Coast Guard: Officer Versus Enlisted Career Paths

Coast Guard Change of Command service in Cape May, N.J.
Capt. Owen Gibbons transfers command to Capt. Kathy Felger during a Change of Command ceremony July 19, 2019, at Training Center Cape May,, N.J. Felger comes to Training Center Cape May from the Coast Guard Personnel Service Center in Washington, D.C., where she served as the enlisted assignments branch chief. (Petty Officer 2nd Class Richard Brahm/U.S. Coast Guard)

Some of the main differences between being an officer and being enlisted relate to upward mobility. Even the words used for upward mobility are different: Officers are promoted, while enlisted personnel are advanced.

The enlisted advancement system is extremely transparent. Every enlisted person knows exactly what he or she needs to do to advance. Several factors go into calculating a score that determines one's place on a list that ranks everyone in a given pay grade and specialty from top to bottom. Individuals have direct control over some factors (servicewide exam score), some control over others (marks, medals and awards), and none over others (time in service, time in grade and bonus points).

The most notable difference between the officer promotion system and the enlisted advancement system is its complete lack of definite and identifiable criteria an officer must satisfy to get promoted. It is extremely opaque. There are no factors over which an officer has complete control, and the specific factors are largely unknown.

Enlisted personnel who do well in all the criteria virtually are guaranteed advancement, once they have the required time in service and in grade. Officers are never guaranteed promotions (although promotion from ENS to LTJG is almost guaranteed). And if they aren't promoted, they are required to leave the Coast Guard under what is called an up-or-out policy. A selection board determines whether an officer is promoted. Selection boards meet annually at Coast Guard headquarters to evaluate officers at all ranks to determine fitness for promotion, following general guidelines set out by the commandant each year.

You should visit the Coast Guard Personnel Service Center's website. The following passage from that site describes what selection boards look at in deciding whether an officer should be selected for promotion.

Each board develops its own overall standards and selection criteria. The degree of significance a board assigns to each of the many factors it considers may vary according to the grade and type of selection the board is making. A board selecting officers for lieutenant may emphasize different factors than would a captain continuation board.

... Selection boards are required to consider four basic criteria: performance evaluations, professionalism, leadership and education.

Those four criteria are described in some depth in Article 6.A.3 of the "Officer Accessions, Evaluations and Promotion Manual.'' The commandant's selection boards meet in secret, and only the list of those selected for promotion are released. Thus, the only official feedback an officer gets about the likelihood of being promoted is through periodic performance evaluations (officer evaluation reports, or OERs). More information about how officer selection boards work, including specific guidance for promotion boards, is available on the Personnel Service Center's site.

You must be prepared to pursue further higher education if you hope to be promoted to the highest levels in the Coast Guard.

For more information on officer career management, go to the Personnel Service Center's website.

Types of Commissions

Enlisted personnel who graduate from the Coast Guard's various officer accession programs receive either a temporary commission or a reserve commission.

  • Applicants for reserve commissions must be in their senior year or hold a bachelor's (or higher) degree from an accredited college or university. E-4s and below with less than four years of service may apply for reserve commissions.
  • Applicants for temporary commissions must have at least 30 semester-hour credits (including at least one college math course) or meet a series of other academic criteria. To apply for a temporary commission, enlisted personnel must be in pay grade E-5 or higher and have served at least four years in the armed forces, at least two of which were in the Coast Guard.

The main practical difference between reserve and temporary commissions is that an officer with a temporary commission who doesn't get promoted to lieutenant reverts back to his last enlisted pay grade and can continue to serve, if he wants to. An officer with a reserve commission who isn't promoted to lieutenant is required to leave the Coast Guard.

Terms of Service

Another difference between officers and enlisted personnel is the terms under which they serve. Until recently, all enlisted personnel at all pay grades served under a series of fixed-term contracts with the Coast Guard. This offered some stability to the personnel system and some security to individual enlistees. Even now, dismissing an enlisted person of any pay grade before the end of an enlistment is rare.

Officers do not sign contracts with the Coast Guard and serve now, as always, "at the pleasure of the president." That means they can be dismissed at any time without any reason being given.

These terms of service date back centuries and are the source of the words we still use to describe the status of the people within the military hierarchy: "enlist," "warrant" and "commission."

Starting almost 500 years ago, ranks in Britain's Royal Navy paralleled the distinctions that existed in civilian society, when a rigid class system existed. As today, crews were made up of seamen (there were no engineers until the 19th century, since there were no machines), petty officers, warrant officers and commissioned officers.

Unskilled laborers and farmers in civilian society enlisted (or were forcibly brought) aboard a ship for a fixed amount of time (e.g., a voyage on a particular ship or the duration of a war). The word "enlist" came from the practice of putting their names on the ship's roster, at which time they were assigned to either the port or starboard watch. The process of being put on the list was known as being "enlisted."

Warrant officers were seamen who had become extremely skilled in one specialty (carpenter, boatswain, gunner, navigator/ship-handler) and given royal warrants in recognition of their skills. These warrants gave them specific powers and responsibilities within the Royal Navy, and set them apart from other sailors without violating the class system. Warrant officers generally stayed with the ship even when it was laid up at the end of a war or voyage, giving them job security that was virtually unknown at that time. (Officers and those who had enlisted -- except for certain captains -- were let go or "put on the beach.")

Officers were given commissions by the monarch. Like commissions given to artists to produce new works, these commissions laid out the scope of their duties and their responsibilities in the specific office or position they were appointed to. They served at the pleasure of the king or queen, meaning they could be dismissed by the monarch at any time.

These traditions applied throughout the Royal Navy, including ships stationed in Britain's North American colonies. After the U.S. achieved its independence from Britain, these traditions were maintained by both the Revenue Marine (created in 1790) and the Navy (created in 1798) and, to a large extent, are followed today.

Interested in Joining the Military?

We can put you in touch with recruiters from the different military branches. Learn about the benefits of serving your country, paying for school, military career paths, and more: sign up now and hear from a recruiter near you.

Story Continues