By Daniel Silliman
Last year in Atlanta, when a machine malfunction put the airport's baggage-screening system into test mode, and an officer saw what she thought was a bomb, her response was immediate.
She didn't need to pull out a manual to know something was wrong.
TSA Administrator Kip Hawley, giving the keynote address to the Aero Club in Washington last week, said the officer's response highlighted an important factor in national security -- experience.
"Her subconscious," Hawley said, "was way ahead of her conscious processing, because of her experience as an officer. Most of our officers have been with us for more than four years. That knowledge of what is normal and what is not normal is really our secret weapon."
Employee attrition -- losing officers as they quit, retire or get hired away -- means losing experience.
For the TSA, having to screen the bags of 2.5 million airline passengers a year puts a premium on experience. It can be the difference between a new officer -- methodically following a set, standard procedure -- and one who immediately knows what she's seeing and responds more quickly.
Experience "is incredibly valuable information that allows them to pick up on cues," Hawley said, "if we train on it, and encourage them to use it."
The TSA has been plagued by a reputation for high attrition rates. Also, security screeners are often perceived as temporary workers, non-professionals who are learning on the job, according to a TSA report released the same day Hawley spoke in Washington.
Some of that image, the report shows, is a misunderstanding of the facts. Much of it is based on false comparisons. According to the security agency, the commonly held myths include: a supposed lack of safety programs; no unionization rights; no whistleblower protection; no due process for complaints, and excessive Equal Employment Opportunity complaints.
Those claims are wrong, however, according to officials. In fact, the administration has been praised as an excellent example of a government agency, that aggressively addresses safety concerns. Employees have the right to join unions, and about 4,000 are union members. They also have whistleblower protection, and the rate of EEO complaints is lower than those for the U.S. Postal Service and the Department of Justice.
According to the TSA report on employee attrition, 17.4 percent of TSA officers quit. That number is higher than the average federal rate of "quits," which is about 10 percent.
The attrition statistics, by themselves, however, are misleading. The TSA counts retirements, deaths and transfers as "quits," while others count those lost employees in a separate category.
In the private sector, where benefits and retirement plans are often less generous, employees of transportation, warehousing and utility companies quit at a rate identical to the TSA, 17.4 percent, according to the report.
The TSA's workforce is about 25 percent part-timers, in order to meet the fluctuations of flight scheduling, compared with other federal agencies, where about 5.6 percent of employees are part-time.
"A great deal of [TSA] attrition is the initial 'churn' of new hires leaving quickly after learning the job is not for them, or finding other opportunities," according to the report. "But, TSOs who get past that initial six months often go on to long and productive tenures."
The report shows that 44 percent of the agency's employees have been there for more than five years, and the average time of an officer is about three-and-half years.
According to the TSA, the work its officers have to do is also harder than that of a lot of other jobs, and that explains some of the attrition rate.
"The TSO workforce is not comparable to the majority of the Federal workforce, which is predominately administrative in nature," according to the report. "TSO work is very demanding mentally, physically, and interpersonally."
Hawley described the TSA workforce as "flexible and committed." He said, "This workforce has been asked to do a lot -- to stand up this agency without a lot of infrastructure, and to do a very difficult job, with not always the best training, or the best equipment, or the best working conditions.
"But this organization is blessed with people who came after [the terrorist attacks of] 9/11 for the counterterrorism mission, and have stayed."
The TSA's attrition rate looks good, the report shows, when compared with the pre-TSA, airline-employed screeners. Before TSA, the attrition rate of baggage screeners was sometimes as high as 100 to 400 percent, according to the report.
The security agency, while arguing that its attrition rates are not as bad as they've been portrayed, does admit there is room for improvement. And it has been working to make things better.
Improvements include instituting local hiring in 2006, which cut hiring times from six months to six weeks; establishing pay-for-preformance awards in 2007, which gave out $72 million in raises and bonuses; and giving full-time health benefits to part-time officers.
Later this year, the agency is rolling out changes to its uniforms, and an employee-retention effort that emphasizes the professionalism of the job.
"It's one of the hardest things I think you could do -- to handle 2.5 million passengers a year," Hawley said. "People who really don't want you in their face, but you have a limited amount of time and you have to resolve real threats.
"These are critical decisions these officers have to make. I want to give them -- and I think you want them to have -- the self-confidence to make those decisions."