Cost of TSA airport screeners recruitment effort under scrutiny

Published 23 January 2006

Securing airports is a costly business. Just ask the administrators who run the airports in Alaska, a state where airports are as essential to state transportation needs as two-lane roads are in smaller states. It all began in 2002. Before 9/11, the airline industry and its well-heeled lobbyists contributed tens of millions of dollars to the campaign coffers of senators and congressman to ward off efforts to beef up airport security. The industry managed to keep for itself the right to set its own security standards — which meant that there were no meaningful or effective security standards. The airlines not only objected to installing such simple measures as impregnable cockpit doors: They also outsourced the hiring of security screeners to shady and unscrupulous contractors the only qualification of which was the rock-bottom fees they charged the airlines. These contractors were able to offer such low rates for their services because they literally scraped the bottom to get cheap labor to do the screening. The result of the airline industry laxity was 9/11. After the attack, investigators found that security contractors hired criminals, illegal aliens, high-school drop-outs, and other misfits so they could lower the price they charged the airlines.

All that changed after 9/11, as the federal government moved more vigorously to impose security measures on a reluctant industry, and make the security screeners part of the federal work force. Recruiting screeners of higher quality, however, costs more money, and Alaska cities have some of the highest costs per hire, according to a recent inspector general’s report. Arlington, Virginia-based NCS Pearson (it has since changed its name to Pearson Government Solutions), the recruiting company for the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), billed more than $2 million to hire 66 workers in Juneau. It billed almost $2.4 million to hire 80 in Fairbanks. Successful recruitment of two airport security officers in Barrow cost the government $128,000 apiece.

Nationwide, costs for the recruitment of airport screeners ballooned from $104 million in the original contract estimate in 2002, to a final settlement of $741 million. Much of the blame goes to the TSA, the agency’s inspector general said in a report issued this month. TSA did not have the staff to oversee a major contract, and Congress had given it just one year to hire a screening work force, the IG report noted. The initial contract called for Pearson to hire 30,000 screeners using the company’s existing offices and processing centers for computer testing and medical evaluations. Less than a month later, however, TSA decided it wanted an assessment center within a two-hour drive of each airport where the new hires would work. “Without any apparent analysis of the cost impact, TSA dramatically changed its recruitment approach and directed the contractor to establish approximately 150 temporary assessment centers,” the IG report said.

Some of TSA recruiters “dramatically changed” their recruitment approach in more ways than one: In 2003 it was learned that twenty TSA recruiters set up shop for seven weeks at the plush Wyndham Peaks Resort and Golden Door Spa in Telluride, Colorado. Press accounts said the recruitment effort was so poorly publicized that on some days only one or two potential recruits came in. In all, the twenty recruiters hired fifty-one people there for five area airports. The swanky Golden Door Spa notwithstanding, Telluride was not, in fact, the most expensive per-capita recruitment effort by TSA: TSA spent nearly $1.7 million at the Telluride site, which means that it spent nearly $40,000 per person hired. By this measure, Telluride was the eighteenth most expensive screening location. At $143,000 per hire, Topeka, Kansas was No. 1, followed by two Alaska communities, Barrow and Dutch Harbor. Nome, at $51,000 per hire, came in ninth, Kodiak twelfth, and Juneau twentieth.

The DHS IG report focused on TSA’s management of the contract, not on the contractor’s performance.

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