To bring on more pilots, CBP streamlines hiring process

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is streamlining its hiring process for fixed- and rotary-wing pilots, with the goal of bringing on new hires in as little as 60 days.

CBP’s new hire rodeos in Oklahoma City will allow pilot applicants to complete multiple parts of their assessment, including a flight evaluation, in a single day. CPB/James Tourtellotte Photo
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That’s a significant acceleration for a complex government hiring process that in the past could drag on for more than a year. Even as recently as two years ago, with the CBP’s pilot recruitment efforts in full swing, applicants could expect to devote six months to the process before receiving a job offer.

Now, according to supervisory air interdiction agent Jamie St. Dennis, CBP is doing everything it can to bring qualified applicants on board. “We’re here to help them,” he said. “We want quality people and are trying to make this process as easy as possible.”

To that end, CBP is launching a series of “new hire rodeos” at its National Air Training Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. There, applicants will be able to complete all three phases of their pilot assessment — an oral exam, a flight evaluation, and a structured interview — in a single day. Applicants who complete the assessment successfully will receive an immediate job offer.

Supervisory air interdiction agent Michael Carter explained that the oral exam is similar to the oral exam on a Federal Aviation Administration commercial pilot checkride, while the flight evaluation — conducted in an Airbus EC120 or AS350 for rotary-wing applicants — combines elements of a flight review and instrument proficiency check. The structured interview, conducted before a panel of three pilots, encompasses scenario-based questions that “anybody should be able to answer,” such as how one would handle a difficult co-worker, he said.

“We let the applicant know all day as they’re going through the process how they’re doing,” Carter added. “It’s nerve-racking to not know if you passed the last thing that you did, so we make sure to tell them right there, ‘Hey, you did a great job, you’re moving on to the next phase.'”

Additionally, CBP will have a polygraph examiner available for those applicants who have not yet completed their requisite polygraph test. Although CBP has added informational videos and frequently asked questions about the polygraph to its website, the exam remains a source of apprehension for many applicants, so CBP will also have an applicant care specialist on hand to discuss the polygraph with each applicant before they take it.

“In the field oftentimes, an applicant would just show up at a testing facility . . . and go right into the exam with little instruction or understanding of how it even works,” St. Dennis noted. “We’ve found that by having this applicant care specialist in the process, we’re increasing our success rate.”

Finally, CBP will also have a quality control specialist available at the rodeo to assess the results of each polygraph immediately. “It can normally take a day or two or three in order to have one fully evaluated, and we’re going to know right then,” St. Dennis said.

The first new-hire rodeo is taking place in Oklahoma City this week. A second rodeo is scheduled for the week of Sept. 23, and CBP Air and Marine Operations (AMO) hopes to do up to 10 more in fiscal year 2020 (which starts Oct. 1). The rodeos are open to any pilot applicant who would otherwise need to schedule the evaluations individually — which remains an option.

CBP has also made some other changes to make it easier for pilots to join AMO. Previously, applicants who failed any part of the pilot assessment had to wait six months before reapplying. That has been reduced to just 90 days, and applicants who return within a year can pick up where they left off. The agency has also eliminated the requirement for pilots to have flown 100 hours in the past 12 months, opening the door for applicants who haven’t flown professionally for a while, due to any number of possible life circumstances.

Carter also pointed out that CBP has several options for waiving the standard applicant age limit of 40. “One of the other things that applicants assume is that [they’re] over the age limit, so [they] don’t apply,” he said. “So one thing that we’ve tried to advertise a little bit more is that there’s a wide range of military service that you can use to waive that age limit, and the recruiters will walk you through that process.”

While CBP is still seeing stiff competition for pilots from industry and the airlines in particular, St. Dennis noted that a recent pay increase has made its pilot positions much more competitive. When federal worker benefits are also taken into account, he said, “there’s not too many employers that are going to be able to keep up with us.” He added that many pilots also appreciate the structure of the job, where “you’re not sleeping in hotels, you’re not doing long trips like the airlines do.”

For many applicants, Carter observed, the mission and variety of the job are also a big part of its appeal. “I get a lot of new hire applicants coming through that have done the airline thing,” he said. “They go to the regional airlines and they say, ‘I want more out of my job — I want it to mean something.’ And so I get a lot of airline applicants that want a mission.”

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