The Department of Homeland Security was directed by President
Trump to hire 15,000 new officers two years ago, but the hiring surge has still
not begun. Despite the push for more border security, most of the new jobs are
going unfilled in a tight labor market.
Angeles Times reported that Customs and Border Protection budgeted $60.7
million to Accenture Federal Services as part of a $297-million contract to
recruit, vet and hire 7,500 Border Patrol officers over five years. The
headhunting company has only produced 33 new hires so far, however.
The Border Patrol has to hire about 2,700 agents per year to
meet Trump’s goal of 26,370 border agents by the end of 2021. So far, the
agency has not come close. In 2018, the first time in five years that Border
Patrol saw a net gain in staffing, there were 120 new agents. CBP currently has
more than 3,000 job vacancies.
Retention has long been a problem at CBP. About 1,380 agents
retire, move to other agencies, or quit for better-paying jobs each year. Average
starting pay for the demanding and hazardous job of patrolling the border is $40,511
per the Houston
Chronicle. More experienced agents can earn up to $80,000 per year.
It will be difficult for CBP to further ramp up hiring since
the US is currently experiencing a labor shortage. In December, the unemployment
rate fell to 3.9
percent, which is typically considered full employment when temporary job
changes are considered. Beginning last summer, US businesses had more
job openings than people in the workforce
to fill them.
“Business’ number one problem is finding qualified workers.
At the current pace of job growth, if sustained, this problem is set to get
much worse,” Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said in a statement last July. “These labor shortages will only intensify across all industries and
Now the difficulty in finding qualified workers is
apparently spreading to the government as well. Federal jobs have long been
considered highly desirable positions with competitive pay scales and excellent
benefits. As pensions have disappeared in the private sector, they have been retained
for government jobs. The CBP website touts a “generous retirement” plan consisting of a “guaranteed lifetime
pension, paid to retirees is a percentage of your highest average basic pay you
earned during any 3 consecutive years of service.” These generous benefits no
longer seem to be enough to attract applicants, however.
Ironically, one solution to the current US labor shortage
would be to reform immigration laws to allow more legal immigrants to join the
US workforce. While recent immigrants
could not fill CBP jobs since US citizenship
is required, they could be hired by private firms, freeing up more
Americans for Border Patrol jobs. The resulting competition in the labor market
would also make government jobs and pay scales even more attractive.
However, there is an additional factor that makes government
jobs such as CBP even less attractive. During the recent 35-day government
shutdown, Border Patrol agents were among the federal workers who were required
to work without pay. The prospect of more shutdowns in the future and more
irregular pay may not only discourage new applicants
but also encourage some current Border
Patrol agents to leave for more stable employment.
Once again, circumstances show that the federal government
is not immune from market forces. Authorizing 15,000 new Border Patrol agents
is not the same as filling those vacancies any more than mandating that all
Americans buy health insurance solves the problem of expensive health care.