Going Beyond to Get the Best
Presley Rose is quite the conversation starter.
“I love to talk with people!” said Rose, an air interdiction agent – a pilot – from U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Air and Marine Operations National Air Training Center in Oklahoma City and a part-time recruiter for the agency.
It was a conversation at a recruiting event in 2019 that led to her hiring by CBP that year, although it was something she had been wanting to do for a while. Rose brought in a background as a commercial helicopter pilot and flight instructor without any experience in law enforcement. Now, she starts conversations with other people who might want to be part of the agency with more than 60,000 members who are charged with protecting America’s borders – be it in the air, on the land, or on the waters that surround the U.S.
“I wanted to be able to give back to Air and Marine Operations,” Rose said. And being a female agent, she knows she offers potential recruits a different perspective than perhaps some others in the historically male-dominated law enforcement roles for the agency. Air and Marine Operations officials said their efforts to target women recruits have been intentional and reflected in other CBP components’ recruitment efforts. “I didn’t know that I could have this career when I was a kid. I think if I would have seen another female doing what I’m doing now, it would have inspired me much earlier in life. This agency does a really good job of avoiding even the perception of any inequality.”
Rose is one of the thousands of employees nationwide who help the agency find Border Patrol agents, CBP officers, Air and Marine Operations agents, and non-law enforcement types who support those on America’s frontline. Some of them, such as Rose, do it as an extra duty to their regular job; some work as recruiters full time. The recruiters face a mighty task to keep CBP’s ranks filled.
“For Border Patrol alone, we need to get over 6,500 applications per month,” said Julie Chae, CBP's national recruitment director. Depending on the component, it could mean a recruiter talking to 100 people to get just two or three potential employees who will end up applying and eventually joining the agency.
In addition, CBP must compete more intensely with other law enforcement agencies at all levels — federal, state, and local — who, like CBP, remain in a constant hiring cycle. However, unlike most of these other employers, CBP’s mission often requires personnel to work in some of the most remote areas of the country.
“CBP and the law enforcement community at large continue to struggle with recruitment,” said Andrea Bright, CBP’s assistant commissioner for human resources. “CBP is further challenged with the remote location of many of our jobs.”
These areas are challenging due to harsh weather conditions and lack of affordable housing, consumer goods and services, and local infrastructure to include medical care, childcare, schools, and job opportunities for spouses.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed CBP’s overall recruitment approach dramatically, Chae said.
“Before we used to pump a lot of energy into in-person recruitment,” she said. “But with COVID, all those in-person events were canceled, and everything switched to virtual.”
She said CBP recruitment’s webinar program has been very successful, and a big virtual career fair is set for the end of January 2023.
“It’s a session where individuals interested in positions, or have already applied, are able to talk to CBP employees who are already serving in those jobs,” Chae said. “And they’re able to get an idea of what a ‘day-in-the-life‘ of an agent or officer is like, what to expect at the academies, navigating the hiring process, what benefits are available, and are able to ask questions.”
How CBP goes about contacting the thousands of recruits each month depends on the job. For some of the frontline agents and officers who have boots on the ground, it might mean finding them at general career fairs to get the high school or community college graduates. If it’s a more specifically skilled position, such as pilots or intelligence analysts, CBP recruiters might be tapping into specific events and conferences or using work social media sites, such as Indeed and LinkedIn, to get those with specialized backgrounds.
“It’s evolved a lot,” Chae said, pointing out that just five years ago, CBP’s approach was to cast a wide net and get as many applicants as possible. Now, the agency is using targeted sourcing, trying to get the right people to apply in the first place. “We’re using data to drive our recruitment efforts.”
Recruiters are now equipped with an iPad and an app that includes the CBP Talent Network – versus the old pen and paper way of recording of who they talked to and what they talked about. That allows CBP to identify when and how they found a candidate and turn that into a better tracking method. This systemic approach to data mining lets recruiters repeat what’s been successful for the various types of applicants so they can repeat what’s worked and avoid what hasn’t. CBP human resources has also tied that tracking into the recruitment ads placed in social media. And armed with better information, Chae hopes the recruiters have more success.
