In the jittery air-travel days following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, industrial psychologist Elizabeth Kolmstetter, PhD, helped lead a massive effort to hire more than 50,000 airport screeners for the government. The undertaking--called for in the Aviation and Transportation Security Act that President Bush signed into law soon after the attacks--sought to shore up airport security screening by federalizing it.

Not only did the legislation charge Kolmstetter and her Transportation Security Administration (TSA) colleagues with finding new screeners, it also required them to train those screeners and place them in 429 airports nationwide, all within a year. Some skeptics considered this an impossible task.

But as the director of the project for the newly established TSA, Kolmstetter wasted no time getting started. She created a team of industrial psychologists, medical experts and trainers to develop higher standards--and accompanying physical ability and competency tests--for the screeners. The new standards required applicants to demonstrate proficiency in security screening functions and technology, and the ability to meet customer and security needs.

Using the standards, TSA processed more than 1.8 million applications and hired about 50,000 screeners by Nov. 19, 2002--the congressionally mandated deadline. By December 2002, TSA hired an additional 9,000 screeners to meet new requirements for checked baggage screeners.

Throughout the process, Kolmstetter--TSA's director of standards, testing, evaluation and policy--says the team faced obstacles such as Congress cutting TSA's budget, having to create a new screening job from scratch and skepticism about the team's ability to meet the deadline. "But we proved them all wrong," Kolmstetter says. "We did get it done. And we did it against unbelievable odds."

Overhauling screening

One of the team's major challenges was turning a formerly "unskilled" job into a skilled one involving continuous assessment, training and evaluations. Before passage of the Aviation Security and Transportation Act, airport security screeners worked for private screening companies, airlines, security firms and other organizations. They received little formal training and had no defined skill standards.

The new law aimed to change that. And Kolmstetter and her team carried it out by applying a hiring framework she helped develop in her former post as senior director of the National Skill Standards Board. The framework identified skill standards that screeners would have to meet and maintain. For example, the new hires would need to demonstrate their proficiency in stress tolerance, customer service, career and self-development, adaptability and problem-solving. The team then determined the skill-level requirement for each element and tested applicants using physical ability and competency measures.

For example, Congress specified a number of literacy qualifications expected of the new airport security screeners. In accordance with that mandate, Kolmstetter's team determined job reading-level requirements and tests.

Such tasks required the team to work 12- to 14-hour days, six to seven days a week--yet its members remained focused, Kolmstetter says.

"We knew that TSA and the country needed us to make it safe to travel again," she explains. "Being a psychologist, it has been fascinating for me to watch the [team's] different backgrounds come together for this. We didn't have a rulebook to follow. A lot of it had to be done with creativity and innovation."

And Kolmstetter proved to be the right person for the job, says Dianne Maranto, PhD, APA's director of psychology in the workplace. "Having come from the National Skill Standards Board, Dr. Kolmstetter was ideal for this project, which required the team to begin with the empirical establishment of performance standards for these jobs," Maranto says. "Once you establish performance standards, everything else flows from that--selection tests, training and job performance evaluations."

Continuous improvement

Still, the job is hardly finished, Kolmstetter says. Besides implementing a certification program, she and her team continue to hire and test screeners, create policies for new training programs, develop retention programs, update skill standards, and analyze data to improve the screening system.

"If we are going to keep up with the 'bad guys,' we need to keep skills and procedures moving forward," she says. "The screeners are required to continually improve their own skills and develop their own abilities. So while they might be good for today, they have to keep developing to be good for tomorrow."

To ensure this, Kolmstetter and her team plan to implement an annual performance-based certification program so screeners can build on their skills, reach master's-level status and pursue supervisor positions.

Kolmstetter's security work does not end at the checkpoint either. She's also busy developing standards for federal air marshals and flight deck officers so they can carry firearms in the cockpit.

Meanwhile, she is proud of what TSA and the screeners have already accomplished. "We gave the public more faith in the system," she says. "Security is better today, and there is better service because this has been federalized. We did the impossible and made a difference."