Searching for the Best
At the age of 9, Shelly Lubin wanted to be a police officer. By the time she was 13, she thought about joining the military, how it could help pay for school. But at no time did she ever consider becoming a Border Patrol agent. "I had never heard about the Border Patrol," said Lubin. "I had no idea what it was."
Lubin, who ultimately served eight years in the Navy and graduated with a criminology degree from Florida State University in Tallahassee, decided to apply at the FBI. It was one of the law enforcement agencies Lubin’s college had listed to help students with their job search. Lubin applied, passed the first phase of testing, and then the FBI had a hiring freeze.
A few months later, 9/11 shook the nation. "I wanted to do something for my country," said Lubin, who thought about rejoining the Navy. But then, Lubin saw something in the newspaper. "There was a huge advertisement for the Border Patrol. I didn’t ever remember hearing about the Border Patrol," she said.
Lubin did some research and found what she learned appealing. "I decided while I’m waiting to finish the FBI’s hiring process, I’ll apply for the Border Patrol," she said. Lubin applied and was hired. Soon after, she realized she wanted to stay. "I loved it," she said. "I’ve always liked being outdoors. I love getting in my truck, going out to my area and patrolling. I couldn’t believe they were paying me to do this job."
That was 14 years ago. For the first 10 years of her career at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Lubin was stationed in San Diego, patrolling the border. Today, she is an assistant chief at the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in Washington, D.C. "I wanted to show the federal agents out in the field that if you work hard enough, you can advance in your career," said Lubin, who is one of the thousands of agents and officers at CBP who are protecting America.
At a time when federal hiring has slowed at many agencies, CBP is moving at full throttle to recruit new agents and officers to fill its ranks. Within the next few years, CBP will need to meet critical hiring needs for all its uniformed personnel. In January, President Trump issued an executive order calling for the hiring of an additional 5,000 Border Patrol agents. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kelly also issued a directive to add 500 Air and Marine agents. Both are in addition to filling a deficit of more than 1,300 CBP officers and 1,700 Border Patrol agents.
Filling the ranks
"It’s a huge undertaking with many challenges, but we’re making headway," said Michael Tucker, commander of CBP’s National Frontline Recruitment Command, a division of CBP’s Office of Human Resources Management, which is responsible for the agency’s recruitment strategy and hiring efforts. Aside from these numbers, Tucker said he also needs to take the agency’s attrition into account. “People retire and take other jobs based on many factors,” he said. “The attrition numbers average around five percent for us right now, which is quite high. We need to hire almost 3,000 agents and officers annually for the next five years to attain our goals."
Tucker, who is a Border Patrol agent himself, said that CBP is using two basic recruitment methods. Online advertising and recruiting in person at job fairs, college campuses, and military bases where CBP recruiters work with transitioning veterans’ programs. Last year, CBP conducted 4,407 recruiting events nationwide. "We’re trying to do a better job of attracting more people to recruiting events so that prospective candidates can meet officers and agents and ask questions," said Tucker.
CBP also has taken steps to recruit on military bases. "We physically travel to military installations. We have one base, Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where we are co-located with military hiring personnel, and we’re working toward similar arrangements with five other military bases," explained Tucker. "This expedites the hiring process because we’re right there. Applicants can see a CBP representative onsite who can answer questions, help them apply online, and talk to them about the benefits of CBP."
Furthermore, the National Frontline Recruitment Command has a special unit that focuses on hiring military veterans. "Military personnel have a special vernacular," said Tucker. "We wanted to train our forces to speak that language so we can attract the best candidates. Close to 30 percent of our workforce are veterans and we’re proud of that number."
CBP’s efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2016, employment websites, Monster and Military.com, ranked CBP as the No. 2 best employer for hiring and retaining veterans.
CBP also does a fair amount of recruiting on college campuses. "We have focused a lot on colleges and it hasn’t attracted as many successful candidates as we had hoped. We think part of it is timing," said Tucker. "Our events were held first semester as opposed to second semester. We’ve realized that we need to reach students just prior to graduation." Tucker also explained that his team plans to establish more relationships with community colleges. "We want to reach students who have not yet decided which career path to take," he said.
From a geographical perspective, Tucker said that the majority of applicants and successful hires come from areas along the U.S. coastline and Southwest border. "We have not seen a great deal of applicants from the Northern border or the heartland of the U.S.," said Tucker, adding that CBP is now focusing its efforts on the Midwest, where there is an untapped pool of quality applicants.