“Data drives our recruitment efforts,” she said.
Those efforts also extend to how people find out about jobs at CBP.
“We’re able to now say which search engines – such as Google – work great for us, or whether Facebook ads get us the biggest bang for the buck,” Chae said. “It’s really a time where we’re shifting our focus to be more targeted than just going to whatever recruiting events and doing ads we want to do.”
While in-person and virtual recruiting events are still important, CBP pours a lot of resources into advertising and marketing so potential employees can find out about open positions out there. In fact, Chae said, a recruitment event might generate 2,000 applications; marketing and advertising might bring in 40,000.
“We’re a force multiplier to the recruiters out in the field,” said Julia Gilchrist, the former deputy director for CBP’s national recruitment efforts and now director of Border Solutions Integration, Planning, Program Analysis, and Evaluation for CBP’s Office of Field Operations in Washington, D.C. “The national recruitment division offers marketing and advertising, social media support, webinars, virtual career expos, and dashboards that have data so they can understand what the return on investment, webinars, and virtual career expos provide. All of these services are offered to support and amplify the recruiters.”
She said having this data lets recruiters see what methods are bearing the most fruit depending on who they want and need for the agency’s needs.
“There’s a lot they can do with that information,” although Gilchrist acknowledged sometimes recruiters need to have a bit of trial and error to confirm their suspicions on what is successful. “You’ve got to try new approaches; you’ve got to be okay with risk. We’re just applying as much support, data and feedback to promote these efforts to learn what’s going to work. Recruiters must constantly evolve and keep up with where people are. It changes generation to generation – month to month almost – especially in this digital age,” adding that, for example, while Facebook might have been the preferred social media tool 10 years ago, now it’s Instagram.
Other recruitment tools include recent increases in signing bonuses, particularly for new Border Patrol agents, who can get up to $20,000 if they are hired and work for the first couple of years at some hard-to-fill locations, particularly along the border with Mexico.
Even with the increased incentives and extra tools, Chae said they continue to work hard to talk with people who could be good fits for CBP and its mission, with a particular focus on recruiting women and underrepresented groups to achieve mission success and represent the people served.
“We really are focused towards increasing our female recruitment efforts,” Chae said. Gilchrist added they just have to maintain the efforts that are successful.
“Having sustainability, funding, and a fully staffed team will enable us to stay competitive with other government and law enforcement entities out there to be able to attract and retain talent,” she said.
Finding those Who Take to the Skies and Seas
One of the areas that can be particularly difficult for CBP to fill with quality candidates is its pilots and boat operators, especially the pilots. Flying is a very specialized skill, and CBP’s Air and Marine Operations needs people who already have those talents before they even apply. While they might not be trying to fill the tens of thousands of positions like Border Patrol and Field Operations tries to, the ones they do must have the experience … while not being too old to join CBP in the first place.
“There’s a shortage of pilots, globally,” in the civilian and military flying worlds, said Francisco “Chi-Chi” Rodriguez, the director of the Air and Marine Branch in New Orleans and the component’s overall manager of recruiting nationwide. He added with airlines losing so many pilots during the COVID pandemic, they have to work harder than ever to get those who fly to join CBP. “We’re caught up in the middle of that, because we’re a small niche of law enforcement,” with about 600 pilots and about 360 aviation enforcement agents – the people who run the radars and support equipment aboard a plane or helicopter – throughout CBP.
The higher incomes commercial airlines might be able to offer is tough to compete against, but he believes the mission makes his component a very attractive place to work for those who qualify.
“We’re serving our country, and that’s extremely attractive to the applicant,” Rodriguez said. “We do the job in a variety of locations and conditions; this is not a monotonous job. Here, it’s going to change from day to day.”
Mario Sanchez, a supervisory pilot who flies helicopters from CBP’s Air and Marine Branch in Houston and also serves as a part-time recruiter, said everyone’s desire to fly and perform a mission is different, and he has to focus on what motivates a potential recruit.
“When I go to an event or someone is referred to me, I start out with, ‘What is your goal? What is your priority as an individual?’” he said, noting that money, location, work-life balance and job satisfaction are all valid reasons that each person could have. “Everybody is different. Once I get that answer from them, I try to steer the knowledge I want to share with them in that direction.”
