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As Customs and Border Protection (CBP) continues to make the national headlines, the agency’s top priority isn’t getting national news attention.
CBP is still losing more law enforcement officers faster than it can hire replacements, despite President Donald Trump’s call for the agency to hire at least 5,000 new border agents to comply with last January’s executive orders on border security.
It’s why hiring remains the top priority for the CBP commissioner, who hosts weekly meetings with senior officials on the topic, said Mark Borkowski, CBP’s chief acquisition officer.
Without many new options to resolve CBP’s hiring challenges, the agency is turning to industry for help.
“We at CBP are starting to ask these kinds of questions about what can communities like you do for us?” Borkowski said last week at the Professional Services Council’s Federal Law Enforcement Conference in Arlington, Va. “We’re starting to understand that if we figure out the right way to ask the question, maybe it’s worth taking a chance on you.”
CBP consciously made the decision to take that approach late last year, when it awarded a $297 million contract to Accenture Federal Services to support the agency’s hiring activities, applicant testing, suitability screening and hiring process re-engineering work.
“The idea was to bring industry in so that we could watch how industry attacked the problem, and maybe we could learn from that,” Borkowski said.
Some members of Congress have criticized CBP and the Homeland Security Department for the contract and questioned whether the agency had struck a good deal with Accenture. Under the contract, it may cost up to $40,000 to recruit, hire and train a new law enforcement officer.
Borkowski said the contract covers the full scope of CBP’s hiring process — including the costs of the agency’s suitability testing. CBP won’t pay its contractor for the cost of a new hire until the candidate has completed the full hiring and onboarding process, he added.
Some new Accenture-assisted entries will finish the onboarding process and will report for duty soon, Borkowski said, and CBP is watching and learning from those new experiences.
CBP conducted a similar review of the hiring process for law enforcement officers nearly 10 years ago, Borkowski said. The agency did shave a few days off its average time-to-hire process.
CBP is again attempting to re-engineer its process, Borkowski said, but the agency isn’t looking to cut down the hiring timeline by a few days here and there. Instead, it’s looking for a comprehensive strategy to more efficiently recruit, hire, train and deploy new border patrol agents and officers to the field.
Still, the time-to-hire varies depending on the position but averages anywhere from 180 days to a full year, Borkowski said.
In the mean time, CBP is revisiting its standards for border patrol agents and officers to begin duty. The agency has considered whether it should loosen language proficiency, law skills or physical fitness testing to deploy new agents and officers more quickly to the field.
CBP’s standards are high, Borkowski acknowledged. But the agency is considering how it can give prospective agents more opportunities to meet those standards, rather than failing a talented candidate who may simply need more time to learn a particular skill.
“We’re not going to change the standards,” Borkowski said. “We’re going to look again at [whether] our assessment approaches really giving us an accurate answer as to whether or not this person meets my standards? If the person is having trouble meeting my standards, is that because they never can? Or is that because if they’re great at everything except Spanish, is it worth my investment giving [them] two weeks of remedial Spanish training?”
CBP is also interested in working with industry to help the agency better engage with its applicants during the hiring process, Borkowski said.
It’s not unique to CBP, but the agency often fails to communicate with job candidates throughout the application and hiring process. Industry may have ideas to help CBP better communicate, Borkowski said.
As a whole, the Homeland Security Department has struggled in the past to engage with industry. Borkowski has seen the relationship improve, but he said he’s still struggling to explain to CBP and DHS program managers why they should communicate.
“We struggle as a community in convincing people that it’s okay to talk to you,” Borkowski told a group of industry executives last week. He’s said he’s interested in learning what ideas industry groups like PSC can bring to the table and suggested that agencies consider redefining future industry days.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement is looking for industry’s help with its hiring problems.
“We are not good at hiring,” said Tom Homan, senior official performing the duties of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement director. “I have a meeting once a week. We’re getting better. But we need help.”
For ICE, industry help would come in the form of a new recruit-to-hire system, which would replace a variety of existing human resources systems.
ICE received a similar charge from the president in a series of executive orders last January: hire 10,000 new agents and officers — with no dedicated funding stream.
“In fiscal 2018, we’re looking for a huge increase in human resource hiring, so we’re looking to hire a lot of people in the next fiscal year. A lot,” Homan said. “We have a trouble hiring people. We have trouble hiring a few hundred people. We need help hiring thousands of people, if we get the funding we’re hoping for.”