Aviation security personnel at airports around the world are often referred to as “screeners”—as they screen the traveling public and their belongings. However, this label is misleading since these employees do so much more. They are often tasked with screening X-ray images of carry-on luggage, monitoring walk-through metal detectors and/or body scanners, checking photo-IDs and boarding passes, conducting pat downs, physically searching bags that were flagged by the X-ray operator, helping passengers divest their belongings, screening checked bags, observing passengers for odd behaviors, communicating with the traveling public, and more.

Airport security officers regularly rotate through these various roles, serving in all, or at least most on a daily basis. But, is this the most effective system? Should each employee conduct all of the various jobs or does it make more sense for individuals to specialize in a subset of the roles? Should security officers be generalists or should they be specialists?

Arguments for the generalist model: Everyone does everything

There are several arguments for keeping the status quo. First, it is always easier to keep things as they are…even if that might not be the best for security. Second, rotating positions may reduce fatigue and provide variety for security personnel—switching roles allows them to break the monotony of doing the same task over and over. Finally, having each employee be a generalist that is a jack-of-all-trades reduces scheduling burdens by making it possible to assign any employee to any job. If someone misses a shift, any other officer can take over their spot in the rotation.

Arguments for the specialist model: Employees focus on a subset of tasks

While a specialized workforce is not the current standard, it is something that many security organizations have been considering for years and is gaining momentum in the industry. International working groups are discussing the pros and cons of specialization and how best to make it work effectively. There are natural hurdles to implementing it as fatigue effects must be closely monitored and schedules more heavily managed, but the payoff may be worth it.

The operational and financial benefits are clear. First, each specific role (X-ray operator, travel document checker, pat-downs, etc.) has its own extensive list of standard operating procedures (SOPs). There are thousands of specific SOPs spread across these roles that each officer must master, remember, and execute. Each SOP must be trained, some require certification exams, and a few must be actively monitored to ensure compliance. That involves numerous man hours and the hiring of additional specialists and managers. Were individuals to specialize in a subset of the roles, the number of SOPs per officer would be drastically reduced along with the associated training and management costs. Further, specialization allows employees to put their skills to the best use. No one is great at everything, but some people are great at some things. Let the “people people” deal with the travelling public and let those who are good with technology and visual search do the X-ray screening. These skills can be measured across the current workforce and/or at the point of hire, resulting in better security, more efficient checkpoints, and reduced costs.

Hurdles to implementing workforce specialization

While specialization of the workforce has been discussed for years, and has been sporadically implemented in various trial forms, it is not (yet) a fully operational option for most security organizations for several reasons.

First, there is the simple question of how to staff a checkpoint. If only some employees are qualified/certified to be the X-ray operator and only some are qualified/certified to do passenger pat-downs, staffing will be more complicated and more affected by missing employees. This is an understandable hurdle, but not an insurmountable one. Specifically, specializing the workforce does not mean that each and every role must have dedicated employees. There can be a large scale divide (e.g., those who deal with passengers and those who deal with property). Splitting the workforce into two is not that difficult of a staffing lift and can still produce many of the benefits.

Second, if only some people qualify for certain roles (e.g., X-ray operator) that might that create a class system and decrease moral. Would some employees feel they are not as valued if they are specialized into a seemingly less critical role? The most direct answer is that there are no non-critical roles in moving travelers through a checkpoint safely and efficiently. The goal is to provide the safest and most efficient traveling experience—and this is best accomplished by having the best people for each role do that role (and not force them to also do roles they are not particularly good at). More broadly, however, people get satisfaction out of doing something they do well and they generally don’t enjoy doing tasks that they are not well-suited to do. Having employees focus on what they are good at can increase moral and improve overall retention.

Third, there must be a way to reliably determine who is best at which task. Organizations need the appropriate tools to identify which employees excel in each role to get the right people in the right positions.

Verdict

Specializing the aviation security workforce will not be a simple or quick process, but is likely necessary and beneficial. To work there must be a method for reliably identifying the best people for each role. There are potential solutions—for example, Kedlin Screening International’s XRAY Screener tool has been shown to predict which security officers are best suited to screen X-ray images at the checkpoint, resulting in improved operational effectiveness (improved capability to find threats) and improved efficiency at the checkpoint (lower wait times). Kedlin Screening International is a proponent of workforce specialization and is happy to discuss the pros and cons, and the implementation with interested organizations. Our tools can help organizations by providing data to help make workforce specialization decisions.

This blog post is part of a series produced by Kedlin Screening International. Follow us on LinkedIn to see our other posts that will tackle a range of issues including: the science behind visual search, the pros and cons of remote screening, various factors that can make visual searches less successful, training vs. selection/allocation, and more.

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