Sanchez reflected what other recruiters across CBP mentioned as the biggest selling point the agency offers: a great way to make a living.
“What we offer as an agency is job satisfaction that often you cannot find with an airline or air delivery service,” which can have monotonous routes with little to inspire someone, he said. “Nine out of 10 times when you show up at work [for CBP], you don’t know where you’re flying to, you don’t know who you’ll be working with, you don’t know if you’ll be on a search and rescue mission, or chasing a vehicle full of migrants and a [human smuggler], or chasing a vehicle full of weapons. That’s what sets us apart.”
He added the opportunities are endless, but even with all the excitement, Sanchez knows he’ll be going home each night to spend time with his family.
“Most of the folks we’re talking to are military,” who most likely faced months-long deployments far away from their families, he said. “Working with us, most of the time, you get to go to go to those soccer games, those Boy Scout meetings, or whatever it is that brings you satisfaction away from your job and career. You cannot put a dollar amount on that.”
The Front Line Against Smugglers
One of the biggest components CBP fills with its recruiting is the Office of Field Operations: the officers in the international airports and ports of entry along the borders who check passports of about half a million passengers and pedestrians each day. But they also check about 90,000 air, truck, rail, and sea containers bringing in $7.6 billion worth of imported products each day as well. All of it is done in support of CBP’s mission of keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. while facilitating lawful international travel and trade. It’s a big job, and the component’s recruiters need to find the right people to do it.
“We have a constant flow of viable applicants who are very well aware of our mission and are prepared to do what we ask of them,” said Chief CBP Officer Anye Whyte, in charge of recruiting for the Chicago field office and previously led all of the Office of Field Operations’ recruitment efforts. He said a good recruit will be someone who brings as much to CBP as they hopefully get. “We’re looking for highly motivated individuals who have a commitment to the protection of the United States of America. We see a lot of that with our military personnel; we see a lot of that with our college grads. They have burning desires to help.”
He added that because of the diversity of the mission, they don’t target particular degrees or backgrounds.
“We deal with every segment of society, every social-economic group, and we have to have the capability in a moment to switch within those demographics,” Whyte said. Interviewing capabilities and awareness of people and where they come from play vital roles for successful CBP officers. “As we talk to recruits, we look for that diversity throughout the process of individuals who can come to the table and have the capability of adjusting to any given situation.”
Part of the success the Office of Field Operations now enjoys in finding the right recruits comes from establishing an applicant profile years ago. Recruiters separated applicants into certain categories that allowed them to focus on groups that met the agency’s needs, whether it was underrepresented groups from American society or military veterans or law enforcement officers. That means the recruiters must able to meet the changing needs of CBP.
“We can shift gears, very nimbly, very flexibly,” he said. Part of that flexibility means changing recruiting tactics based on who they are trying to get. “When we look at military personnel, they’re coming out throughout the year. But we want to talk to our college students in the early part of the year so they’re prepared to apply when they graduate, even though that might be 12-13 months out. We want to wait on them instead them waiting on us. We’d rather have that full pipeline of applicants.”
Finding those right candidates falls to the 15 full-time recruiters Field Operations has, as well as the hundreds who do it as an extra duty. They get some help from the partner law enforcement agencies that CBP actually might even be competing with to get those quality applicants.
“This gives recruits an avenue to learn about who we are and the diversity of our law enforcement mission,” he said. “Our enforcement powers are substantial, whether it be narcotics, human smuggling and immigration, or even our intelligence apparatus. A lot of law enforcement agencies want to be involved in that, and for that reason, we are able to maintain relationships outside of our organization.”
In addition, Whyte said they want people from all across the country, whether it’s at a major port in a metropolitan area, such Los Angeles, or a young person who grew up and lives in rural western Nebraska where they might never have encountered anyone from CBP in their entire lives.
“We immediately begin to have conversations about the needs of the organization and the likelihood of them going to high-needs locations,” he said. “But we also discuss the capabilities of them being able to get back to where they were born or a more desired location. Transparency is very, very important.”
