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L.A. Airport Breaks Free of Centralized Hiring System

September 12, 2006
A new way of recruiting passenger screeners at Los Angeles International Airport has Larry Fetters breathing a sigh of relief.

    Fetters, the airport’s federal security director, was a lot more stressed a few months ago.

    Then, LAX and other airports around the country were using Sacramento, California-based CPS Human Resources Services, a federal contract company, to recruit new federal screeners. But LAX consistently needed more new screeners than it was getting.

    Fetters says about a year and a half ago, when he was using CPS recruiters and personnel specialists to help him hire for LAX, there was a sudden call to a crisis at another airport. He was left without any help in recruiting locally, and had to shoulder the burden of managing passenger screenings while woefully understaffed.

    "There’s a need for 45,000 security officers for all 450 airports across the United States," Fetters says. "It’s a bigger job than any one company can do."

    In March, the federal government decided to decentralize the recruiting job for transportation security officers. The government put the airports themselves in charge of recruiting to fill their own needs.

    "They told us, ‘You have no budget, no facility, just figure it out,’" Fetters says.

    He went to officials from Los Angeles World Airports, a quasi-public/private organization tied to the city of Los Angeles, which oversees LAX operations. In a nutshell, Fetters told them that his problem was also theirs.

    "If I can’t be successful in recruiting, testing and hiring screeners, the airport is going to suffer," he remembers telling them. He asked for help in setting up a hiring center that could keep his staff needs of more than 2,000 from falling below that level.

    LAX has no small need for screeners, 24/7. It has 13 passenger checkpoints fed by 68 passenger lanes.

    His point was well taken. By the end of April, he had a space leased from LAWA, and was up and running. It didn’t hurt that he got a lot of political support. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was behind it as a jobs creation project, as were area U.S. Reps. Jane Harman and Maxine Waters.

    A vacant elementary school owned by LAWA was found in Westchester, a mile and a half from the airport. Fetters was happy to get space that wasn’t actually at LAX. If recruits were faced with getting into and out of the mega-airport, they might encounter "a nightmare."

    The new site isn’t traffic challenged. It’s in a light industrial/residential area with available parking.

    A 3,300-square-foot piece of the school is being leased to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration by LAWA. There’s a reason for all that space.

    "We need to reach and touch 600 applicants a month," Fetters says. From that pool, only 40 are hired as screeners for the airport. Six full-timers on Fetters’ staff help with recruiting efforts and applicant interviews.

    Sacramento-based CPS still provides manpower to help Fetters’ recruitment efforts in Southern California. Job fairs are supplied with brochures explaining how to apply for a federal airport screening job, as are unemployment offices, county employment departments, and junior colleges.

    Applicants do so online, then are scheduled for several hours of tests, some computer-based. They’re checked on their ability to accurately read images on an X-ray screen ("Not that common of a skill," Fetters says). They’re interviewed and tested for color recognition and simple physical ability. They’re given a medical exam, are screened for drug-use histories and are fingerprinted to flag any criminal background.

    Those newly hired also undergo a week’s worth of classroom training.

    Another 5,000 square feet of the school is being leased to the TSA to conduct recruitment and hiring of airport police officers.

    Fetters isn’t sure, but suspects most other airports around the country do screener recruiting on-site in reconditioned space already leased by the TSA. But now, the feds are considering making its LAX testing and training center available to TSA operations at other Southern California airports.

    These days, LAX screener recruitment efforts are going "surprisingly well," Fetters says.

    "I thought I’d have a bigger challenge," he says. "But I met a lot of smart, energetic people who work for me. They’ve done a good job of organizing."

    Since the reorganization effort, Fetters’ crew has hired 240 screeners. For the time being, he expects the need to hire about 100 a month. He figures it will normalize to a pace of about 40 a month.

    Getting interested applicants isn’t hard, he notes, because it is a shot at starting a career path within the federal government. Such jobs are popular for offering regular work, clean environments and good benefits.

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