FBI sets its bar high for aspiring agents

Recruits: In the wake of Sept. 11, many apply, but few make it through tough screening, training.

March 26, 2002|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

QUANTICO, Va. - Every 20 minutes, something bad happens here in the town of Hogan's Alley. FBI agents swarm the pawnshop, a man from inside the pool hall is arrested and some guy who keeps pulling up in front of the coffee shop is thrown to the ground every time he gets out of his BMW.

Except for the fact that the same crimes keep happening over and over - and that the Dimetapp cough syrup boxes and the toothpaste containers have remained on the shelves of the town drugstore so long all the red coloring has faded to pink - the whole scenario might look real.

Hogan's Alley is a fake town on the campus of the FBI Academy in Quantico. It is a place that conjures up images of a Hollywood back lot and looks so realistic that FBI officials had to seal the mailboxes outside the post office because people kept depositing letters.

And it's the heart of the bureau's grueling 16-week training program that since Sept. 11 has been in overdrive.

The FBI is looking to hire and train about 1,400 support personnel and nearly 1,000 new agents, part of its biggest hiring push since the Vietnam War. These new recruits, the product of a post-Sept. 11 funding package from Congress, are intended to fan out to bureaus across the country to help track down terrorists and prevent future attacks.

So far, the agency says, it is well on its way to finding enough applicants because thousands of people, buoyed by patriotic fervor and a new, almost instantaneous admissions form, have flooded the bureau with applications.

Just to be sure the word is out, the bureau has launched a marketing blitz, peppering newspapers and magazines with such pitches as "Wanted: Future Agents." Yet for all their cheery, everyone's-got-a-shot tone, the ads obscure another truth: The FBI's hiring process is intense, notoriously long and really hard.

"It can be very difficult to get in," said Joseph Bross, head of national recruiting at the bureau's headquarters in Washington. "It's a selective process."

Statistics from years past show that less than 5 percent of those who apply will pass all the admissions tests and requirements and eventually be offered a job.

These days, as the bureau targets people with "critical skills," such as expertise in languages, computers and the sciences, applicants are arriving with stronger resumes than in the past. And the bureau has them all competing with one another.

Just to be considered, applicants must be U.S. citizens between ages 26 and 36, with at least three years of full-time work and a four--year college degree. Those who qualify undergo a series of written and oral tests that gauge verbal, math and analytical skills. Then they take a polygraph test meant to weed out those with criminal histories or drug use.

Those who pass take a physical exam and undergo a background check that can last for months. Agents will question neighbors, friends and employers - including previous bosses from their teen-age summer jobs selling hot dogs or clothes at the local mall. Mostly, they are looking for signs of violent or abusive behavior.

The written test, officials say, eliminates 30 percent of applicants. Of the 70 percent who pass, the interview and oral test knock out half. Of the remaining 35 percent of original applicants, only half pass the polygraph, physical and background exams.

The 17 or 18 percent of the original pool who survive then compete for the open spots at the FBI academy.

"We don't want to discourage people, but it's difficult," said Peter A. Gulotta Jr., a spokesman for the Baltimore field office, one of the top recruiting offices in the nation.

"Especially the polygraph," he said. "Because despite our warnings that you're not going to beat it, they'll go try anyway. There's no sense in embarrassing yourself."

One reason why the FBI can draw competitive talent is that it pays better than most law enforcement agencies. Recruits who make it to the academy receive a modest salary for the 16 weeks of training. Upon receiving their badge, they start at salaries ranging from $53,743 to $58,335.

Agents who stay with the force can earn up to $113,000 a year. Managers make even more. (Those salaries, though, include extra pay for mandatory overtime.)

Many of the recent applicants who responded to the bureau's recruiting efforts have been willing to leave established careers. Officials said even a couple of doctors and professors have applied.

Their presence is making the hiring process even more competitive for young newcomers already up against applicants who have waited through hiring freezes and background checks from, in some cases, two to three years ago.

The bureau has also made it its mission to bring in the best by getting local FBI offices to compete with one another to bring in the most applicants. Bureau offices have been sending agents out to community meetings to tout the bureau as a great place to funnel all the public service energy that has surfaced since the attacks.

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