The U.S. Coast Guard, the military arm of the Department of Homeland Security tasked with guarding 100,000 miles of coastline, said it has fallen short of its recruiting targets in the last four years.

The armed maritime force that secures ports, aids in defense readiness and conducts critical search-and-rescue missions is about 4,800 members short across the service, according to its budget justification for fiscal 2024. The most critical skills gaps are for cyberspace professionals, interdiction forces and marine inspectors, according to findings by the Government Accountability Office.

“Competition with higher paying jobs in the private sector, limited opportunities for promotion, and long work hours have made it challenging to recruit and retain these personnel,” according to GAO.

The Coast Guard has about 46,000 enlistees and employs some civilians. Both groups are struggling to staff up. For one, the Coast Guard’s cyber workforce is smaller on the civilian side than its military side, and though it has authorized more cyber jobs, it hasn’t been able to fill them all. Other factors, such as limited promotability and low pay compared to the private sector, hinder the service’s ability to recruit for positions such as drug and immigration law enforcement and marine inspectors on docks and vessels.

The agency has taken some measures to stabilize employment, such as creating a maritime law enforcement career path within Specialized Forces to clarify and enable promotions and a cyber retention bonus.

In 2022, the agency also took advantage of pay incentives by providing blanket pay bumps for civilian occupations that had high vacancy rates.

Honorable discharges over vaccines

Now, as the service continues to fill its ranks fast, Vice Adm. Paul Thomas, deputy commandant for mission support, said during a hearing on May 11 that the service was extending pathways to employees who had been separated for failure to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, now that the federal vaccine mandate lifted this month.

“Unlike the other services, everyone who left the Coast Guard left with an honorable discharge and a reenlistment code that allows them to come back,” he said.

About 148 of the 247 indicated they would be interested, Thomas said, and on top of that, the Coast Guard is also touching base with those who left over the last two years to fill vacancies. There is an entire team devoted to bringing back employees who may have separated during the pandemic and who the agency paid to train.

A full budget for fiscal 2024 will also be critical to making good on annual pay increases and further funding recruitment and retention, the agency told lawmakers.

Among unfunded priorities for 2024 is a small set-aside for the recruitment and retention of underrepresented minority communities and women.

Military Times reporter Meghann Myers reported in April that the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force were preparing to miss their recruiting goals by thousands this year.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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