A Career Track for Airport Screeners

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Transportation Security Administration, which has faced start-up pains for much of the past four years, is expanding career opportunities for passenger and baggage screeners in hopes of reducing staff turnover and improving aviation security.

For the most part, TSA screeners have had little chance to advance in their jobs, and many have quit because they did not see a way to qualify for promotions. For a time, one in five full-time screeners was leaving, driving up hiring and training costs.

The career opportunities, announced this week, will permit screeners to compete for jobs as supervisors and technical experts, such as behavior detection officers, who look for high-risk individuals, and bomb appraisal officers, who spot improvised explosive devices.

The new career paths will permit screeners hired at entry-level salaries of $25,000 to $36,000 to apply for jobs that pay up to about $50,000 annually.

Studies by the TSA found a "direct connection" between the length of time that screeners were with the agency and improvements in their job skills and in overall security screening, Gale Rossides , associate administrator for business transformation and culture at the TSA, said yesterday.

Interviews with TSA screeners who were leaving showed that they liked their jobs but wanted higher salaries or less demanding hours, Rossides said. "People loved the mission and felt passionate about the work they were doing," she said. "We knew we had to figure out ways to keep these folks."

The TSA employs about 43,000 screeners, known as transportation security officers, and is one of the largest bureaus in the Department of Homeland Security. Congress created the TSA after terrorists hijacked airliners and crashed them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in 2001.

The agency began hiring in 2002 and quickly ramped up to more than 55,000 screeners that year, only to later face a series of budget and staff restrictions imposed by Congress. The TSA operates outside of regular civil service rules, and its head sets the terms and conditions of employment for the screeners.

To help guide promotions and set bonuses, the TSA has set up a pay-for-performance system. (The TSA is not covered by MaxHR, the new Homeland Security personnel system.)

Under the new career paths, screeners hired at the entry level will become eligible for promotion after two years. After a year at the journey, or full-performance level, they can choose to pursue a supervisory track or a technical track, Rossides said.

As screeners move up in the TSA, they also will be able to apply for other Homeland Security jobs, such as air marshal and customs and immigration inspection. Rossides predicted the screeners will be "very attractive candidates" because they will have undergone extensive background checks and will be seen as part of the Homeland Security family.

The new career paths should help TSA as an organization by improving employee morale and by retaining experienced screeners, Rossides said.

Initial feedback from employees has been good, she said, nothing that the attrition rate for full-time screeners has dropped to about 12 percent in recent months.

Pay and COLA Updates

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up a spending bill today that will include a 2.7 percent pay raise for federal employees next year, according to congressional aides.

The proposed raise is in a bill prepared by the subcommittee for transportation, treasury, housing and general government programs. It mirrors the 2.7 percent raise approved last month by the House, the aides said. President Bush had called for a 2.2 percent raise in 2007.

Federal retirees, meanwhile, have banked 3.1 percent toward their next cost-of-living adjustment, according to a calculation by the National Active and Retired Employees Association. The 2007 COLA will be announced in mid-October.

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company