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It Takes TSA 252 Days to Hire a Security Screener, Among Other Problems

By Kelly Hoggan

In March 2019, the Department of Homeland Security's inspector general found that the Transportation Security Administration was taking far too long to hire its security screeners. On average, TSA takes 252 days to hire screeners, who are frontline employees vital to the agency's mission. In private industry, it usually only takes from a few days to four months to hire a new employee, according to the Workable human resources website.

In other words, TSA is taking more than double the time to hire security screeners than would be tolerated in private industry at the higher-end four-month mark. For example, to get from the "Day 1" application to TSA's computer-based test ("CBT"), which serves as the first step in the applicant screening process, takes about 56 days.

DHS's inspector general also stated that the TSA needed to work on training and then retaining screeners, who are leaving the security agency at unacceptably high rates. Such attrition in new-hire TSOs is worrying, given the time and taxpayer money TSA invests in them.

There were also issues when it came to the training of new-hire TSA screeners. For instance, the security agency only began standardizing its new-hire screener training program in July 2018. (For historical purposes, TSA was created on November 19, 2001, and began moving into U.S. airports in 2002.)

Called "Transportation Security Officers" TSA screeners are the public face of the agency. Millions of travelers at the nation's many commercial airports interact with them annually. And TSA's screeners are essential to the agency's mission. The inspector general’s report correctly observed that "TSOs are integral to improving aviation security at our Nation's airports by identifying prohibited objects in bags, in cargo, and on passengers."

Given the role played by its security screeners it's, of course, essential that TSA work toward hiring only the most capable, most qualified candidates. However, by any reasonable standard, taking more than eight months to bring on a new TSO is unacceptable.

So what's going on with the TSA hiring process? Why do TSO training problems exist? And why do security screeners continue to leave at an "unusually high rate," according to a July 2018 article at the Los Angeles Times website as well as an April 2019 Government Executive article?

When it comes to TSA's hiring practices, the IG found that the security agency fails to adequately evaluate applicants for their capabilities as well as their compatibility. In short, is a TSO candidate capable of handling the job and will he or she "get along" in the agency after hiring?

The IG report went on to state that TSA also "may be making uninformed hiring decisions," which should be worrying to everyone. As noted in the document, TSA is also making poor hiring decisions. Such steps are being driven in part by inadequate applicant information and a lack of formally documented guidance on ranking potential new hires. The inspector general found that, as a result, TSA wasn't always selecting the most highly qualified individuals as TSOs.

What the above means is it appears, rightly or wrongly, that TSA is often winging it when it comes to initial applicant screening, interviewing, and then hiring. No wonder, then, that issues with training and retention seem so commonplace at the agency.

The list goes on: When it comes to training its new-hire screeners, TSA also lagged in critical areas. To begin, the IG found, there was no standardized approach for getting new TSOs helpful training before they attended what the agency calls "basic training." As the inspector general’s write-up showed, however, basic training is extensive once they do begin it. (To add to new-hire screener woes, TSA wasn't consistently sending its new TSOs to basic training immediately after their hiring and in-processing, which is known as "onboarding").

How well TSA works with airports at the local level presents another question. The IG says the security agency won't allow all airports "complete visibility into its basic training curriculum as a basis for training new-hires locally." (It's worth noting that TSA must work closely with airports in a partner relationship.)

Airports also complain of TSA's occasional unwillingness to include them in basic security decisions related to their facilities. And on sporadic cases, airports have also accused TSA of high-handedness in its dealings with them.

In retaining new-hire TSOs, the IG report was also unsparing in its criticism, noting that TSA sometimes didn't share results of screeners’ exit surveys with their local TSA managers. These managers also maintained that new-hire TSOs too often don't clearly understand expectations for security screeners. Such job requirements included correct passenger pat-down procedures as well as understanding shift schedules.

When you combine all these negative factors, one answer for why new TSOs are quitting the agency so soon after they’re hired begins to emerge. To illustrate: The IG found that TSA only haphazardly put proper focus on career growth when it came to new-hire security screeners, which included pay increases based on skill levels. Not all TSOs are equal in capabilities, after all, but TSA didn't seem to be making the proper distinctions in the first place. (It's to the agency's credit that since August 2018, it has implemented a new program to address this shortfall, known as "TSO Career Progression.")

The inspector general’s office also remarked that the security agency has begun taking steps to address its retention challenges, including approving incentive packages for TSOs in some cities. And retention problems are indeed costing TSA a great deal of money on an annual basis. The relatively small amount of funds put toward such retention packages can help save taxpayers millions of dollars in hiring and training costs the agency would otherwise incur replacing TSOs who leave prematurely.

In all, the DHS IG made nine recommendations it says will improve TSO retention, hiring, and training if the agency agrees to implement them. Fortunately, TSA decided to put them all into action, which is no doubt a welcome outcome.

TSA has been moving with urgency in addressing the IG's recommendations, too, with three of the nine already put in place. These include the TSO Career Progression program and requiring local TSA leaders to improve standardization in local hiring policies and records retention to more fully assess hiring, training and retention practices. The third recommendation already addressed by the agency has to do with enforcing pre-basic training requirements for training new-hire TSOs at their airports before they’re sent to Georgia for the basic training program.

TSA does have some work ahead of it in implementing the other six IG recommendations but has promised to do so as quickly as it can. One positive step includes TSA being more transparent with all airports as to its formal Basic Training Program curriculum.

Will TSA's efforts in addressing what are issues involving the time it takes to hire, train, and retain its screeners pay off? Only time will tell on that front, but we'll continue to monitor the security agency as it works to take care of one of the most valuable assets it has: Transportation Security Officers.

Kelly Hoggan, Founder and CEO of H4 Solutions, previously served as assistant administrator for operations at the Transportation Security Administration. In that role, he was responsible for aircraft and checkpoint security operations at the nation's 400-plus commercial airports.

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