The Chief Speaks: How Changes to the Coast Guard License Process has Ruined the Next Generation of Officers

June 13, 2013

The Chief just made his last phone call for the next 20 days. It was wonderful to hear his voice over the past few days. He was able to talk to his mother on her 70th birthday. I have the task of trying to find a domestic calling card so we can talk when he reaches his destination.

The following is a Guest Op Ed from the Chief. I’ve done minimal editing; his writing style is different from mine. I believe the background of what he calls a “rant” comes from supervising midshipmen/cadets recently and from personnel changes. I am assuming I have permission to post here as he said: “Wordsmith as you see fit, I could probably have gone on another page or two!”

How Changes to the Coast Guard License Process has Ruined the Next Generation of Officers

I can still remember the testing for my original Third Assistant Engineer license for Steam and Motor Vessels. Rows and rows of desks were lined up in the gymnasium, and 150 Midshipmen nervously worked their way through all the modules over the better part of a week. The lump in your throat as the proctor graded your exams, and the relief when he gave you the thumbs up that you passed all led up to the thrill of ringing the bell at the end of exams. I couldn’t wait to get my license in hand and get out to sea and sail on it.

As soon as I started working, I was already thinking about upgrading to my Second Engineer’s license. I was going to need my year of sea time before I could even think about upgrading. I was going to have a slightly longer time to sail, as I started out as a Pumpman, an unlicensed rating that was only going to earn me ½ of the time sailing on my license would have. I was just glad to have a job, and the experience I gained during those first 5 ½ months has served me well over the years.

During that time, new rules came into play, and new ‘user fees’ were instituted in the licensing process. Each time you upgraded, it became a significant financial event, with a couple of hundred dollars in evaluation, exam, and issuance fees. Still, as soon as I had enough time to get my Second Engineer’s Steam license, I was on my way to the Regional Exam Center to take my test. After a month of studying, I booked my hotel room down the street from the exam center and spent the next 2 days testing and earning my Second’s license.

It was 3 years after I started sailing that I finally had sailed on enough motor ships to meet the requirements for my Second’s Motor. This meant another application, another set of fees, and more hotel stays and testing. Having the license was worth it.

Back then, all the hassle to get your license seemed to separate those who had a strong desire to advance from those who were happy where they were at. If you didn’t bother to do the work on your license while on vacation, you didn’t advance. If you wanted to take a vacation or two off, then you might be a year or two behind your contemporaries.

The natural desire after all that work is to sail on that license, even before the ink is dry. After all you put in all that hard work and personal time to earn it you at least should be given a chance to sail on it!

After I was sailing Second Engineer, I kind of slowed down a bit. I was happy in my job, enjoyed it, and it didn’t look like there was any chance of promotion anytime soon, so let’s take a break. I had just gotten married a year or two before, and had better things to do on my time off. Then, I was on a ship where the First Engineer had to be relieved, and none of the junior engineers had the license to replace him… I missed my chance. That next vacation I received my First. At least this time I could take both tests at once, and get both halves at the same time. I cranked out all the modules in one day, a pretty big feat in my eyes.

I finally started sailing First Engineer around 2000, and I loved the job. To be honest, that is as high as I thought I would like to sail. I had no aspiration for promotion, so I sat on my license. I renewed it when it expired, and it wasn’t until it was about to expire again that I was pressured by some of my longtime shipmates to upgrade. I hadn’t taken a test in almost 10 years, and I was a bit nervous again. I studied for about 3 months, and planned on 2 days for the test. It was a bit unnerving that the time I was scheduled to test was a week AFTER my license was to expire, but the exam center said that this was not a big deal. (not having a valid license was a pretty big deal to me, especially if I didn’t pass this exam!) I took all but one exam the first day, and finished the second day by 9 in the morning and had my Chief’s license in hand by noon. I was so pleased that I would never have to test again. A total of 5 different series of tests over 15 years.

This test of an Officer’s desire to advance has been removed in the past decade. In the early 2000’s, the USCG decided that there were too many tests to be taken, and they simplified the process. Basically, they made it so that when you sat for your original Thirds license, you were also testing for your Second engineer’s license. This means that after you have sailed for 365 days, you just have to send in you r paperwork and you are given your license. They have done the same for the First engineer and Chief’s exam. Enough days at sea, you earn an automatic promotion.

This has removed the burden of the junior officers from having to put their own time and energy into planning their time off the vessel to work towards their advancement, but not the desire to sail on their license as soon as they get it. The combination of this and the instant gratification of current society have spawned a new generation of officers who are actually angry when they aren’t promoted instantly. I know I was probably not as ready as I should have been for my first job as Second Engineer, but I can guarantee that the majority of the younger guys today could do with another year’s experience under their belt before wanting to sail on their license.

This has mainly been prevalent in the junior officers, as they still have to apply and test for the First Engineer license. Since promotion to First Engineer can take a little while, there is not the instantaneous ability to get the time needed as First Engineer to qualify for Chief.

In a lot of ways I feel sorry for those under the new system. The sense of accomplishment of putting in your time, taking your tests and earning your license has been replaced with a ‘participation trophy’. The pride I have felt after each test (and relief) makes each license that much more special to me. The time I had to wait in each position made me that much more prepared (and mature) when I finally had the opportunity to sail at the next level. Hopefully the USCG will reevaluate this process in the future.



  1. Great rant! I’ll bookmark this one to get hubs opinion.

    • I’d like to see what he says from the deck side. 🙂

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