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How the Coast Guard plans to boost recruitment after years of shortfalls

Coast Guard combats recruitment challenges
Coast Guard combats recruitment challenges 02:36

If you want to eat well during your military service, the U.S. Coast Guard might be the military branch to join. And if you join as a cook, you're in line for one of the guard's biggest recruitment bonuses: $50,000. 

But bonuses aren't everything, as Admiral Linda Fagan seeks to stem the recruiting shortfalls that have plagued the guard — like the other branches — in the past few years. This year, the guard's first woman commandant told a congressional committee in July, the service is projected to miss its 4,200 target by more than 1,000 recruits. The service has missed its recruitment goals for the last four years, falling short an average of 20% each year. 

"My battle cry is tomorrow looks different and so will we," she told CBS News in a recent interview. 

Last year, the Coast Guard conducted more than 16,000 rescues and saved over 4,700 lives. Many of those rescues happened during natural disasters like hurricanes, which have become stronger due to climate change. More recently, it rescued a man who had fallen overboard on a cruise ship and who was near death after treading water for hours. 

One of the obstacles is that potential recruits don't know what the Coast Guard does, Fagan said. While the service is best known for its search and rescue work, it also conducts counternarcotics operations, icebreaking in the Arctic to open shipping lanes and economic and national security opportunities, and it trains allies and partners in maritime practices. 

"We're an arctic nation," she said "And so ensuring our own national security and sovereignty in the Arctic is critical work." 

At the nation's ports, the Coast Guard inspects incoming vessels for nefarious activity before the boats are allowed to enter. 

"We are at all times a military agency," Fagan said. "We're a law enforcement agency [and] regulatory agency." 

To attract new recruits, the service is offering bonuses up to $50,000. 

"One of the incentives is bonuses," Fagan said. "We have some targeted bonuses. $50,000 if you want to join the Coast Guard as a cook. We have world-class cooks in the Coast Guard. We certainly eat well in this organization." 

But Fagan also said bonuses are a Band-Aid in solving the issues. 

"My personal belief is if we don't fundamentally alter some of the structure and assumptions around how we manage the workforce, the bonuses are a short-term fix," she said. 

The Coast Guard is also offering a new English learning program to help recruits who do not speak it as a first language gain more proficiency. 

"Language should not be a barrier to service," Fagan said. 

It's also changing the maximum age to enlist from 35 to 42, allowing single parents to enlist and reevaluating the debt requirements. 

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