The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth
CBP recruitment officials are quick to point out they want to find the best people for the job – not just huge quantities they hope will make it through the academies and hiring process.
“Just like an assembly line manufacturing process, we have quality checks at each step,” Gilchrist said.
Gilchrist added CBP competes with a lot of different agencies to get its applicants from within and outside of law enforcement circles. She said making sure the best people start out – and stay in – the application and hiring processes ensures time and money aren’t wasted. Part of that includes a polygraph test for every CBP law enforcement officer. After filling out a background questionnaire and going through medical and fitness checks, applicants get a call to schedule a polygraph examination, usually within a few weeks.
CBP polygraphers ask about serious crimes, as well as national security concerns. They are the same questions applicants answered before on their Electronic Questionnaires for Investigations Processing, better known as e-QIP.
Furthermore, the officials advised applicants read the instructions of what they should do before the exam: Eat a good breakfast, make sure you’re hydrated, and bring snacks and water since it will take several hours to administer the test. Most of all, people need to do what they normally do before the exam since the test will measure their physiological responses. For instance, if a person doesn’t use caffeine, they certainly shouldn’t start before the exam. In addition, they shouldn’t be worried that they might be nervous; everyone is. The important thing is to be prepared and be truthful.
Scott Stevens is the director of CBP’s Credibility Assessment Division in the Office of Professional Responsibility. The office promotes integrity and security within the CBP workforce, with Stevens’ division assisting in ensuring employees and applicants are of the highest character and integrity by administering CBP’s polygraph examinations. He said they realize that not everyone, including CBP applicants, is perfect.
“We’re not looking for perfect people; we’re looking for people who will come in and show their honesty and integrity by discussing incidents they may have been involved in in the past,” Stevens said. “As long as they come in and be honest with those, then they have every opportunity to pass the polygraph.”
Every CBP law enforcement officer and agent must take the exam before entering service, with just a few exceptions for military veterans who have had certain clearances in their previous work. Stevens said CBP administered more than 13,000 polygraph exams in fiscal year 2022 and had the capability to do up to 17,000 through the agency’s 25 locations throughout the U.S. Since 2018, 400-500 applicants per month have passed the polygraph. The numbers have dropped in the last year due to the lack of applicants in the hiring process.
Common reasons people fail the polygraph include admitting something that automatically disqualifies them from serving, such as marijuana use within a two-year period or use of other illegal drugs within a three-year period before applying for CBP or covering up past incidents of criminal activity. Either way, Stevens said applicants need to be honest when they fill out their pre-employment questionnaires and honest when they answer the questions during the polygraph.
“We’re fairly transparent about what would be disqualifying, so applicants do know what the policy is,” he said. “We tell people to cooperate with the examiner and process and come in and be open and honest, and they won’t have any problems passing the polygraph.”
Some of the myths about the examination include that it’s an intensive interrogation that lasts hours without any chance for examinees to catch their breath. While it can take around four hours, that time includes multiple breaks, and those being tested can bring snacks and water. Most of the time is spent going over what’s going to happen during the exam, including all the questions that will be asked before any components are attached to an individual.
“It’s like an open-book test,” Stevens said, adding there are no quotas for passing or failing. “That would be unethical.”
Tricia Luck is a polygraph examiner for CBP. She said nerves are common for those being tested – she was nervous even for her own examination. But as long as they’re honest and forthcoming, applicants shouldn’t worry about the test.
“That nervousness is going to be there. Think of it as white noise,” she said. “Everyone’s going to have some level of nervous tension, but that’s going to be present from the beginning. Being nervous and not being truthful are two different responses by the body, so we’re trained to look for that.”
Luck said the image in the movies of a needle moving back and forth across a paper, picking up on each lie isn’t what’s done anymore. A much more sophisticated piece of machinery that measures several physiological responses is what she uses today.
“There’s no needle, pen and ink,” she said. That’s been replaced by digital readouts on a computer screen. “But we’re still monitoring different aspects of the body: blood volume, intentional movements, and sweat gland activity,” among other things.
Luck said it can be surprising what people disclose.