Inspiring success story
Case in point is José Venegas, a supervisory CBP officer in Chicago who serves as the agency’s liaison to federal, state, and local law enforcement partners. Venegas first learned about the U.S. Customs Service, one of CBP’s legacy agencies, and its career opportunities when he was 17 years old and joined the Explorer Program, a law enforcement sponsored program for local area youth.
As a first generation American who was born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Venegas grew up in an immigrant neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, where the schools were bilingual and his classes were taught in Spanish. Not until he was exposed to the Explorer Program did he realize that he needed to learn how to communicate in English to get ahead. "I understood that if I wanted to go into federal law enforcement, especially into customs, communication needed to be a strength. Otherwise, I was going to be in big trouble. So I ended up overcoming my language barrier. I had to," he said.
At first, Venegas studied on his own. "I bought all of these books and taught myself how to read and write in English," he said. Then Venegas decided to go to school. "My parents didn’t have the money to send me to college, so I worked summers at a car wash or I did landscaping," said Venegas, who initially enrolled at a community college in the city. After a couple of years, he transferred to DePaul University in Chicago. "I took a lot of tutoring and used every resource available," he said. In the end, Venegas earned straight A’s in all of his English classes and graduated from DePaul University with high honors. His degree is in elementary education, but Venegas decided not to teach at a grammar school. Instead, he joined the U.S. Customs Service.
"I thought I would enjoy teaching people, talking to kids, but I wanted to do it in the law enforcement field. I just found it so intriguing working with the community, explaining what we do," said Venegas. Today, 23 years later, Venegas has risen through the ranks at CBP while continuing to be part of the Explorer Program, only now he’s mentoring inner city kids as a CBP advisor, inspiring them to achieve their goals.
Rigorous hiring process
The hiring process for CBP officers and agents is rigorous. After submitting an application, candidates for CBP officers and Border Patrol agents take an entrance exam. "There isn’t an entrance exam for Air and Marine pilots and boat captains because they’ve already received certification," said Tucker. "But they are required to do an aerial test flight or a test drive on a boat."
Qualified applicants are then asked to take a medical exam and a basic physical fitness test. For these phases, CBP offers reciprocity to veterans who have recently completed a military medical or fitness test.
At this point, applicants fill out documents to initiate a background investigation. CBP officer and Border Patrol agent candidates then undergo a scenario-based interview conducted by a certified panel of officers and agents of various ranks. Air and Marine applicants go through different interview procedures at CBP’s aviation and marine academies. If candidates successfully pass the interview, they are asked to take a polygraph. "If they pass the polygraph, candidates will undergo a background investigation," said Tucker. "After they pass the background investigation, applicants may be required to pass a random drug test before a final offer is extended. If they accept, the new hires will enter on duty and begin their careers with CBP."
One of the major challenges CBP faces is the length of time it takes to complete its hiring process. In 2015, it took an average of 469 days to bring potential candidates on board. The process in place today has shown the capacity to hire candidates in 160 days.
CBP sped up the process by establishing "hiring hubs," where many steps of the hiring process take place at one location during the course of a weekend. "We set up hiring hubs at military bases three times a year to process applicants’ entrance exams, conduct structured interviews, perform polygraph tests, provide adjudication, and grant provisional clearance," said Tucker.
"Our goal is to hire 100 percent of our applicants through a hiring hub," he said. "If we can do that, we can cut down the time it takes to process and hire applicants substantially, which is a great benefit to us. The talent pool isn’t just applying for a job with CBP. If we aren’t quick enough and reactive to their needs, then they’re going to find employment somewhere else."
Recent legislation also has helped CBP expedite its hiring process. In December 2016, the National Defense Authorization Act was passed, waiving polygraph tests for veterans who already have an active Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information, or TS/SCI, security clearance when they are separating from their branch of service. Similarly, the Border Jobs for Veterans Act of 2015 gives reciprocity to certain veterans for physical fitness tests. "We are trying to make it easier for candidates to apply while maintaining our high standards," said Tucker.
According to Tucker, CBP’s best recruiters are the uniformed agents and officers. "They know the mission better than anyone else. They do it every day," he said.
"I was inspired to become a Border Patrol agent because I saw that agents care about what happens to people. They risk their lives to save people, not just apprehend them," said Casey Adams, a 22-year veteran of the U.S. Border Patrol who leads one of the National Frontline Recruitment Command teams. "They go through life every day with one mission—to make the world better for everyone else, not necessarily themselves. That’s what I wanted to do. It was my calling."
CBP Officer Rita Lott’s first encounter with customs was when she returned to the U.S. after taking a cruise and was sent to secondary.
