Future Force: HR Superheroes in the Coast Guard

By Rena Gorlin Jun 8, 2017
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​When Commander Thomas A. Olenchock, a 25-year career officer in the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), got his 2013 assignment to take over as chief of Future Force, "it sounded like I was going to lead a group of superheroes," he said. "I was excited for the opportunity." Considering the extent of the Future Force portfolio—he describes the division as an "internal HR think tank and resource development/business incubation/data analysis unit"—the superhero characterization doesn't sound far off. 

A major part of Olenchock's new position was to develop competency standards for HR officers under a recently launched system for identifying and classifying USCG officer specialty skills areas. (See "Coast Guard's HR Modernization Guided by SHRM Model".) Future Force was also being combined with another unit that governed HR capabilities. Olenchock was now responsible for developing a program for training and professionalizing the USCG's HR management. Additional challenges loomed: a valued assistant left, staff was initially hesitant to cooperate with job analysis efforts, and his superior cautioned him: "Don't come to me with problems, come to me with solutions." 

Understanding HR Complexities Is Key 

The biggest problem, according to Olenchock, was that "HR was seen as something that anyone could do," a function of a military culture that just "moves people around, even at the senior level." USCG service members were placed in HR jobs "based on 'experience,' but only in the sense that they had done the work before, without an understanding of the complexities of HR," Olenchock said. "Or they had been assigned to a job labeled as 'HR,' even if the role really had nothing to do with what we know as HR."

A codification of job requirements for HR officers at the USCG had never been undertaken. "No other earlier standards existed," Olenchock said. "Being familiar with SHRM, I thought, why reinvent the wheel?" He turned to the SHRM Competency Model for guidance in developing what ultimately became the HR Specialty Qualification Standards booklet, issued late in 2016. "Now the standards for being an HR officer in the Coast Guard are proficiency-based," Olenchock said. "You must demonstrate your capability in certain competencies" based on real experience. 

Under the new requirements, having one's SHRM-CP or SHRM-SCP is also acceptable as an opportunity for demonstrating proficiency. "You can bypass the booklet by getting a general HR certification," Olenchock said. "No one has done this yet, but the incentive is there." 

Standing on the Shoulders of Experts 

The standards "keep the spirit of the SHRM competencies, even if they're if not identical," Olenchock said. "Leadership differs in a military context, there are differences in applicable laws, and recruitment is primarily internal," he said, "but most challenges are the same. People are people." In using the SHRM competencies as a guide over two-plus years of standards development, Olenchock took care "not to be too rigid. The military has always stood on the shoulders of experts, adapting things for its own purposes. With the Future Force project, the Coast Guard is standing on the shoulders of SHRM."

Olenchock modeled the main section of the USCG standards on SHRM's HR Expertise technical competency, "what people do every day." Olenchock created a new domain, which he called Grit/Tenacity/Mindfulness, to reflect competencies unique to HR officers in the USCG. For the chapter on Leadership, a "soft skill [that is] harder to identify and quantify," Olenchock looked to the SHRM-defined behavioral competency of the same name.

A chapter on Communication would have been next, but retirement will end Olenchock's involvement with the standards. "I'm confident that the project won't die, but not as confident that it will continue to grow," he said. His "hope for the future" of Future Force are the USCG service members who interned with Olenchock, along with those in graduate school HR programs.

"I hope that the Coast Guard continues to recognize the universality of HR issues," Olenchock said. "I have found SHRM resources invaluable, whether or not they're military-specific. SHRM best practices apply to almost any situation." Olenchock said that whenever he has needed HR information, "SHRM is my secret weapon. It's my version of Googling something. Someone will ask me later on, 'How did you find that?' I say, "I SHRMed it!'"

Solving Problems, Playing with Data

While Olenchock is not currently SHRM-certified, he is seriously considering obtaining his SHRM-SCP when his tour ends this summer. (Until the new USCG standards made HR certification an acceptable way to demonstrate proficiency, a SHRM credential provided Olenchock with "no immediate benefit.") When he does take the SHRM exam, Olenchock is likely to ace it. After all, he has already weighed every word of the SHRM Competency Model while spearheading the Future Force project.

Over the years, Olenchock has been active in membership organizations that deal with civilian as well as military HR concerns, and he has taken SHRM courses and seminars mapped to individual competencies. Olenchock's academic qualifications include master's degrees in industrial hygiene and industrial/organizational psychology. Earlier stages of his USCG career focused on people analytics, workforce forecasting, and HR strategy and capability. His current positions in the USCG as chief of the Future Force division is the business-world equivalent of a corporate vice-presidency. Olenchock summed it up more modestly: "I solve problems and play with data."

Recently Olenchock has been involved with the Integrating and Engaging Military Veterans Initiative for the recruitment and retention of veterans, a partnership of the SHRM Foundation and the National Association of Veteran-Serving Organizations (NAVSO). The long-term volunteer project, which kicked off in February 2017, leverages a network of HR professionals and NAVSO members to generate research and local employment solutions.

In Olenchock's opinion, SHRM certification will be most be helpful to USCG service members like himself transitioning out of the military, as well as to people entering the USCG a few years after college. Changes due in 2018 to the military retirement system will also encourage USCG HR officers to "keep or attain their civilian capabilities, so their talents will be easier to translate." Among those valuable capabilities is SHRM certification, Olenchock said. 

Rena Gorlin, J.D., is an independent writer and editor in Washington, D.C.

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