“It runs the gamut from people trying to participate in smuggling drugs and criminal cartel activities,” to admitting to illegal drug use just hours before the test or even murders, she said. That’s why this screening is so important. “We don’t want those people coming into our ranks having a badge and gun and the authority to use them.”
While some things will be automatic disqualifiers, Luck reiterated that the agency isn’t looking for perfect.
“We are simply trying to determine if the applicants have the integrity needed to be a federal law enforcement officer or agent,” she said. “We really just need you to cooperate, follow the instructions and stay away from all the misinformation out there.”
Informational videos and other resources to break the myths of the polygraph are available at www.cbp.gov/careers/car/poly.
Not Every Recruit Will Carry a Gun and a Badge
While the vast majority of CBP employees are law enforcement types – whether as Border Patrol agents keeping watch over thousands of miles of America’s northern and southern borders, or CBP officers checking cargo coming into a seaport or international airport, or Air and Marine Operations agents who watch the borders through the sky and on the waters surrounding the U.S. – a large number of employees never carry a gun and a badge and serve in support of those agents and officers.
“We hire heroes,” said Laura Szadvari, acting deputy director of CBP’s recruitment efforts, pointing to the men and women who put on the green, blue and tan uniforms as real heroes protecting the U.S. But those who wear coveralls, suits and business attire also perform heroically in their own rights. “I feel like the folks on the front lines wouldn’t be able to successfully complete their mission unless we have CBP employees in the non-law enforcement positions supporting them.”
She said people join CBP, even in the nonuniformed ranks, because of the agency’s mission, just like their uniformed counterparts.
“They want to support those on the frontline, doing what they need to do to protect America,” Szadvari said. “The mission is a big selling point to people, even if they’re not the ones working as agents and officers. It’s still protecting the homeland in some way, shape or form. And because we’re the premier law enforcement agency in the government, I think that carries a lot of weight, and people want to contribute to that.”
Just like the uniformed components, CBP mission operations recruitment competes with a variety of other government agencies and the commercial sector to get the best and brightest to join from all over the country, not just the borders and places that have major shipping or transportation hubs. But Szadvari said CBP offers that unique mission, which is attractive to those who are looking for more than a paycheck.
“Millennials and Generation Z,” those who just graduated college up to about 40 years old, “are looking for things other than money,” she said. “So knowing your audience, knowing what to push in terms of benefits and opportunities,” is what makes CBP competitive. Recruiting non-law enforcement employees means not only knowing how to pitch to them, but also where to pitch. Szadvari said they also use targeted recruitment, such as going to trade events to get an auditor specifically versed in that type of specialty. Social media platforms, such as LinkedIn and Twitter, are good sources for the professionals CBP needs. Virtual career expos are also something the agency’s human resources has tapped into more and more, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic.
Szadvari said a primary recruitment focus is ensuring CBP has a diverse workforce that reflects the diversity of America.
“That involves conducting outreach to veterans and transitioning service members; underrepresented populations, such attending events at Historically Black and Colleges and Universities female-focused places of higher education; and recruiting persons with disabilities,” she said. Mission support positions can be a perfect fit for those who might not be capable of going to the field but still have the abilities and desires to support and serve in a border protection mission. “We’re trying to mirror the civilian workforce numbers, making sure the people of CBP are representative of the population in general.”
The Care and Feeding of Applicants
Whether they will become a badge carrying officer or agent, or whether they will be a mission support specialist who has a pen, paper and a laptop as their “weapon” of choice, those applying for positions with CBP need to be tended to all through what can be a long hiring process. Border Patrol and Office of Field Operations use recruiters to help with applicant care; Air and Marine Operations uses people separate from the recruiters. Overall, CBP’s hiring center makes sure all of those who have applied, regardless of the component and the job, are continually contacted and kept in the loop through the process, from putting together the job announcement in the first place to bringing someone on board the agency.
“We’re all about customer service to our programs,” said Wendy Rohleder, the deputy director of the center, which has several branches to help the components and offices of CBP bring on the people they need to do the jobs.
