Coast Guard sees the talent, not just the tattoos

The Coast Guard returned to its roots in September, when it joined its sister service, the Navy, in relaxing tattoo policies for current members and new recruits.

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by Anastasia Devlin, editor of RESERVIST

The Coast Guard opened its doors to a wider swath of the next generation of service members when the Commandant, Adm. Karl Schultz announced the redesign of the Coast Guard tattoo policy. While many of the changes seem subtle, recruiters say this effort will remove more barriers to members who want to serve their country.

Though not a heritage-based decision, the service has a history with ink that stretches back to its inception. As recently as 30 years ago, tattoos weren’t just authorized—they were looked at as a rite of passage. However, over decades of change in society, tattoos were given the same notorious reputation as smoking—bold, rebellious, even dangerous.

But these days, smoking is banned nearly everywhere, while, conversely, tattoos have been adopted by society, specifically by the millennial generation, which has embraced self-expression. Some are traditional, representing special family members or deeply rooted in religion, and others represent major life accomplishments. Still others are minuscule reminders of guiding principles to a generation that chooses to live with intention.

As the Coast Guard continues to grow its ranks, its sailors and recruits have become more educated, more creative and more confident about self-expression. Unsurprisingly, education, creativity and confidence are the same qualities desirable in leaders.

The Coast Guard joins the growing number of military services and law enforcement agencies who have allowed their personnel to uncover their art and reveal their humanity. Police officers and state troopers from Pennsylvania to California used to have to wear long sleeves to cover their ink, even during sweltering summer months. More officers are now rolling up their sleeves and bonding with the populations they serve.

“I am pleased to see the Coast Guard’s new tattoo policy, which strikes a balance between personal expression and maintaining our professional appearance,” said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Coast Guard Jason Vanderhaden. “The new tattoo policy will expand our recruiting candidate pool and provide those already serving a few new options.”

 “The long-held stigmas associated with having tattoos, and particularly visible ones, may be eroding, especially among younger individuals who view body art as a natural and common form of personal expression,” said Michael French, professor of health economics in the Miami Business School’s Department of Health Sector Management and Policy. (French coauthored a study that found tattoos may help candidates in competitive markets.)  “Given the increasing prevalence of tattoos in society—around 40 percent for young adults—hiring managers and supervisors who discriminate against tattooed workers will likely find themselves at a competitive disadvantage for the most qualified employees.” 

Tattoos have become commonplace among the largest pool of candidates for recruiters of any military branch. A 2010 Pew Research Center study said that about 38 percent of young people ages 18 to 29 have at least one tattoo. Today, just a decade later, that number nears half the same demographic.

In 2016, the Navy chose to adopt the most lenient policy of all the services, which boosted recruiting numbers almost immediately. The Navy’s senior enlisted leader told the Navy Times that the change was necessary to maintain the service.

“We need to be able to tap into the skill of all segments of our community,” said Capt. Tom Kaminski, head of the Personnel Readiness Task Force, a unit designed to address broad-based challenges affecting recruiting and retention. “Otherwise, we are missing out on talent.”

This move slides the Coast Guard closer to the front of the pack in recruiting. The Marine Corps holds the line against sleeve tattoos, the Air Force bans tattoos above the collarbones, and the Army doesn’t permit neck or hand tattoos for its soldiers. Coast Guardsmen will still appear the same in ceremonial uniforms; the changes are extremely subtle and almost invisible when a sailor is wearing the Service Dress Blue uniform. With the newly revised policy, the Coast Guard ensures its recruiters have access to a broader range of talent in our society—both officers and enlisted—pulls the traditional image of a Coast Guardsman forward into the 21st century.

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