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How COVID-19 Downtime Could Shift the TSA Training Paradigm

The Transportation Security Administration is most notably responsible for helping to protect the nation’s air transportation system from a wide variety of threats, including terrorism. With a primary focus on airport security, the agency screens millions of passengers and their bags each day and its transportation security officers are staffing checkpoints at nearly 440 federalized airports. Ensuring TSOs are as well-trained as possible is therefore a vital task, and one which the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has at times found TSA could perhaps do more efficiently and effectively.

TSA Screeners

Currently, more than 43,000 TSOs (known by the general public simply as TSA screeners) work to keep people secure. To do so effectively, TSA requires its screeners to undergo regular training, including when they’re first hired. Refresher training is a normal part of every TSO’s work experience, and each receives training on any new technology or security screening process applicable to their role within the organization. Career advancement training is also offered to screeners by TSA and plenty of its TSOs have gone on to frontline as well as mid-level and senior leadership positions at the agency. So far so good, but is TSA doing all it can to ensure its TSO training programs are the best they can be? Let’s look at where the agency is at in terms of training its screeners after they complete initial training and become part of the workforce.

Screener Training Development Process

According to a February 2020 report, GAO says that since 2015 TSA has “developed and updated its screener training to address potential risks to commercial airports identified through covert testing and reports on emerging threats.” The federal security agency has long used established training models for its screener workforce and it has a formal screener training development process administered by its Office of Training and Development (OTD). It is OTD which decides whether screener training will be developed, what needs are to be addressed, the design of the training course and what training materials are needed. OTD also tests out the pilot training courses it develops and then deploys the final version of each course to the field, where local training can be accomplished.

Issues GAO found with TSA’s screener training development process include documenting the process for just how it monitors screener training compliance and noncompliance at its airports, which is where all such training is conducted. Without accurate documentation, GAO found, it could be difficult for TSA to detect trends related to just how many screeners are completing required refresher and other training courses.

Remote Training Possibilities

There are also currently no mechanisms or provisions for TSA screeners to complete any refresher or other training remotely, such as at home on a secure website, let alone on a personal tablet or mobile device or the like. This is admittedly a curious spot for the nation’s largest aviation security agency to find itself in, given that it’s a 21st century creation and exists within the most technologically sophisticated era in U.S. history. However, there’s opportunity to be found in any hazardous or even dangerous situation, and this is no different for TSA. Consider, for instance, that the current COVID-19 pandemic has seen daily screening numbers plummet. On April 2, for example, only 124,000 people nationwide were screened at TSA’s airport checkpoints — where millions are typically screened daily. In response, the agency has allowed many screeners to take time off as they need it, no questions asked, in the face of such reduced passenger traffic.

To its credit, TSA has always been extremely nimble at adjusting its staffing numbers to reflect the demand it sees at the airports it helps protect. So if there’s a silver lining in the dark cloud created by this global pandemic, it’s that such extremely low screening numbers present a perfect opportunity for TSA to really look at how it’s training its people and to change the ways in which it does so. It’s a true opportunity for TSA to shift its training paradigm, in other words, and the agency has the support of Congress and the urging of the Department of Homeland Security, which is the parent agency of TSA, to carry it all out.

TSA Modernization Act

In 2018, as part of the FAA Authorization Act it sent to President Donald Trump to be signed into law, Congress also included the TSA Modernization Act, the first ever reauthorization of the TSA since its 2001 founding. The aim of the law is to support TSA in its efforts to modernize both its structure as well as its operations, including how it trains its people. Additionally, in a March 2019 report, the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general identified several opportunities for TSA to not only document training but also improve it through streamlining it and making it more efficient.

The New Training Paradigm

Given the recent push by Congress and DHS for TSA to reassess itself, it only makes sense for the agency to turn the travel downturn created by COVID-19 on its ear and make a concerted effort to modernize its training programs, for one. Doing so will improve not only accountability – ensuring that TSA screeners are training when they should and that documentation of it all is readily available for review – but also responsiveness. If TSA is to improve how it responds to the training needs of its screeners, it must make it easier and more convenient for them to train.