That means going through up to half a million applications each year to fill 7,000 to 9,000 jobs with candidates from outside of CBP, as well as current employees trying to get into a new position. It can be a 12-15 step process, depending on what kind of background checks and potential polygraph examinations recruits have to go through.
“We keep them engaged and moving through the hiring steps to get them to that final phase and onboarded with CBP,” said Erika Bloomquist, the branch chief in charge of CBP’s pre-employment hiring process. “Customer service is our main goal.”
Rohleder said they want to make sure those trying to join CBP have a great experience to get them started the right way for a great career ahead.
“Our goal is to give applicants the ultimate experience,” she said.
The center has an applicant portal where users can view their application status in real-time, directly contact the CBP Hiring Center, and survey a large repository of frequently asked questions.
“Our mission is to recruit highly qualified people for the positions to meet our customers’ needs: Get offices the right candidates at the right times,” Rohleder said. “The part of that is in our control is the engagement with the candidates,” sending reminders and updates to those who apply.
But it’s not just on the hiring center and recruiters making sure candidates have what they need. Bloomquist added some of it is on the recruit themselves.
“We want to make sure through our applicant care initiatives that we are giving the applicants all the tools they need to make it through this process as quickly as possible,” she said, adding that’s where the applicant portal is so valuable. It answers frequently asked questions, provides links to hiring process videos so they know what to expect from each step. “They know what’s expected going in, and as long as they’re doing their part to keep everything moving and being responsive, we’re going to do everything on our end to get them to that final goal of being onboarded to a position.”
For recruiters in the field, such as Whyte, that support the recruiters receive from the hiring center makes sure the people he finds stay with the process until ultimately hired. He said they need a wide variety of candidates and can’t afford to lose good people along the way. That’s why having the center, as well as recruiters who can develop relationships with potential employees – and keep them in the pipeline – is so important.
“We sell the job very quickly,” he said. “It’s not a good job, it’s an awesome job. Helping them move through our hiring process is substantial. So we continue to motivate them and elevate their capabilities to make it through the process.”
Breaking Stereotypes and Inspiring the Future to ‘Go Beyond’
Bright said an important element of the recruiting efforts is educating the public on what CBP does. It’s not just apprehending people who are trying to come into the country illegally; a major selling point is how CBP is a humanitarian organization and how its people perform thousands of rescues of people who have been exploited.
“What we are leveraging is our recruitment brand which is ‘Go Beyond,’” Bright said. “Go beyond represents what our workforce does every day – going beyond to serve our communities on and off the job. It’s a call to something greater and meaningful and that’s how our employees feel about their job. They’re always serving.”
Whyte said those in Office of Field Operations do go beyond, and he wants to see more people give CBP a look when searching for a fulfilling career.
“We need a diverse set of individuals; we need you, and you won’t get stuck doing one type of job,” he said, whether its fostering legitimate trade and travel or performing the humanitarian side of the mission, whether that means a position close to where an individual grew up or overseas at one of CBP’s international operations. “There’s just so much opportunity.”
And those opportunities aren’t just for those who will carry a badge and a gun.
“It’s an opportunity to protect America,” Szadvari said. “It’s an opportunity to serve your country. It’s an opportunity to support those on the front line.”
Through the lengthy process, which could include a nerve-wracking – but passable – polygraph examination, recruiters need to stay positive when talking with those they want to recruit into CBP’s ranks.
“It is important that we present the background investigation and polygraph examination process in a positive light in order to encourage success,” Luck said.
It can be a long, arduous process from application to ultimately being hired. But CBP’s hiring center does what it can to make sure the process goes smoothly all along the way.
“We are applicant focused,” said Rohleder.
As she gets ready for the next recruiting event, Rose will make sure she has her swag in order – the coins, pens, and lanyards to give away to potential recruits – as well as making sure she’s ready to answer any questions potential employees might have. And, of course, she’ll be ready to have those conversations and show those who might want to join Air and Marine Operations and CBP that it’s a great job with a real future.
“I explain that there is a great work-life balance,” Rose said, adding, that at least in her job, she normally gets to go home every night and there are great opportunities [for those] who want to have this career with CBP and still have a family. “It’s a growing agency and a great place to work.”