By Alicia A. Caldwel
The Associated Press
EL PASO, Texas — A NASCAR race car, sponsored by the U.S. Border Patrol. Billboards hundreds of miles from the Rio Grande, promoting a career as a border agent. TV commercials for the federal agency, aired during Dallas Cowboys games.
With the Border Patrol undergoing an unprecedented hiring boom, the agency is going to extraordinary lengths to compete with police departments around the country for an unusually small pool of qualified applicants.
"We've not done anything this ambitious before," said Assistant Chief Michael Olsen. "Our biggest task, our biggest hurdle, is just getting our message out to parts of the country that maybe didn't know we existed."
Border Patrol Agent recruits attend one of numerous law classes at the Border Patrol Academy in April 2007 in Artesia, NM. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Previously, the Border Patrol relied heavily on word of mouth and job fairs to find recruits. But it has been forced to get creative to compete with local and state agencies, including the expanding Texas Department of Public Safety, that are mimicking the corporate world with hiring incentives such as take-home cars, paid internships and five-figure signing bonuses.
The multimillion-dollar recruiting campaign was also prompted by a shortage of qualified candidates, blamed on a number of factors. Among them: the strong economy, which can offer jobs that pay more than the Border Patrol's starting salary of about $35,000 to $45,000; the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has reduced the flow of military retirees applying for second careers in law enforcement; and the Border Patrol's own stringent requirements.
Too many applicants lack the clean criminal records and good credit required for patrol duty along the border, where bribes are an ever-present temptation.
Nationally, only about 3 percent to 5 percent of applicants for law enforcement jobs meet the requirements, according to Jason Abend, executive director for the National Law Enforcement Recruiters Association. Olsen said the Border Patrol finds an average of one qualified candidate for every 30 to 40 applicants — a rate as low as 2.5 percent.
With politicians demanding more "boots on the ground" to secure the Mexican border, the Border Patrol is expanding rapidly. It has gone from about 12,000 agents in 2005 to nearly 15,000 now, and wants to reach about 18,000 by the end of the year.
To reach recruits, the agency is posting highway billboards well inland, including suburban Salt Lake City, 800 miles north of the Mexican border, and is looking into other new corners of the country.
Michael E. Douglas, a Border Patrol assistant chief patrol agent in Washington, said a team of eight agents is canvassing about 13 Southern states to look for new hires.
"We're going down into the Southeast where we haven't traditionally had a lot of candidates. We are hitting minority groups and trying to make them more aware of who we are," Douglas said.
During the 2007 NASCAR Busch Series season, the Border Patrol put its agency name and seal on the No. 28 Chevy in a sponsorship arrangement worth more than $1 million.
And under a deal signed in November with the Dallas Cowboys, football fans around the country will be seeing TV commercials reminding them that the agency is hiring.
Border Patrol officials are also talking about making a slogan for the agency, one they hope would become as ubiquitous as the Marines' "The few, the proud."
Also, the Border Patrol has raised its age limit for new hires to 40 from 37.
Douglas said it may take several months to know exactly how successful the department's efforts are.
Despite such enticements, recruiting for law enforcement jobs is likely to be a challenge for a while, said Merle Switzer, a consultant and retired law enforcement officer in California.
"Right now, I am telling agencies five to seven years," Switzer said.