What it's really like to work as a TSA officer
When Jason Pockett joined the TSA in 2010, he said his intentions weren't wholly altruistic.
"In all honesty, what brought me to the TSA was the health insurance and the pay," Pocket told Business Insider.
"I didn't know what TSA really was other than airport security. But once I got there I realized the importance of the job."
Before joining the US Transportation Safety Administration as a transportation security officer, or TSO, Pockett was a youth pastor at a church. He spent two years working as a TSO in California before joining the TSA Academy team at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Georgia, as a training instructor.
"When I came to TSA, saw what they were about, and realized the importance of what they have to do with protecting the nation — making sure airplanes stay in the air — it clicked with me and it became that career," Pockett said. "It made it so I wanted to be here to ensure the safety of all the traveling public."
In July, Business Insider visited FLETC and spoke with academy instructors and recruits to learn more about what it's really like to join the TSA as an officer, and then we followed up with the agency's head recruiter for more details.
Here's what they told us.
Who are the TSA?Justin Gmoser/Business Insider
Willie Gilbreath, a retired veteran from Grand Rapids, Michigan, and incoming TSO, told Business Insider that his perception of the TSA was pretty vague before joining. "I didn't know a lot about it. Going through the airport, I wasn't really paying attention to those people. I was like everyone else. I wanted to get through as fast as possible.
"But now that I'm into the process and I'm starting to learn some of the procedures and some of the things that we're looking for, I understand why it takes a little bit longer. Now, my perception is, I'd rather take a little bit longer and be safe than to rush through the process and have something go wrong or have something slip through."
Gilbreath said he found his TSO job through a veterans' website. "The job popped up and I said, 'Wow, an opportunity to get a job with the federal government. I better jump on this.'"
Diane Brundidge, the executive director of recruitment and hiring at the TSA, said it's helpful if applicants have done similar work, like security at a non-federalized airport or security work in the government. Many TSOs have law-enforcement, military, or security background, and 17% of TSOs are veterans.
Gilbreath said he's able to apply some of the skills he has as a veteran to the job of a TSO. In the military, he said you learn "the skills to assess a situation and to actually have the discernment to understand a threat. You learn how to actually guard and protect.
"The only thing about this job is you've got to learn how to serve the public, too," he added. "That's the aspect I'm going to have to work on, because in the military it's a little bit different. It's more protection than service. This is service and protection."
Finding the right peopleJustin Gmoser/Business Insider
All the incoming TSOs Business Insider spoke with said they had heard about the job through an online job site.
"I always wanted to do something important to me — I always wanted to help someone," said Carmen Guzman, and incoming TSO from Stockton, California. "When I was looking online, I came across TSA. I was pretty curious, so I started looking into more information about that and how they wanted to protect people when they flew."
Internet job listings aren't the only way the TSA recruits.
"We really satisfy ourselves at the length we go to advertise," Brundidge said.
Among other places, the TSA recruits at colleges, universities, military bases, and military-transition assistance programs. It advertises on college listserves and on the side of buses. "We target it to the area that we're in. If we're in Martha's Vineyard, we'll put it on the side of a boat ... We're very astute to what gets attention, and based on the number of applications we receive, we know it's working."
Brundidge said the TSA received more than 200,000 applications in 2015.
Getting the jobAP
"We're hiring constantly," Brundidge said. "There are 100 or so job-opportunity announcements open at any given time, and we always have people in our 'ready pool' ready to hire."
The TSA ramps up its hiring efforts before anticipated surges and converts people from part-time to full-time during busy periods.
From its pool of applications, the TSA will first invite some people to take its computer-based test. Applicants are tested on things such as imaging, color-blindness, and English proficiency.
From there, applicants go through airport assessments, which is sort of like a job interview. That's followed by a medical exam and pre-hire background checks, where the TSA will take fingerprints, perform a criminal background check, and check to see if applicants are on the terrorist watch list, among other things.
If all goes well, applicants then go into the "ready pool," and, once there is a job vacancy, the TSA will present a tentative job offer, where they'll be invited to participate in job training.
The starting salary ranges from about $15 to $22 an hour, and both full-time and part-time employees get benefits.
"I would love to, personally, raise that salary, but that's legislature," Brundidge added.
Learning the ropesJustin Gmoser/Business Insider
In January the TSA began sending its newly hired officers from airports around the country to a consolidated basic training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, where students collectively learn about TSA's mission and operations as a counterterrorism organization.
"Training is the foundation of mission success and a powerful tool in galvanizing and leading change," TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger said during a speech at the Wilson Center, a nonpartisan forum and think tank in Washington, DC, in July. "It provides consistency, develops a common culture, instills core values, improves morale, and it raises performance."
The program, which costs the federal government $2,400 a student when factoring in travel and lodging, lasts nine days. Students hired to work in various airports across the country live together on the center's campus in dormitories and must abide by certain rules, like quiet hours after 10 p.m.
Eight classes begin each start week, and each class has 24 students and three instructors.
During training, students attend classes where they learn about procedures, customer service, and improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. Students get a firsthand look at the IEDs and their explosions during a live demonstration. They act out scenarios at the academy's fully functional mock checkpoint, which features everything from walk-through metal detectors and body scanners to X-ray machines and even the queue signage that you'd see at an airport.
"Always address people as sir or ma'am," Gilbreath said, citing what he learned in training. "Always say 'thank you.' Never assume someone's age. Never make physical contact with a person until you've already cleared it with them that this is what I'm going to do, and do you have any sensitive areas, any sore areas, do you have a broken leg or anything like that?
"And always put yourself in their situation. They've got a place they want to be and they want to get through there fast. Be effective, be fast, be courteous," he said.
Pockett said that with this new training comes consistency.
