TSA Administrator David Pekoske speaks during his State of TSA address at George Washington University on March 7, 2018. (Rich Cooper/Homeland Security Today)

State of TSA: Pekoske Stresses Need to Invest in Workforce

When he stood before the assembled television cameras and audience at George Washington University today to deliver the first “State of TSA” address, it was fairly easy to tell what was on TSA Administrator David Pekoske’s mind: his people.

“Since coming to TSA I have been inspired by the dedication of TSA’s workforce to the mission – and to each other,” he said, adding that “the memory of 9/11 motivates all of us to do our critical work in support of our fellow citizens every day in airports and surface transportation systems across our great country and beyond.”

Opening with a video detailing a multitude of news stories over the past year in which TSA’s people screened passengers, responded to incidents in airports or other transportation hubs, and utilized new technologies to make screening passengers safer and more expedient, the former vice commandant of the Coast Guard emphasized that the workforce is his organization’s important resource.

Seated in a reserved set of rows before Pekoske were some of the people featured in the opening video. Each of them, as well as other assembled colleagues, had distinguished themselves in ways that few among the general public may recognize or appreciate.

That was not good enough for Pekoske. He wanted to celebrate their example, their training and their commitment to safeguard the public from the ever-present threat every time we board a plane, a train or a bus. He praised “a workforce that is over 60,000 strong – a capable and diverse workforce with a complex, expansive and absolutely critical mission.”

The administrator even employed the classic State of the Union “Lenny Skutnik moment,” where he called out by name Transportation Security Officers Rick Perez, Adam Falise and Nancy Medeiros for their courage and example – showing the audience, media and public how good his people are and how they rise to the occasion when duty calls.

Pekoske’s remarks, along with the new TSA strategy he revealed to take the agency forward, reinforced how much TSA’s employees matter to the homeland security mission.

“In the years since 9/11, we have been successful in our fundamental and vital mission, but we must remain ever-vigilant,” Pekoske said. “Aviation and surface transportation hubs remain highly prized targets for terrorists. Their modes and methods of attack have evolved and become much more decentralized and opportunistic than ever before.”

“…We can no longer focus only on preventing the bad guys from getting into the secure area of an airport. More and more we must focus on both sides of the checkpoint and in the public areas where airport and surface transportation systems intersect. We face ambitious adversaries who are continuously looking for a point of attack and waiting for their opportunity. Our job is to make sure they never have that opportunity.”

Pekoske focused on three strategy points to “guide TSA through our 25th anniversary in 2026”: supporting and strengthening frontline operations, accelerating action and innovation by thinking and acting quickly, and recommitting to the TSA workforce.

“The greatest technology in the world won’t help us if we don’t have trained and motivated security professionals leading at every level,” he said. “We will invest so that we can attract, hire, train, develop, retain our workforce to make TSA an employer of choice.”

When former Coast Guard Vice Commandant Adm. Peter Neffenger led TSA from 2015-2017, he had to literally rebuild the agency’s training, morale and recruitment – as well as basic screening operations as the agency was reeling from scathing reports and performance failures in screening passengers.

That was then, this is now as Pekoske’s tenure is benefiting from the investments that Neffenger made in training, personnel and leadership. Pekoske’s State of TSA remarks built upon the improved, more solid foundation he inherited from his predecessor.

Keeping good talent in any organization when an economy is hot is hard enough, but the investments Pekoske is proposing in money, operations, entrepreneurial spirt, training, faster response and deployments, and more are focused on keeping team members in active and attentive service to the homeland.

“We must engage, inform and empower the public to see themselves as part of the security solution and as recipients of a secure system. Security is a collective effort and it takes all of us to secure the homeland,” Pekoske said. “We have to think more strategically and make the most of our resources. That is what our new TSA strategy calls on us to do.”

Funding those resources may not be easy.

While the recent Trump administration budget request proposes giving TSA an additional $71 million for new technology deployments to enhance passenger screening, investments in training and personnel almost always seem to get shortchanged by federal budget processes. Pekoske and TSA’s Human Capital team are going to have their work cut out for them to make their case why the agency’s people are and always will be its most important investment in securing the homeland.

People make a mission personal, as Pekoske emphasized throughout his remarks. He wanted to let not just the American public but his employees know that he would be standing with them and by them as long as he was their leader.

The TSA administrator stressed that “securing our nation’s transportation system is a complex task and government cannot do it alone.”

“Transportation security is a collective effort and all of us have a role to play,” he said. “When we perform our roles well, we create a choreographed partnership defined by a shared commitment to safety and security.”

Pekoske’s new take on the old TSA motto “Not on My Watch” has been revised to “Not on Our Watch,” and the TSA administrator made clear that he will be with his people on the front lines keeping watch. And that’s a great place for him to be.

Rich Cooper is Editor-at-Large for HSToday. A former senior member of DHS’ Private Sector Office (PSO), Cooper has been a frequent writer and contributor to numerous media outlets. He is a Senior Fellow with GWU’s Cyber and Homeland Security Institute; a Senior Policy Principal for Homeland Security and Justice at SAS Federal and a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC. He has also served in senior positions at NASA, the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation, and several other profit and not-for-profit enterprises.

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