U.S. Coast Guard's HR Modernization Guided by SHRM Model

Service’s new HR Specialty Qualification Standards look to SHRM competencies in expertise, leadership

By Thomas A. Olenchock May 4, 2017
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​The United States Coast Guard (USCG) has recently issued first-time standards for its service members in the HR specialty, the result of a multiyear effort led by its Future Force Division. The division is the USCG's internal HR think tank for business incubation, data analysis and problem-solving. The project's impetus was the 2013 implementation of the USCG's Officer Specialty Management System, which requires the development of qualifications to identify talent groupings in certain skill areas (e.g., engineer, boat driver, HR officer, etc.). Future Force turned to the SHRM Competency Model for guidance in developing proficiency-based requirements for HR officers in this branch of the nation's armed services. 

The HR Specialty Qualification Standards booklet was released in November 2016, and it now governs the designation of who qualifies as an HR management officer in the USCG. Demonstrating proficiency in any of three HR subspecialties (Generalist, Recruiting, Training) will classify a USCG service member as an HR officer. 

HR's aim in the USCG is the same as in any other business or government entity: focusing on the individual needs of the people within the organization and the talent needs of the organization, and building the programs, policies and processes to carry both into the future. USCG HR officers are responsible for managing military (enlisted, warrant and officer), civilian, auxiliary, and contractor workforces from start to end of career; providing technical guidance and information; and dealing with personnel management, policies and requisitions. 

Future Force was charged with developing a program to train and professionalize HR management, including the development of HR competencies, and in 2013 I was assigned as chief of the unit. I had also been volunteering with the SHRM Foundation's initiative to encourage the employment of veterans, so I was familiar with the SHRM Competency Model. 

Our initial effort focused on defining HR issues. Internal trainers asked HR staff members about their jobs and were met with resistance. Results were mixed. The next effort used a different approach, focusing on HR officer talent needs. A formal occupational analysis (OA) was conducted by an experienced analytical team outside of HR, whose questions of staff members were more artfully phrased. This produced better results, and the OA process has since been accepted as the standard analytic methodology for all competency determinations. 

Describing Technical Skills 

The OA report described the technical skills and supporting tasks of HR as practiced in the USCG (except for the field operational arm of HR, which was excluded from the OA because the specialty structure characterized these service members as logisticians, not HR managers). Future Force used the report to write 20 technical competencies and create a qualifications system that was relatively easy to meet and administer. A service member seeking designation as an HR specialty officer would be required to demonstrate proficiency in a number of competencies, increasing with seniority; in lieu of competencies, a member could obtain advanced education in HR management or a general HR certification. 

The draft report was posted online, and USCG service members passed it on by word of mouth and e-mail links. The field operational HR managers, however, objected to their exclusion from the OA and the technical competencies drawn from it. They wanted recognition for their efforts as part of USCG's HR function and to participate in the development of appropriate competencies. Future Force welcomed these service members' assistance in building additional standards within the new framework. Several months of collaborative work yielded a codification of all field HR actions. This group contributed as many, if not more, technical competencies than were contained in the initial rollout. 

Defining Leadership Competencies 

The next goal was to start codifying HR behavioral competencies. Leadership (modeled after the SHRM competency Leadership & Navigation) was chosen as the first to work on because it was most in need of codification—28 leadership skills had been defined by this point, but no observable, measurable supporting tasks associated with leadership had been written. Future Force partnered with the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to do so. As unit chief, I defined the tasks, and a professor in the academy's department of leadership defined the reading materials, plus ensured that the tasks aligned with existing USCG standards. 

The final stage of the HR standards project was threefold. First, the language of the leadership behavioral competencies was refined. Second, the technical competencies were classified to align with the SHRM Competency Model—specifically, the knowledge domains of the technical competency, HR Expertise, which were useful overall as a guide to developing the USCG qualifications. Third and last, the project was subject to review and approval. 

SHRM's director of HR competencies and resources research, Joseph Jones, Ph.D., has described the effort as "a great example of how someone used SHRM's model as a foundation for better defining HR roles and aligning them to professional standards of proficiency and development." 

Over roughly two and a half years, Future Force has utilized two of SHRM's HR competencies—HR Expertise and Leadership & Navigation—to define the qualifications for HR officers in the USCG. While there is more to accomplish, the framework and direction has been set to build a program that mirrors the industry's gold standard—the SHRM Competency Model. 

U.S. Coast Guard Commander Thomas A. Olenchock is Chief, Future Force Division.

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