What’s in the Coast Guard’s secret sauce for high retention?

The Coast Guard touts some of the highest retention rates in the military. The rate usually clocks in the mid to upper 90 percent range.

The way the service is keeping such a larger percentage of its force is through careful policy crafting, attentive leadership and programs that help circumvent the military’s rigid promotion system, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft told Federal News Radio in an exclusive interview.

“It really begins with good leadership. Leaders that really do go to bat for their people, knowing your people and not just what do they qualify, what’s their name, but going the extra mile to say, ‘Hey, here’s someone who’s having some struggles in their relationship at home, they’re having some financial difficulty, I think they might have a drinking problem. I’m going to confront them on it.’ But not in a punitive way, in a ‘I care about you [way]’,” Zukunft said. “Our leaders really, truly do look out for their people and not for themselves.”

The military as a whole is worried about keeping talent in the ranks.

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“If the military is going to recruit and retain a volunteer force with the necessary skills, it needs to do two things. It needs to recruit, assign and promote in a way that develops and retains value across a wide range of skills including the highly technical skills, and it needs to better accommodate the evolution of American society and the American family. And it needs to do those things without sacrificing the aspects of the system that are working well,” former Sen. Jim Talent told Congress last May.

A recent Blue Star Families Survey found 60 percent of service members would not recommend military service to their children. That’s something Anthony Kurta, who at the time was performing the duties of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said was a dark cloud for the all-volunteer force.

The Coast Guard read that message loud and clear and made its service more amendable to 21st century lifestyles compared to the other services.

“We have a policy that is called temporary separation. We have folks who wanted to hike the Himalayan Mountains and it’s on their bucket list, so they take a year off and fulfill their life’s dream because they know if they wait to retire they may not be able to do that. Traditionally, that [program] was used for extended leave,” Zukunft said.

The other services have experimented with a similar program called the career intermission program, which allows service members to take time away from the military for school or to take care of a loved one without taking a hit to their career.

Only about 25 people have taken advantage of the pilot program, but the Defense Department is trying to expand it past the pilot status.

Zukunft said he is also careful to send direction to promotion boards that prioritizes talented and dedicated members of the Coast Guard.

“I’m looking at what are the contributions, the skills that this person has to contribute to a 21st century Coast Guard,” Zukunft said.Looking beyond are they a good ship driver. Is this someone that is really savvy in cyber? We are opening up some new skill sets in all of our military services right now. We haven’t really conveyed to this workforce how valued they really are. If we don’t they will walk away from these jobs into much more higher paying jobs in the private sector. If they are worried about not being valued, which means not being promoted then we are going to bleed talent and this is talent I cannot afford to bleed.”

Read more from the DoD Personnel Notebook.