Rear Adm. Timothy S. Sullivan begins many of his speeches to U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) members by joking that he is a simple sailor from the great seafaring state of Wisconsin. The Milwaukee native has been a long way from home since joining the armed forces 36 years ago, but he has a genuine passion to protect the maritime economy and environment, save those in peril and defend maritime borders. His enthusiasm for his work and his personnel has sustained him while developing each of the Coast Guard’s 11 missions.
“I get so excited about being in the Coast Guard,” Sullivan said. “I feel like I have to pinch myself every morning. I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do something that I really enjoy and have enjoyed for so long. I’ve been given the opportunity to be a lifelong learner and can now return that favor as an educator.”
As the first chief learning officer of the USCG and commanding officer of the U.S. Coast Guard Force Readiness Command for the past two years, Sullivan has been preparing 42,000 active members alongside 2,600 civilian employees who help to create a performance cycle that focuses on doctrine, training, tactics and procedure writing. Although the training for all of those individuals, regardless of civil and military responsibilities, is in Sullivan’s hands, he defines the Coast Guard as a small organization with a large impact — smaller in size than the New York Police Department, he said.
The USCG, one of five branches of the U.S. armed forces under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, is composed of enlisted members, officers and civilians. Enlisted individuals learn a technical specialty and serve on rescue boats or helicopters, maintain ships and aircraft, or contribute to behind-the-scenes logistics. Senior enlisted members and officers share leadership responsibility, though officers are often assigned management positions. There are several ways to become an officer in the Coast Guard: by successfully graduating from the Coast Guard Academy, successfully completing Officer Candidate School (OCS) or through one of several direct commissioning programs. While the majority of training for enlisted fields is done on the job, not in classrooms, officer programs are often delivered via formal, traditional learning.
“Everybody — whether you come in right out of high school, first attend the Coast Guard Academy or get a college education elsewhere — has a path they start on,” said Capt. Brian Marvin, Force Readiness Command training division chief. “We have a great number of people who come in as enlisted members but later complete their education and transfer to the officer side. Some of the neatest stories are of people who have made a life out of the organization. Admiral Sullivan has done this. He really likes to be around the troops and the sailors. Even though he’s been here for nearly 40 years, he’s still playing golf with the crew and joining intramural basketball teams. He’s made a career out of lifelong learning.”
A Lifetime of Service
Sullivan graduated in 1975 from the Coast Guard Academy, one of the smallest of the five federal service academies, in New London, Conn. He earned a master’s degree in communication arts and public affairs from Cornell University and is also a graduate of the Harvard University, Kennedy School of Government Senior Executive National and International Security Program.
“My background is in Coast Guard operations, and even though we’re a decentralized program, Force Readiness Command is actually an operational field command,” Sullivan said. “We have great access to our policy makers and our Coast Guard headquarters in Washington.
“My role in that is to make sure we have everything at our disposal that we need to make sure folks in the field are operationally the best that they can be. I consider myself an operator, but I’ve also spent a lot of time in support services in the Coast Guard Mission Support Services. I have grown to realize how important it is that we have the right training and education for all of our folks.”
Coast Guard service members can attend 800 different apprentice and advanced schools grouped by specialty in different locations. There are large training facilities in Yorktown, Va..; Petaluma, Calif.; Mobile, Ala., and Cape May, N.J., and smaller training facilities in Charleston, S.C.; Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Elizabeth City, N.C. The Coast Guard’s learning system, the Force Readiness Command, is composed of these seven campuses and a series of smaller training and assessment units and traveling training teams, plus an online distance learning component managed from Washington, D.C.
“An example of our schoolhouses is our fisheries group,” Marvin said. “We have small schoolhouses to teach people how to do fisheries enforcement — it’s for people that go out on ships and make sure people are abiding by fisheries laws such as not catching too many fish or catching prohibited species. The schools that teach the fishing regulations to our people are smaller schools, and they’re in several locations … because the rules for fishing and the type of fish caught are different in the Gulf Coast, where the focus is shrimping, as opposed to Alaska, where the focus is crabbing.”
