NEW YORK – Homeland security is now paramount for the U.S. government, and right on cue, the FBI is campaigning to hire 900 new special agents this fiscal year.
Finding such a large number of people in nine months may seem rushed, particularly since the requirements for being an agent are stringent and the salary can pale in comparison to the money that is made in the private sector.
But the FBI claims recruiting almost 700 more agents than last year without compromising their notoriously strict hiring guidelines is not difficult.
"We will have more than enough applicants to meet our needs by September 30th," said FBI spokesman Paul Bresson.
The FBI isn't merely searching for good citizens to tote guns; it is hunting for individuals with highly specialized skills.
"The events on, and subsequent to, September 11, 2001 have resulted in a realignment of the FBI's resources to enhance its ability to address terrorism and homeland security," the agency stressed in a plea released in early January.
Highly sought skills include speaking foreign languages such as Farsi, Pashtu and Arabic and computer expertise to keep the agency in step with rapidly advancing technology.
"We're trying to widen the pool of those candidates who are not just competitive but extremely competitive in their disciplines," Bresson said. "We look at what are our needs and we advertise it and then we select from highly competitive pool of candidates."
There are 56 FBI field offices, each staffed with applicant coordinators who are the first connection for prospective agents.
Annette Nowak, applicant coordinator for Los Angeles field office, said she receives at least twenty special agent applications every week.
"Since September 11th we've been inundated with special agent and language specialist applicants," she said. "We've received over 19,000 applications through the Web site just for language specialist positions."
Although agent applicants usually have military, law, or law enforcement backgrounds Nowak said she gets many applicants who have no law enforcement background at all.
"We're trying to recruit more agents with CPAs, computer science and engineering backgrounds," explained Nowak. "We're looking for more professional individuals…we're investigators, not just shoot 'em ups."
Although the FBI claims to be swamped with applications, Nowak said computer experts are few and far between.
"They don't tend to apply for jobs in law enforcement, they can make huge money in the computer industry," she said. "We have a computer crime squad that we really need people for."
New Jersey tax accountant Dan Fagan, 36, passed several phases of the application process and found it just as extensive as he anticipated.
"I wanted to join and do something with white collar crime," he said. "They made it pretty clear that if you're accepted as an agent you could be doing anything, and I didn't want to be out chasing drug dealers. I also would've taken quite a pay cut."
Special Agents receive a starting salary of $43,705 while in the 16-week training program at the FBI Academy. After graduating they earn salaries ranging from $53,743 to $58,335 depending upon the cost of living where they are assigned.
The FBI has about 50,000 applications on file nationwide, said Ross Rice, a spokesman for the Chicago FBI field office. The number of agents hired each year is determined by how many Congress approves, so accepted applications remain on file until space permits to move forward with them.
"The average time period from when the application is submitted to hiring is about a year — it's a lengthy and time consuming process," said Rice. "Hiring decisions are made in Washington; applicants are not just competing with a local pool, so we get the best and the brightest."
Finding 900 people who can pass an extensive background check and application process as well as be willing to observe heinous crime scenes, put themselves in harms way, be transferred to another office, and work long hours for lackluster pay doesn't seem to worry the FBI.
"We've always had more applicants than we can take," said Bresson.
"The level of intrigue for working for the FBI has only increased since September 11th, but we are not so much interested in hiring anyone out there as we are in finding people who bring specific skills to the table."