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?
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 people
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 job
"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.
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