TSA Sees Results From Revamped People Practices

By Staff Report

Dec. 22, 2006

Increased engagement among airport transportation security officers helped achieve an efficient launch to the holiday travel season, despite the challenges posed by recent changes in carry-on restrictions, according to the Transportation Security Administration.

The TSA has deemed “very reasonable” the 12-minute average wait time at screening checkpoints at the nation’s 40 busiest airports over Thanksgiving.

“Everything seemed to be working smoothly,” says David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, which represents the traveling public.

A TSA official gives much of the credit to the more than 40,000 security officers, formerly known as “screeners.”

The new nomenclature is one of several workforce management changes that the agency has implemented over the past year to improve performance and morale, says Gail Rossides, TSA associate administrator of business transformation and culture.

The word “screener” was dropped from the security workers’ title so that their role could be better integrated into the Department of Homeland Security’s law enforcement system, expanding career options for employees and deepening their sense of belonging.

Other improvements in the $20 million initiative included programs to reduce attrition and injuries and improve training for the officers, whose salaries range from $23,600 to $56,400. The TSA also is implementing a pay-for-performance program, despite problems with getting it approved elsewhere in the DHS. An August survey showed that job satisfaction has increased 24 percent.

The TSA says it bolstered recruiting by placing hiring authority at the local level, where officials can find a better fit between candidates and jobs. Over the past year, attrition among part-time employees has dropped from 70 percent to 41 percent. For full-time workers, it has decreased from 24 percent to 15 percent.

London authorities broke up a terrorist plot to detonate liquid-based bombs in flight, the TSA had to change carry-on rules instantly.

“They responded phenomenally,” Rossides says of security officers. “They were ready.”

Stempler was also impressed. “It was an extraordinary achievement that they were able to make the changes overnight on these new rules,” he says. “Usually it takes weeks or longer.”

But a Capitol Hill skeptic says the four-year-old agency—which was created when the DHS was formed following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks—has yet to prove itself.

Rep. John Mica, R-Florida and a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, says the private sector could better handle airport security. He favors using more technology and fewer people, while training those who remain to better identify potential terrorists.

“We need to reassess the whole system,” Mica says. “I’m going to be calling for a pretty dramatic overhaul. The check­point is one of our weakest points now.”

Rossides says that even as technology is integrated into the process, human officers will have to interpret the machines. And they will have to remain vigilant—and motivated—whether confronted with a summer threat, holiday travel or a routine day.

The challenge for the TSA remains consistent. “It is about hiring the right people, continuously training them and then giving them the incentives to excel at their jobs and the incentive to have a long-term career … in TSA or DHS,” Rossides says.

Mark Schoeff Jr.

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