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Customs and Border Protection offers adventure and familiar mission

Feb. 19, 2014 - 03:45PM   |  
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US Customs And Border Protection Secures SoCal-Mex
A Customs and Border Protection officer checks the identification of a person crossing from Mexico into the United States at the San Ysidro port of entry in San Diego. San Ysidro is the busiest port of entry into the U.S. (John Moore/Getty Images)
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Roaring across no-man’s land on their all-terrain vehicles, motorcycles, bicycles and horses, members of the U.S. Border Patrol pursued and apprehended some 365,000 illegal immigrants in 2012.

If that sounds like living the life, parent agency U.S. Customs and Border Protection may be the place for you. Some 30 percent of the agency’s 60,000 employees are prior military, and about three-quarters of the workforce does front-line work: patrolling borders and monitoring the flow of goods and persons at airports and ports.

Then there’s the other 25 percent, the lesser-known CBP jobs. Diverse support jobs exist in this agency, for those who love the mission but don’t want to work the front line.

Economic enforcement

Former Army Sgt. Byron J. Kaiser Jr. signed on at CBP a year after leaving the service as a radio operator maintainer in 2009.

“When I was looking for a job, I really wanted a place where I felt like I made a difference,” Kaiser said. “I honestly feel like I have more of an impact in this job than I did being deployed. I am ensuring the economic security of the nation, and that just makes me feel like I have more weight on my shoulders.”

Kaiser is an import specialist: He makes sure that those bringing goods into the country follow all of the rules. He stops counterfeit goods at the border and puts a real value on goods for tax purposes. His military work in communications gave him a thorough knowledge of electronics, so those are the goods he follows most closely when inspecting incoming cargo.

This isn’t the glamor end of CBP, a part of the Homeland Security Department, but it’s one of many supporting roles that form a crucial link in the agency’s ability to function. Despite the emphasis on “active-duty” work, insiders say there are no second-class citizens here.

“For as long as I have been here, everyone appreciates what the other person does,” said Joseph Battaglia, a retired Navy master chief and CBP human resources specialist. “It’s a domino effect, and everyone knows that. If I didn’t do my job, some agent would be pulling double shifts because they couldn’t replace attrition.”

Those supporting roles run the gamut.

Soup to nuts

In addition to import specialists such as Kaiser, the agency employs agricultural specialists to watch for alien and invasive plants and animals that could pose a threat to the local ecosystem.

Accountants and auditors ensure goods are properly accounted for. They form a wall of defense against those trying to skirt legitimate tariffs.

Chemists and engineers play a role, too, monitoring a range of suspect materials. In November 2013, investigators seized more than 200,000 toy dolls arriving from China due to high levels of phthalates, a group of banned chemical compounds. The half-million-dollar haul took place in eight U.S. cities.

Mechanics do more than just keep the ATVs rolling: Many are involved in the upkeep of heavy equipment. In December 2013, for example, CBP took delivery of the last of 84 American Eurocopter AS-350 Light Enforcement Helicopters, replacing the agency’s retiring MD-500, MD-600 and OH-6 helicopters.

CBP likes military veterans for their range of skills, Battaglia said. As in other agencies, those with information technology experience are always needed. Medical experience can be translated into scientific roles. Logistics personnel can help organize complex interdiction efforts.

For retired Sgt. Major Yolanda Choates, it was an easy transition from Army communications work to CBP public affairs in Houston. “The description fit very nicely with what I had been doing over the last 20 years,” she said. And with the agency’s quasi-military mission, “it all looks familiar, it feels familiar.”

That cultural fit helps explain the high veteran population at CBP.

“We feel it is just an extension of what they are doing. It’s just defending the country at home instead of abroad,” Battaglia said.

Moving up the chain

CBP will hire for many jobs at entry level, but the opportunities for growth can be swift.

Kaiser came in at ground zero, with nothing but an eight-week training course to get him started. But supervisors promised rapid promotion, and they delivered.

He worked three years as a journeyman, picking up all of the nuances of the job, before becoming a fully fledged import specialist. Time well spent, he said.

“There is a lot to learn, and it takes about that long to really get a good grasp of the job,” Kaiser said.

He said he appreciates the agency making that upfront investment in his skills.

“They did start me at a low grade, but I was able to increase my responsibilities as I did more work,” Kaiser said. “It gave me the opportunity to start a new career.”

The usual caveat applies. With government budgeting in flux, CBP hiring is slow right now. Human resources managers encourage veterans to watch USAJobs.gov closely to catch openings as they appear.

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