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Pay Cap May Weigh on Security Hiring

Airports: Government will be competing for top professionals in the red-hot corporate market, where the salaries are much higher.

January 13, 2002|LISA GIRION | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The embryonic federal airport safety administration's high-stakes bid to upgrade security hinges on persuading experienced professionals to work for government wages when they could fetch as much as $550,000 a year in the super-heated corporate market.

Charged with ensuring all aspects of passenger, baggage and cargo safety, the new airport security directors will form the backbone of the Transportation Security Administration, an agency chartered in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to restore confidence in air travel and get Americans flying again.

The TSA will become the largest federal law enforcement agency, with more than 30,000 employees--95% of them assigned to the nation's 429 airports.

The first step, according to plans unveiled last week, is the hiring of top-flight security chiefs for the nation's 81 largest airports by mid-April--an ambitious goal in light of the caliber of candidates sought and the limited ability of government to compete with rising private-sector salaries, according to headhunters and private-security experts.

"It's the hot market right now," said Joseph Daniel McCool, editor of Executive Recruiter News, an industry publication.

Corporations and private-security firms are vying for safety directors the way dot-coms did for Web masters in the 1990s, pushing salaries for experienced managers to $250,000 to $550,000.

Korn/Ferry International Inc., the largest executive recruiting firm, has experienced an elevenfold increase in inquiries for security professionals since the terrorist attacks, prompting it to open a homeland defense and security practice in its Washington office.

Headhunters are scrambling to gather resumes of people whose military and law enforcement careers have taught them to keep their names out of databases. Private-security firms, such as Kroll Inc., one of the nation's biggest, are hiring to keep up with demand.

And they are luring high-profile public-sector figures, such as John F. Timoney, who took over the helm of Beau Dietl & Associates last week after four years commanding the Philadelphia Police Department.

"I was having a good time there, had a lot of public support and mayoral support," Timoney said. "So there was no push. However, there was a pull from the private sector."

Intending to stay with the Philadelphia Police Department for at least five more years, Timoney initially fended off offers after Sept. 11. But then Dietl & Associates founder Beau Dietl, a former New York police detective, "made an offer I couldn't refuse."

And companies are dignifying new or expanded safety jobs with titles such as chief security officer that reflect their broader scopes of responsibility.

"We're seeing both new positions and higher-level positions," said Ray O'Hara, a vice president for Pinkerton Consulting & Investigations, a national security firm based in Chicago. "A director of security was a common title. Now you might see a vice president of security."

The government will call its new hires federal security directors and will pay them salaries of no more than $150,000, the federal salary cap.

Is it enough?

"No," said Christopher Kidd, a former officer in the Marine Corps and a managing director for Korn/Ferry. "The secretary of Transportation isn't paid a competitive salary either," Kidd said. "Mr. [Norman] Mineta only makes about $150,000 a year. Do you think he's worth more than that? Yeah. I'd say so."

The new agency's architects are confident that it will be able to hire highly qualified candidates by appealing to their sense of duty--a factor that helped persuade Korn/Ferry to assist in the search for the first 81 airport security directors for $3.3 million. That is far less than the firm's typical fee, which is one-third of a new hire's first year of compensation. Kidd said the competitiveness of the corporate security market could be an advantage if candidates from the military and law enforcement view a stint as an airport safety chief as a steppingstone to more lucrative private-sector jobs.

Within 24 hours of the airport security job posting last week, 275 people had registered on the agency's Web site expressing interest.

"This is something that someone can do makes a difference every day, that helps solve what is recognized as a very complex national problem," said Jim Mitchell, a spokesman for the agency. "We think we're going to get a lot of people who are going to want to do this, and we're going to have some good choices."

Others are not so sure.

Finding security professionals with the right set of experience and skills won't be a problem, said Charlie LeBlanc, managing director of Air Security International, a Houston-based travel security firm.

"The problem will be, do we have enough of them?" he said.

LeBlanc said there are few professionals who have the broad range of skills, including security experience, an understanding of Federal Aviation Administration regulations and the diplomatic touch necessary to deal with the public.

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