Sullivan said the Coast Guard prides itself on the quality of its specialty schools. The Food Service Specialist School at the Coast Guard Training Center in Petaluma, Calif., for example, benchmarks against the Culinary Institute of America and allows Coast Guard members to attend the same conferences as other culinary schools and have the opportunity to be on several television programs.
“If you’re a new person in the Coast Guard, not only do we want you to be a good apprentice right now, but we really focus on lifelong learning parts,” Sullivan said. “We’re preparing folks for the next job and next mission sets. Whether you’re going to be in it for two years, four years or 36 years, you’re going to come out of the Coast Guard a better, smarter, more prepared citizen than when you came in.”
Learning for a Mission
The Coast Guard’s 11 missions are: ports, waterways and coastal security; drug interdiction; aids to navigation; search and rescue; living marine resources; marine safety; defense readiness; migrant interdiction; marine environmental protection; ice operations; and other law enforcement.
“Because we have such a wide variety of maritime missions, we require a very robust learning system to cater to the diverse missions we develop,” Sullivan said.
Advancing the missions is not limited to Coast Guard training facilities. Some 4,000 Coast Guard members attend graduate school every year; 90 percent of officers have completed graduate school.
To accomplish Coast Guard missions and grow a learning staff the organization also relies on civilian universities for robust graduate school programs. “There are a lot of opportunities within the Coast Guard to go to graduate school in many areas such as finance and engineering,” Marvin said. “The niche that’s most applicable to Admiral Sullivan and our human performance world is degrees in instructional systems or human performance technology.
“We choose six per year in this area, and have 80 graduates of the program in the Coast Guard today at different locations. Half of the 80 are assigned to a training unit doing performance analysis, curriculum and evaluation related to their degree; the other 40 are doing operational duty on ships or at U.S. ports protecting the nation. These graduates keep both an operational and training specialty by rotating assignments back and forth.”
The Coast Guard sends students to San Diego State, Florida State, Indiana University, Penn State and Boise State, and selection to graduate school is competitive. The organization also pays for graduate schooling, and in exchange for financial assistance, graduates agree to stay in service longer and must begin their duties immediately after graduating to begin paying back their education through service.
Although the Coast Guard values this specialized education, it also requires that all members, at every level, participate in regular mandatory training sessions on a variety of subjects essential for every position. Before Sullivan took on the CLO role, this training was done in person in small groups, and there was a marked lack of efficiency. He created customized, online e-learning courses to make the content readily available from remote locations and has saved the Coast Guard thousands of hours in productivity. Further, the online format means course content can be continuously updated and directly applied to the appropriate environment.
Last year, during the BP oil spill, rescuers in the Gulf of Mexico turned to the Coast Guard for training. Members already had some familiarity with the process, but when it was hypothesized that oil was leaking at a rate five times that of initial estimates, the Coast Guard had to revisit training modules available on its online platforms.
“We deployed 2,300 members to the event, which is a lot when you only have about 40,000,” Sullivan said. “We had people … and equipment from all over the country. Everyone had completed some mandatory training, but with something at this scale, it was about bringing in the right folks with the right talent and provid[ing] just-in-time training.”
To provide training, Coast Guard officials offered traditional classroom content on scene under unified command. Within weeks, a readiness and training base was established for all rescuers, not just Coast Guard members.
Sullivan said it is his responsibility to be America’s maritime guardian during these times of need. It’s this respect for his organization and country that inspires him to keep serving and keep learning.
“When you enjoy your work and are given the opportunity to provide so much opportunity, it’s hard not to get excited and keep yourself up to speed,” he said.
Ladan Nikravan is associate editor at Chief Learning Officer magazine. She can be reached at lnikravan@CLOMedia.com.