The U.S. Border Patrol: Recruiting Through Education and a Little Glitz

Aug 5, 2008
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Talent acquisition leaders are used to working under pressure, but there’s little doubt that the guy in the hot seat is Joe Abbott, director of National Recruitment Human Resources Management for U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

In May 2006, President Bush committed that he would curtail illegal immigration and improve border security. A key part of his strategy included adding 6,000 new border patrol agents by the end of 2008. Abbott agreed to head up the agency’s recruitment function and take on the challenge of sourcing 180,000 applicants to meet the hiring quota of 6,000 new agents.

Abbott’s story sounds like it has all the makings of the first reality television series featuring the survival strategies of talent acquisition leaders.

New agents must be under 40, pass a physical fitness test, a medical exam, a background investigation, and demonstrate that they have the ability to learn a foreign language. Once they are hired, agents are assigned to work the border between California and Texas. After reviewing data from numerous sources and creating a prospective agent profile, Abbott’s strategy was to cast a wide net for applicants; in particular, he wanted to focus on mid-size cities where the demographics indicated there were large numbers of residents who fit the agent profile.

“In cities where we have a Border Patrol presence, the people know us and we have a positive image,” says Abbott. “But when you get into a city like Indianapolis, we don’t have a visible presence and what they’ve heard about the Border Patrol may not be all positive. Our first goal was to educate the public and inject ourselves into that market.”

Abbott engaged an outside firm and created a new employment brand that would not only drive a positive image of the agency, but educate prospective agents about a typical day on the job. Many of the new recruiting materials (like the video embedded below) blend applicant education with a Hollywood feel. To create recruiting messages that would resonate with the target audience, Abbott talked to current agents as well as external groups, then used the feedback to refine the messages until they were spot on.

“We solicited feedback from outside groups who gave us their perceptions about the agency,” says Abbott. “We wanted to understand what those perceptions were and then match our message up against those perceptions, so we weren’t creating materials in isolation.”

The agency reaches its target audience through a variety of media. The comprehensive recruiting and employment branding initiative (to be examined in more detail in the Journal of Corporate Recruiting Leadership) has a look and feel that says big-budget-meets-strategic-workforce-analytics. So far both the tailored messages and the strategy appear to be working, because Abbott says the agency is hitting its 3,500 weekly applicant quota and is on target to meet its 2008 hiring goal. Of course there’s no pressure when the President sets your performance goals in front of the entire country.

“It’s the same here as it is anywhere else,” says Abbott. “If you don’t meet the numbers the same thing will happen to you in this job as would happen to you in any job.”

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.
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