"We're actually noticing that in airports that have had many people come to our training, the culture changes," said Pockett. "It's getting a more positive spin out there. People are starting to follow the procedures and do the things that they're being trained to do here on a more consistent basis."
To graduate, students must receive passing grades on an image-interpretation test and a job-knowledge test. After graduation, they may begin on-the-job training at their home airports.
What it's all aboutJustin Gmoser/Business Insider
A TSOs mission is "to protect the nation's transportation systems to ensure freedom of movement for people and commerce."
Throughout the TSA Academy, TSOs learn that customer service and courtesy are important but safety comes first. They learn that they are the TSA's first line of defense.
"You're at war. Did you know that? You're at war," Bill Morgan, an explosives specialist and TSA Academy instructor, told a class. "You guys are frontline troops. Because they will continue to attack aviation because it works."
When TSOs detect an IED, their job is to inform a supervisor. If the IED is verified, then local and national law enforcement and the bomb squad come in, evacuate the airport, and eliminate the threat.
If TSOs succeed in detecting a threat, then "we win, 100% of the time," Morgan said. If not, then we find out the hard way when a bomb goes off on an airplane.
"Once the bomb gets on board, that's the end of it, right? So realistically we have to stop the threat at the checkpoint," he told students. "I'm going to tell you, you have the most critical job in TSA. No doubt about it. So always remember that."
A typical dayJustin Gmoser/Business Insider
A TSO's typical day depends on their shift, but Pockett said a lot of people start at 4 a.m.
"They come into work, they'll get the machine set up, they'll get everything operating correctly. Then, when they open up the gates to the airport, they'll start having passengers come in."
TSOs rotate positions every 20 to 30 minutes within a checkpoint. That might include working at an X-ray machine, body scanner, or walk-through metal-detector, or it may mean working as a document checker or a "dynamic" officer, one who can move from one checkpoint position to another to assist where needed.
"That way, you can ensure that you're not getting complacent, since you spend typically between four and 10 hours at a work a day, depending on whether you're part-time or full-time," Pockett said.
The toughest part of the jobAP
"The toughest part of the job is just having to interact with different individuals, not knowing who's going to come through your checkpoint, because any given day you can have someone who's very excited with what you do, thanking you for everything, and the very next minute, the next passenger is screaming at you in your face because they don't agree with anything that you're saying or doing," Pockett said.
"Part of the job is being able to adjust to the differences in who's coming through your checkpoint and ensuring that you stay professional and stay focused on the task at hand through all of that."
Common scenariosJustin Gmoser/Business Insier
"Passengers say they forget all the time. When they have an item in there that they shouldn't, such as a gun or a knife, they say, 'Oh, I forgot that it was in my bag.' Or 'I have a concealed carry permit so I know I can carry this.' They don't realize that we're a federal checkpoint and that we have rules that we have to abide by," Pockett said. "The forgetting thing is the No. 1 thing we get all day long. It's, 'Oh my gosh, I forgot I had that in my bag. I apologize. What can we do to rectify this situation?'"
Pockett said it doesn't really matter to him whether a passenger says they forgot or apologizes.
"Either way, we still have to follow our protocol and go through all the steps," he said. "We'll sit and listen to people, we'll hear what they have to say, but at the end of the day we're going to still be there for security, so whatever they're saying, it's nice, and I will listen to anything anybody has to tell me, but I'm still going to follow procedure and make sure those items don't get aboard the plane."
What you're looking forJustin Gmoser/Business Insider
"With different threat levels, it changes what we're looking for, depending on what's going on. So really, if you forgot something in your bag or it's that obvious item in your bag, that's going to get you stopped," Pockett said. "Other than that, it depends on the situation.
"If you leave a liquid in your bag, if you leave a knife in your bag, that's definitely going to get you stopped," Pockett said. "If you try to put something up your sleeve or in your pocket and say you have nothing in your pocket, then that's going to get you stopped because the machines are going to pick it up, it's going to find what's there, and then you to have to get searched later."
Biggest misconceptionsThomson Reuters
"There are people that think we do way more than we actually do," Pockett said. "People think we're doing body-cavity searches. They think we're going into bellies of airplanes and all that stuff. It's really not as invasive as many people think. It's just do what we need to do to make sure the weapons, explosives, and incendiaries do not get on board that aircraft."
Weirdest things you've experienced on the jobJustin Gmoser/Business Insider
"One of the weirdest things I've ever experienced on the job is just people trying to package things in a way to see if we can actually catch it," Pockett said.
He's seen batteries taped to different types of Tupperware containers, for example. "When it comes through, it just doesn't look right. It's got an unusual look to it," he said.
"Passengers will also try to put things in there to get us to not want to do the screening. We've had individuals put sensitive items like dirty laundry in their bags just so we won't go in there. It's just a bunch of random things that get put in there. Every day, honestly, is a different experience."
What unique skills have you acquired from being a TSO?REUTERS/Tami Chappell
"A unique skill that I've developed being a TSO is probably being a lot more situationally alert. Realizing what's going on around me," Pockett said.
"Before that, I paid attention to what was right in front of me, but I didn't pay attention to the big picture. Being a TSO got me to realize there's more out there than just what's directly in front of my face."
Advice for aspiring TSOsJustin Gmoser/Business Insider
Gilbreath encourages people interested in becoming a TSO to just "go for it."
"Thus far, it seems to be an opportunity to get a decent job, and you're working for the federal government, so you have opportunities to advance," he said. "There's an endless number of agencies you can work for. So depending on whatever your background or your passion is, you can branch off from the TSA and do almost anything you want to do."
"My best advice would be to really be on board with wanting to help us with our mission," Brundidge added.
"There are opportunities for promotion, so if you come in understanding our mission and really wanting to help that, you don't have to stay there as a TSO — there are paths for you to grow within our organization."
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