TSA Atlanta conducts first new hire orientation in pandemic era

Thursday, March 11, 2021
New class photo

In response to TSA’s hiring initiative ahead of the anticipated summer travel season, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) safely conducted its first Transportation Security Officer (TSO) new hire class since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic with all of the CDC protocols we’ve come to expect.

Training new hires and preparing them for duty in the pandemic environment took months of meticulous planning and seamless execution, all done behind the scenes and completely invisible to the new employees.

MSTI Horton photo
ATL Master Security Instructor Nichole Horton teaches from a safe distance. (Photo by Zubaidah Guy)

“We secured multiple training spaces, set up presenters to perform orientation virtually and simultaneously in all spaces and staggered new hire schedules so all were not entering the building at the same time,” said Administrative Officer Angela Smith.

“We worked with the Office of the Chief Medical Officer and with Human Capital on the training room and space requirements to ensure we met all obligations and increased teleworking to limit the number of nonscreening employees in the building during orientation and training days,” recalled ATL Assistant Federal Security Director - Mission Support Sherri Stevens-Mack.

Masked and socially distanced, 18 newly hired employees were instructed in two separate groups to allow for proper distancing in the training room. They took their places in individualized and sanitized work stations partitioned off with Plexiglas and got to work.

They’ll be needed in the coming months as industry forecasts point to an uptick in summer travel. Since March 2020, ATL has lost 203 employees due to attrition. “I’m very happy with the quality and character of new hires who have come onboard,” said Supervisory Transportation Security Officer Kraig Wheeler.

Reacting to the rapid downturn in air travel as the global pandemic raced across the U.S., TSA reduced recruitment and hiring of new employees and took measures to protect its existing workforce, while continuing to safely meet the security needs of travelers choosing to fly. On April 14, 2020, that number bottomed out at a staggering 87,534 air passengers nationwide. 

Students in class photo
Cha-Mia Williams and Matthew Gilbert focus on the lesson. (Photos by Zubaidah Guy)

As the nation turned to recovery, passenger loads have slowly risen. Now with COVID-19 vaccines available, travel industry leaders are rolling out plans for the expected increase in demand.

“When we realized we would be hiring, we performed a deep metric analysis to determine the best mix of part to full-time employee conversions and where part-time hours may need expanding as traffic returns back to normal,” said Stevens-Mack. “We also reevaluated the [classroom] training and on-the-job training requirements to determine how we would efficiently get through the various levels of training needed while onboarding a new increased number of employees in a socially distanced environment.” 

Starting a new job is stressful enough, but training during a health crisis brings its own set of worries. Understanding new hires may have added anxiety about personal safety, TSA ATL leadership was intentional about sharing details on protective measures and the availability of personal protective equipment ahead of the first day, placing the newcomers at ease. 

“I feel good about the Plexiglas and protective measures that have been put in place,” said new hire Kyra Cunningham. “I feel protected.”

The new requirements have a positive effect on more than just safety. “Because of social distancing, the classes are smaller, and the quality of training is better,” said Master Security Training Instructor Renee Grant. “Each trainee is given special attention if necessary and everyone is more involved.”

Expert Security Training Instructor Brian Price agreed and added, “[The new procedures] kept our instructors focused on instructing instead of worrying about safety.”

TSA ATL plans to make a few tweaks for the next class, but the reviews are upbeat. “The whole experience has been positive, and I’m enjoying learning all the intricate things that go into being a TSO,” said student Rahaman Garrett.

“New employees are great for the agency; fresh eyes and fresh attitudes,” said Supervisory Training Specialist Jeff Ulmer.

Smiling eyes convey what can’t be seen under the masks of the newbies. “I was excited to get the call from TSA,” said Clay Monagan. “I changed fields from Food Services and Hospitality to TSA because I wanted to take advantage of all the experience I would gain here. I’m happy to utilize my customer service skills, and I look at it as an opportunity to grow.”

Are you interested in becoming a TSO? TSA is hiring full and part-time TSOs nationwide. Join us and support a mission that matters. Visit tsa.gov/TSO to learn more and search open positions.