Fagan, as they both bear down on the “long game” of building a resilient Coast Guard cadre, capable of handling America’s increasingly complex maritime environment.

“Nothing has gotten simpler,” quipped Schultz, as he moved piles of documents about his memento-strewn office, reflecting on his 39 years of Coast Guard service. In highlighting how the Coast Guard’s operational environment has changed, the service-tested Commandant cautioned that “the pace of technological change in the maritime has never been faster,” and warned that the “scope and scale” of maritime activity has shifted in ways that may stress the Coast Guard in the future.

While reflecting on how increased complexity may influence future demand for Coast Guard resources, the Admiral began his answer by detailing how cruise ships have more than doubled in size since his first assignments in the Caribbean, asking, “If 6,500 people need to get off a burning passenger ship, are we ready to handle that?”

Over the course of Schultz’s tenure as Commandant, the Coast Guard became a truly global force, and a steward of a rapidly-changing waterfront. America’s harbors went digital, increasing their dependence upon cyber networks. The Coast Guard is busier than ever, taking on ever-more sophisticated intelligence-driven missions throughout the world. And now, an enthusiastic Schultz is putting the final touches on an effort to build a next-generation Coast Guard, rolling out a personnel strategy, “United States Coast Guard Ready Workforce 2030,” aimed at developing and retaining a far more sophisticated Coast Guard workforce—a workforce that is both ready for the complex challenges ahead and that better reflects the U.S. population as a whole.

Building Career Flexibility To Keep Complex Coasties

Looking back at how many times his duty station changed, Schultz said that, before each move, he had to determine “if it was still fun and wasn’t too tough on the family.” As he wryly grinned that his current post was “the only four-year assignment he has ever had in Coast Guard,” the Commandant turned serious, reflecting on the tough challenges Coast Guard families face today as they move from one assignment to the next.

While retention is becoming a serious priority for all branches of the military, it is a matter of particular importance for the Coast Guard. Unlike the U.S. Marine Corps or Army, the Coast Guard has little need for large numbers of personnel that can be quickly trained and put towards basic tasks. Instead, the Coast Guard is becoming an interlinked web of specializations. The increasingly complex maritime operating environment is driving the service to put a premium on Coast Guard members who already have the training, experience, and perspective needed to make strong contributions. In effect, the Coast Guard wants to hire the best and then keep them engaged with the Coast Guard over the course of their working life.

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Schultz’s final mission in his last days at the Coast Guard is to help the service be more creative in retaining existing personnel, injecting career flexibility into what was an unyielding work environment, characterized by rigid career pathways and frequent duty-station changes. He explained how he wants the service to be more accommodating, so high performing, specialized personnel can continue to develop, seamlessly moving between the private sector and active duty. And when a Coast Guard member marries another “Coastie”, the Admiral wants both family members to have equal opportunities to grow their Coast Guard careers together.

Overall, while the Commandant was satisfied that his achievements mapped back to the Coast Guard’s 2018-2022 strategic plan, he conceded that “you never drive change on the timeline you want.” The Admiral cited his struggles to grow the Coast Guard Reserves, noting that the Coast Guard was activating over fifty percent of its reserve force, which “is not sustainable.”

Personnel Is A Sustaining Focus

Russia’s shambolic invasion of Ukraine is reinforcing what the Coast Guard has long known—strong performance turns on personnel. As Admiral Schultz puts it, “readiness is about people.”

The outgoing Commandant’s strong tenure has been marked by crises that would have broken a less-motivated force. An unprecedented government shutdown between December 22, 2018, and January 25, 2019, left working Coasties unpaid for 35 days. In 2020, as America struggled to determine what kind of society it wanted to be, the Service kept focus on being the world’s most inclusive Coast Guard. And, finally, with the emergence of COVID-19, the Coast Guard adopted, staying on the job, all while managing a growing demand signal for Coast Guard resources overseas and responding to a series of severe natural disasters in and around the United States.

A self-described “accidental admiral” who was introduced to the service by his high school basketball coach, Admiral Schultz will retire grateful for the “resilience of Coast Guard members and families, and how much the Service has adapted and stepped forward to meet new challenges.”

The Coast Guard’s focus on personnel is not one of those controversial measures that is traditionally rushed through in the interregnum between a major leadership change. After Admiral Schultz heads off to North Carolina to mull his second career, Coast Guard personnel will remain a central focus of the Coast Guard’s top leaders, building upon Schultz’s efforts in improving Coast Guard readiness, responsiveness, and resilience.

Admiral Fagan summed up Schultz’s personnel-oriented contributions before Congress, saying the Commandant “redoubled our focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion, improved our ability to prevent and respond to sexual harassment and sexual assault, as well as identified and removed numerous legacy barriers to recruitment and retention of a talented workforce that more closely mirrors the Nation we serve.”

Going forward, the new Commandant told Congress she will expand upon Schultz’s focus, saying her “highest priority will be to modernize our talent management system…to best recruit and retain our people in the 21st century.”

In a government where constancy and a focus on the “long game” is a rare attribute, it will be exciting to see how the Coast Guard, after a seamless transition between two top-notch leaders, turns Commandant Schultz’s four-year strategic goal into a sustained, eight-year campaign to bring the very best of the U.S. into the Coast Guard.

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