“It was my first trip overseas and when I came back I was pulled out of line and sent to secondary for further inspection. The CBP officers wanted to check my bags,” said Lott. “I was wondering what I did wrong. Was I in trouble? Am I going to jail? I guess it was just a random check, but I was terrified,” she said.
That’s when Lott discovered the CBP officer who was searching her bags was kind. "She was really nice," Lott said. "I started asking her questions about her job and she told me how much she liked it."
After Lott returned home, she spoke to her brother about what happened and did a little research. "I didn’t know anything about traveling overseas, so it piqued my interest," she said. Lott’s brother noticed that there was a job posting online for CBP officers and told his sister to apply. But Lott, who has a degree in microbiology and was a consumer safety officer for the Department of Commerce at the time, decided to wait. Time passed and Lott’s brother asked her if she had ever applied for the job at CBP. That got her thinking and eventually she did and was hired.
"Once I started working at CBP, I looked at all of the job opportunities that were available. There are so many things to do," said Lott, who now has been with CBP for 14 years and is a recruitment program manager. "Most people don’t realize all the different duties that CBP officers have. When people travel overseas and return to the U.S., they know we ask them questions, but they don’t realize that we check all the goods and services that come in from clothing to food to cars. Everything that crosses the border including the mail goes through CBP. The average person doesn’t really understand the depth of our jobs, how many different things we actually are involved in."
Dreams taking flight
CBP is also a place where people fulfill their dreams. Such was the case for Todd Gayle, who knew he wanted to be a pilot since he was a sophomore in high school. "I wanted to fly, but I came from very humble means. I didn’t have any money for college," said Gayle, who grew up in Wisconsin. "At the time, there was only one school in the entire state that offered a degree in aviation and it wasn’t cheap. So I was kind of in a pickle."
Some of Gayle’s college-bound friends suggested he enlist in the Army. They knew that the military offered money for college under the G.I. Bill. Gayle didn’t want to make a career out of it though. He had set his sights on going to flight school and becoming a pilot. The Army recruiter told him that if he wanted to shorten his enlistment, he could take a combat position. So Gayle did. "I drove tanks in the Army during the Iraq War," he said.
When Gayle was stateside, he was stationed in El Paso, Texas. There, he was introduced to a Border Patrol agent who offered to let him ride along so that Gayle could see what the Border Patrol did. That’s when Gayle discovered that the Border Patrol had an aviation unit with a pilot training program. "When I heard that, I specifically set my goal to get into the program," said Gayle.
After he finished his tour with the Army, Gayle went back to Wisconsin to go to flight school. He graduated and, in 1996, was hired by the Border Patrol. "I spent 6-1/2 years as an agent on the ground before I was able to pick up a pilot slot," said Gayle. "There were a lot of people including family members that kept questioning if I was ever going to be a pilot. It would have been easy to be dissuaded from continuing that pursuit, but once I received my first pilot job, where I was getting paid to fly, I was like a kid on Christmas morning. When I first got my flight suit and gloves, I literally wore them around the house the whole day," he said.
Supervisory Air Interdiction Agent Todd Gayle, left, conducts a preflight briefing with Aviation Enforcement Agent Fabian Cardiel at CBP’s El Paso Air Branch in El Paso, Texas. Photo by Ruben Reyes
At CBP, Todd Gayle was able to fulfill his dream of becoming a pilot and flying multiple aircraft. Photo by Ruben Reyes
Things have changed for current applicants. "There is a shortage of pilots now throughout the aviation industry," said Gayle, who is now a supervisory air interdiction agent in CBP’s Air and Marine Operations. "Today, we do what we call ‘street hires.’ As long as a pilot can meet the hourly flight requirements, he or she can potentially come on board."
Since 9/11, CBP’s primary mission is counterterrorism, along with facilitating safe, legitimate trade and travel across the U.S. borders. "Air and Marine Operations provides the maritime and aviation aspects of looking for human smugglers, drug smugglers, and people who are smuggling anything else that’s illegal," said Gayle.
Furthermore, CBP’s Air and Marine Operations work with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies that request support. "If the president comes to town, we’re going to be flying overhead to do counter-surveillance," said Gayle. "We also provide security for events such as the Super Bowl or when the Olympics are in the U.S. So it’s a very diverse mission set, which is one of the appeals of the job. Every day is different."
As a pilot, Gayle has achieved his highest ambitions too. "Through CBP, I’ve been able to realize my dreams of flying multiple aircraft," he said. "A lot of people in the military will fly one airframe or at the commercial airlines, maybe they’ll fly two airframes, but I get to fly them all—little planes, big planes, jets, little helicopters, big helicopters—and I can have my pick of aircraft, depending on where I’m stationed."