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GAO Tells Coast Guard to Strengthen Marine Inspection Workforce Planning as Demand Exceeds Supply

Field officials told GAO of certain industry trends that could potentially worsen the staffing shortages as the demand for inspectors rises with the increased construction of new vessels, additional refinery and gas liquefaction facilities, and additional ports to facilitate increases in exports and imports.

Following a review, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has said the U.S. Coast Guard could use more industry data on the ships that will need inspections, and more internal data on potential retirements.

The safe operation of vessels is critical to the maritime sector, which contributes nearly $5.4 trillion annually to the U.S. economy. Marine inspections help the Coast Guard ensure that ships are following safety, security, and environmental laws. But GAO found that the demand for inspections has consistently exceeded the supply of inspectors. This is not the first time GAO has warned the Coast Guard about its workforce capacity in terms of marine inspection. In four reports the watchdog issued from 1979 to 2010, it found that the Coast Guard faced difficulties in maintaining a sufficient number of experienced and trained staff in the vessel inspection area. More recently, on January 12, GAO reported that a shortage of Coast Guard marine inspectors sometimes leads to delays in compliance exams for gas carriers

The Coast Guard currently has in excess of 700 marine inspectors and, according to its workforce modeling, has an overall shortage of approximately 400. The Coast Guard uses both military and civilian workforces to conduct marine inspections. According to GAO’s analysis of 2020 Coast Guard data, 80 percent of marine inspectors are military personnel. The military and civilian marine inspection workforces undergo the same training, and career advancement is possible for personnel from both workforces. Training generally includes both classroom courses and a multiyear apprenticeship at a larger port.

The Coast Guard’s vessel inspection process involves assembling a team of marine inspectors that may include military personnel, civilians, and trainees (i.e., apprentices) who review documentation about the vessel, including its history and the results of previous Coast Guard inspections, prior to the vessel’s arrival; board the vessel to review additional documentation and observe and test such things as ship systems and crew knowledge (e.g., using fire-fighting equipment) to identify any deficiencies; and document the results of the exam in the Marine Information for Safety and Law Enforcement (MISLE) system.

The U.S. Coast Guard uses a tool called the Sector Staffing Model to assess its marine inspection staffing levels at operational field units for the upcoming year. GAO’s analysis of the tool’s data shows that the supply of marine inspectors has consistently not met the estimated need. However, the Coast Guard collects and analyzes limited data to forecast future workforce and industry trends that could affect the supply and demand for marine inspectors. For example, the Coast Guard collects industry data to forecast workforce needs for certain vessel types (e.g., cruise ships) but not others (e.g., freight vessels). GAO also noted that the Coast Guard does not regularly collect and analyze other data, such as future potential retirements, that could affect the supply of marine inspectors. 

Field officials told GAO of certain industry trends that could potentially worsen the staffing shortages as the demand for inspectors rises with the increased construction of new vessels, additional refinery and gas liquefaction facilities, and additional ports to facilitate increases in exports and imports.

GAO has also previously raised concerns about the competence and capability levels of marine inspectors. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Workforce Planning Guide, understanding skill gaps is important to identify critical weaknesses in the current or future workforce, which could compromise mission readiness. To address this, the Coast Guard developed the Competency Framework—a quantitative tool that it first used in 2020 on a limited basis—to assess whether certain marine inspector and other marine safety positions are staffed with personnel who have the needed skills. However, Coast Guard officials reported that the Competency Framework analysis relies on marine inspectors to voluntarily input the competencies they earn into the human resource database in a timely manner, and the inspectors have little incentive to keep their competency information up to date until they are applying for promotion or are approaching a rotation.

To address its long-standing challenges in employing enough experienced marine inspectors, the Coast Guard has additional initiatives underway, including hiring, improving training, and acquiring technology to expedite inspections. These initiatives are at varying stages of completion. In 2020 and 2021, the Coast Guard developed new training courses, deployed a mobile application that allows remote access to its inspection database, and added 65 new marine inspector positions to help address its shortfall of over 400 inspectors. Other initiatives remain ongoing, such as a potential replacement for MISLE. 

GAO’s review revealed that the Coast Guard has not established performance measures with targets for its marine inspection workforce improvement plan and associated initiatives. Coast Guard officials stated that they currently use the Sector Staffing Model and Competency Framework to monitor progress on implementing initiatives and that the Sector Staffing Model is regularly evaluated and updated. However, Coast Guard officials acknowledged that the Sector Staffing Model measures staffing needs and does not measure the effectiveness of workforce initiatives. In addition, GAO said that while the Competency Framework measures the percent of marine inspectors who have all of the required competencies, it does not include a target describing the desired outcome.

The government watchdog has made five recommendations:

  • Collect additional data on the marine inspection workforce and maritime industry to forecast future workforce needs.
  • Require military and civilian marine inspectors to update their competency information in the Coast Guard’s human resources database and specify when to make such updates. 
  • Update time frames and milestones for the marine inspection workforce pyramid initiative through full implementation. 
  • Develop performance measures with targets for the marine inspection workforce improvement plan and associated initiatives. 
  • Assess the outcomes of the marine inspection workforce improvement plan and associated initiatives. 

DHS concurred and said work to meet the recommendations would be completed by 29 March 2024, with the fourth and fifth recommendations being addressed this year.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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