Sunday, February 7, 2016

Transportation Security Administration struggles to fill vacant positions at airports around Alaska

With many positions open at more than a dozen airports around the state, the Transportation Security Administration says finding new hires is particularly challenging in Alaska.

A slew of factors make finding and keeping employees tough -- from rural locations of airports to a high cost of living to other, more lucrative summertime work. Skewed perceptions of what Alaska is like thanks to reality TV shows also play a part. 

“We’ve had people that will accept those jobs from Los Angeles, they’ll land in Bethel, they’ll literally get off the plane and the next day they get on the plane and we never see them again,” said Pete Duffy, assistant federal security director for screening in Alaska. “Because they just don’t understand.”

As of Jan. 28, the TSA had vacancies at airports across the state, including Fairbanks, Anchorage, Cordova, Kodiak, Adak, Bethel, Nome, Kotzebue, Barrow, Juneau, Wrangell, Ketchikan, Petersburg, Sitka and Yakutat. 

“I know there are other states that are considered hard-to-hire states where they have similar types of things,” said TSA spokeswoman Lorie Dankers, citing North Dakota as an example. “But I think Alaska is the most concentrated in terms of airports and the number of opportunities here.”

Although the federal government’s official jobs site lists 21 TSA officer positions available in Alaska, it’s not necessarily an accurate reflection of the TSA’s current needs. Summer is months away, but the agency is already thinking about hiring for Alaska’s busiest travel season, Dankers said.

“I will tell you, based on what I’ve seen, it’s much higher than that,” she said of the 21 number.

Tourism, and therefore airline traffic, has increased in some parts of Alaska in recent years, but Duffy says the TSA has "been relatively stable as far as where our presence is."

Temporary officers

The TSA has its National Deployment Force to send officers to places “that require a greater number of security personnel than is available,” according to a TSA fact sheet. They rotate in and out of airports on an as-needed basis.

Eliot Freeburg -- now a security training instructor -- is a former member of the National Deployment Force and worked several couple-month stints around the state.

“For me, the shorter list is where I haven’t worked in Alaska,” said Freeburg, recalling his sticker shock at the price of groceries in the Bush and what 60 below zero felt like in Kotzebue.

From fiscal years 2010 to 2015, the TSA has used the National Deployment Force to supplement security at airports across Alaska at an average cost of $4.1 million a year, the TSA fact sheet says. Dankers said she was not able to provide details on how many NDF officers are in Alaska. She says those officers are paid a standard salary that does not change based on where they work. 

"The additional costs to have NDF officers present at an airport come from travel expenses that include transportation, housing and per diem," Dankers said in an email. 

Ultimately, the hope is that Alaska doesn’t need to rely on temporary officers.

“We would rather have folks that are actually from those communities, or if not, at least permanent party there because they become more ingrained in the communities," Duffy said. "That’s an important part of security too is understanding the community.” 

Attracting candidates

The TSA says it’s making a serious effort to attract potential candidates into becoming employees, such as bumping up pay to take Alaska’s cost of living into account. Coupled with retention pay -- a facet unique to Alaska for the TSA -- “an entry level officer’s starting salary can reach $50,000 or more,” the fact sheet says. Offering full-time work right off the bat is another tactic the TSA is trying.

“Basically, in the Lower 48, every airport hires part-time only. And then once you’re with the agency, there’s an opportunity to go full-time. In Alaska, we’re actually hiring full time,” Duffy said.

Dankers adds that veterans may feel comfortable working for the TSA as 20 percent of TSA officers in Alaska are military veterans.

Then there’s the TSA ambassadors -- “the face of the agency,” Duffy said.

“We’re the first in the country to actually have the ambassador program,” Duffy said. “Which is basically … in between flights, they engage with the community, they talk to the council, they talk to the Chamber of Commerce, they host local job fairs.”

Still, the job requirements may be a deterrent for people who would otherwise be interested. You have to be in decent shape, you can't have a felony and you can't owe the government a lot of money. 

"It's not an easy job, but it's an important job," Duffy said. 


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