By making training opportunities for its screeners available while they’re at home, due to the current operating environment, including on their off days through personal tablets or smartphones, TSA will be able to ensure every screener is trained as fully as possible. The security agency will be able to shift its training paradigm to one more suited to the 2020s and beyond, in fact, and quite possibly see improvements in screener morale as one more hurdle to staying up to date is eliminated. Once training is completed, skills assessment including no-notice quizzes and exams as well as success in carrying out the tasks associated with the training will help ensure TSOs are taking remote training seriously, too.

TSA takes its training seriously in every case, especially while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and TSOs on duty at TSA are still engaged in on-site computer-based training. Adding a remote training capability will not only support current training but also allows the agency much greater flexibility in delivering rapid procedural changes, environmental awareness briefings and training of every type, including sending out COVID-19 specific updates to passenger security screening procedures as they’re developed. This will elevate TSA’s training responsiveness to a higher level and make it easier to ensure every screener gets the very latest in screening protocols even while the country deals with the coronavirus pandemic.

A Real Opportunity

When it comes to making training resources available on a remote basis to its screeners, TSA must also ensure the security of such programs, which are almost always classified as “Sensitive Security Information,” or SSI, at minimum, but this shouldn’t pose too many problems. U.S. airlines have been conducting computer-based training for their own people – which include portions that are also SSI in nature – for years. The air carriers and their vendors have generally made it possible for employees to remotely access the refresher and update courses and materials they need, so why can’t TSA?

Given the support TSA can draw on, the agency should be able to not only deliver remote training programs in short order but also ensure their complete security as well. The COVID-19 pandemic presents a real opportunity for the federal security agency to sweep away old ways of thinking when it comes to how it trains its people.

Outcompeting all Peers

From public reports, TSA is indeed seizing the chance to turn its training programs into a 21st century wonder and has opened a massive opportunity for training companies to provide innovative solutions in a soon-to-be-launched TSA training procurement request. Many TSA vendors are looking forward to bidding on that request, and just this step alone should propel the nation’s finest airport security agency ahead of its global peers for years to come.

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Kelly Hoggan is the Founder and Chief Executive Officer of H4 Solutions—a consultancy that advises clients in the transportation sector with particular expertise in aviation security and aviation operations. Mr. Hoggan draws on his three decades’ leadership experience in aviation security and aviation operations to provide value-added services to clients around the globe. Prior to founding H4 Solutions in June 2016, Mr. Hoggan served as Assistant Administrator for Screening Operations at TSA. During his three-year tenure, he was the chief management official responsible for TSA’s security operations—a $4.1 billion annual effort that includes 55,000 TSA employees to screen, on a daily basis, over 1.8 million passengers across 450 U.S. airports. Mr. Hoggan managed all security programs related to these airports and served as TSA’s chief technical expert on airport operations, programs, activities, and screening technologies. Under his leadership, TSA further enhanced its security measures to ensure passenger security and safety. This included implementing TSA Pre✓® at over 142 locations, allowing over 48% of the nation’s daily traveling public to access some type of expedited screening, and adopting new technologies to enhance checkpoint and baggage screening operations. Before being appointed Assistant Administrator for Screening Operations, Mr. Hoggan led TSA’s Office of Global Strategies (OGS), at which he worked towards a more secure global transportation network by engaging foreign partners—including governments, associations, and airports—and served as the Senior US Aviation Security Expert at ICAO. His 12 years’ TSA service also included as Assistant Administrator for the Office of Security Capabilities (OSC) and over nine years in the Senior Executive Service. When he joined TSA in 2004, Mr. Hoggan brought to the young organization over 18 years’ industry experience. This included senior management positions in airport operations, planning, and process improvement at Air Canada—the ninth largest airline in the world. At its Toronto Hub, he directed all customer service operations and led initiatives to fully-integrate the frontline workforce. Mr. Hoggan earned a B.S. in Business Administration from Strayer University, is a six sigma blackbelt, and holds certificates from the Federal Executive Institute, Senior Executive Service, UVA’s Darden School of Business, and USC’s Center for Organizational Effectiveness.

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