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Behind the baggage: Screening luggage is a big deal, but TSA does far more

Jun. 10, 2014 - 11:19AM   |  
Navy veteran Anthony Jones, center, is TSA's supervisor of explosives detection and canine operations at the Atlanta airport.
Navy veteran Anthony Jones, center, is TSA's supervisor of explosives detection and canine operations at the Atlanta airport. (Kevin Liles)
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The U.S. Transportation Security Administration: Keeping our skies safe, one piece of luggage at a time.

Don’t be mistaken. Airport screeners are a vital link in the transportation safety chain. They seek out explosives and other dubious materials, X-ray baggage and screen nearly 2 million passengers a day.

But that’s not the only way to serve. In fact, TSA has a range of careers available to those who want to help safeguard the nation’s airports, rail cars and subways.

Taming the hounds

Anthony Jones served on active duty in the Navy and then in the Reserve, leaving in 2011 as a chief petty officer. Now he oversees dog handlers as supervisor of canine operations for TSA in Atlanta, work he describes as a continuation of his military mission.

“I was in Bahrain when the security bug bit me. My unit was in force protection, and I felt like I was doing my part to make sure 9/11 didn’t happen again,” he said. “When I read the job descriptions about TSA, I had to get excited. This was in line with everything I wanted to do: security, management, logistics.”

Now he supervises 15 people and 15 canines — “30 employees,” he says — screening 2 million pounds of cargo per month. “The days are never the same; there’s always something. Maybe the canine gets a positive response, or maybe a handler doesn’t have a good day. The wheel is constantly turning,” he said.

Canine management is just one of several TSA careers that are off the beaten track.

Looking for leaders

TSA employs 62,000 people, include 13,600 veterans, roughly 22 percent of its workforce. Military veterans are especially well suited to the work, said Mark J. Howell, a TSA regional spokesman.

“We are always looking for traits like leadership ability,” Howell said. “Communication is another big one: We are running security in more than 450 airports, so communication becomes key when you have an undertaking of that scale.”

Intelligence operations specialists are a good fit. At salaries of $69,000 to $131,000 a year, these experts review potential threats and produce intelligence products, reports and briefings.

“They look at trends globally, trying to pick up on current risks, then they adjust screening procedures according to those risks. The intelligence operations specialist will look at global threats and at threats to their locations. And that information may come in from all sorts of different agencies,” Howell said. “They watch the news, they keep up on things in a hundred different ways and put it all together, like pieces of a puzzle.”

A background in military intelligence helps, and strong analytic and problem-solving skills are a major advantage for those seeking this job.

Tech specialists

Information technology specialists are part of the vast invisible machinery that makes up TSA’s operations.

“The screeners are the face of the organization ... the ones that people interact with on a daily basis. But there are a lot of behind-the-scenes folks, and that includes the technology that runs data. A lot of that comes down to computer infrastructure,” Howell said.

IT specialists, who earn $73,000 to $138,000 a year, help make those wheels turn. “They do the same thing as the IT people in the military — they set up IT infrastructures, maintain them, provide oversight for their operations. And IT is continually changing, so there is the need not just to implement and maintain it, but to find ways to enhance it over time,” Howell said.

Military IT experience is a big advantage in applying for the job. Technology education and other hands-on experience also may help to open that door.

Sniffing out trouble

In addition to these positions, which are often available, TSA has a range of back-office roles that all help bolster security, although there are fewer openings. For example, the agency has professionals who reach out to individuals with disabilities, manage medical records and oversee logistics. There are psychologists and operations managers as well.

Then there are the jobs most in demand, such as canine handler. TSA employs some 972 of these nationwide. They’re trained at the TSA Explosives Detection Canine Handler Course co-located at the Defense Department’s Military Working Dog School at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. It’s an intensive program: 11 weeks developing handler skills, learning explosives handling, getting to know transportation requirements.

“You don’t have to have experience with canines,” Howell said. “There are other skills that carry over from the military.”

But handlers must be disciplined and organized, and must know how to report an issue up the chain of command.

“In this position, you have to be the most disciplined, patient person,” Jones said. “Our mission is specifically explosive detection, and if you omit the details, it will cost somebody’s life. That’s what you learn in the military: Details, details, details.”

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